New York, Showy Florentines, Black Egyptians, and the Ghost Forest
by Rob Tiller
Last week we visited our old stomping ground, New York City, for the first time since the pandemic. It was a little strange to wear masks for the flight, but not bad, and certainly smart, given the persistence of the clever and dangerous Covid virus. We were pleasantly surprised to arrive at the finally completed Terminal B at LaGuardia, which was full of light, with whimsical tile walls. When we left , we saw a performance there by the new fountain, which made dancing patterns with lasers and thousands of gallons dropping from the ceiling.
The prime objective of our trip was Jocelyn’s baby shower, celebrating with friends the soon-to-arrive little girl. Our old friend Kathryn created a feast with many delicious vegetarian options, and we enjoyed chatting with other friends of the happy couple. It was sunny and mild, a very pleasant day.
We stayed in the West Village, parts of which have not changed much, though we noticed storefronts that had been vacated and graffiti and garbage that had arrived. It was certainly not depopulated! On Friday night the crowds of young folks made it challenging to stroll on the sidewalks. But we managed, and had an excellent Thai meal.
We spent most of Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve spent many happy hours there in years past, and know parts of it well. But the collection is truly gargantuan, and there’s always something new.
We started with the current exhibit on the art of the Medici in Florence in the 1500s. The paintings were mostly portraits of the ruling elite of that period. I could appreciate the craftsmanship, but was more interested in the meta message of the portraits, which was, roughly translated, this person is super successful and powerful, and you’re not.
Art history as taught to me was mainly about aesthetics, but now I’m focussing more on what the art is trying to communicate about its culture, as well as what it conceals, intentionally or unintentionally. I was grateful for the bits of history in the exhibit’s labeling. It gave some helpful background about the ruling Medici princes and Florence’s battles for wealth and dominance.
I also spent some time with the Met’s collection of ancient art. Recently I’ve been listening to lectures from Audible on the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, as well as those of Greece and Rome. We take for granted a lot of the ideas and inventions of these cultures, and sometimes forget that there’s so much that even specialists don’t know about their world. Anyhow, while wreaking havoc on competitors, they left behind a lot of beautiful objects, and it’s fun to try to figure out what they might be saying.
I also visited the Met’s enormous Egyptian collection for the first time in many years. The ancient Egyptians were amazing builders and artists, and created a remarkably powerful and resilient culture. Looking at their art this time, I was struck by something I hadn’t registered before: they looked Black.
Of course, our American ideas of race were not theirs. But once I focussed, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before: the facial features of the ancient Egyptians looked like many of our Black brothers and sisters.
From some quick Google research, I gather there’s vigorous scholarly dispute on the race of ancient Egyptians. My evidence is subjective, and plainly I am no expert. But it would not be surprising in our culture if there was unconscious resistance, even by scholars, to acknowledging that Black people were the creators of this impressive civilization. More research is called for.
Finally, I visited and took some pictures of a thought-provoking art project temporarily in midtown by Maya Lin called Ghost Forest. Lin is best known for her Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. Ghost Forest features 49 cedars that lived in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and died from climate change. Lin brought them to Madison Square Park, which is a green oasis just north of the Flatiron building and south of the Empire State Building, and arranged them into a little forest.
Part of Lin’s message is easily decipherable: humans have heedlessly destroyed entire ecosystems, including beautiful forests, without even noticing. But I was surprised to find other messages. The dead trees made me look at the lush and healthy trees of Madison Square and the life around them with new gratitude and affection.