Category Archives: Image Based

Post-Chiapas Life

You know the Rumi poem, the one with the line “is the one I love everywhere?” That’s me and the Chiapas. Every day the Chiapas feeling. It is constantly in my mind, when I close my eyes I see San Cris and the everyday of San Cris. When I am falling asleep I feel and see it, when I’m tired, when I’m fucking cooking or doing anything, it’s always there.

I am impossible at letting go.

Photo by Sanyu Kisaka.

Tessa

tessa (1 of 1)-12

Tessa Allen & I were matched up to be roommates in Chiapas. At first glance I didn’t think we would have anything in common. She’s much younger, seemed like an easy going fun type of American girl who would end up with the “cool group” that I would never be participate in (and would not really want to). Indeed, all of my prejudices about summer camp vibes and Tessa were quickly pretty destroyed. Tessa was grew up in California, lived in Portland and now attends NYU for her MA. She is also a Viking descendent.

tessa (1 of 1)-11

Tessa quickly tamed me and bossed me around a bit in all the ways I need. In part because I grew pretty dependent on her —How do you light a fire Tessa?; What’s the weather going to be like today Tessa?; Which readings do we have for tomorrow Tessa?; Can you make my hair look pretty like yours Tessa?; Does this look seductive yet not obvious Tessa?—

tessa (1 of 1)-10

Tessa insisted she is not photogenic but I disagree! Look at that big smile! Huge! We had a lot of laughs, usually at my expense.  I loved taking photos of her but did not take enough.

tessa (1 of 1)-9

Over time we became pretty close & I love how we called each other “roomies”. I’m not sure she was into it, but whatever, if you’re reading this Tessa: “best roomie ever”. Our late night roomie chats would last hours and were sometimes quite intense about beauty, acceptance, identity and what that means for women. I am so grateful to have been able to create a safe space with Tessa in which we were able to be candid about a topic that is so difficult.

tessa (1 of 1)-8

The Grecian statue pose.

tessa (1 of 1)-7

Tessa holds her beautiful ever changing hair style. I wish we got a photo together on the afternoon after the Monsanto accion when Tessa made me a crown braid and we both dressed up in semi-long black dresses and wore each other’s sunglasses.

tessa (1 of 1)-6

Is there anything better than taking a photo of someone eating? Nope!

tessa (1 of 1)-5

Once after dropping off our laundry at a nearby hotel we walked into a shop and wanted to buy two bananas. The lady asked for four pesos and we walked out because we got so used to the lives of 1 peso bananas at the organic market/eatery Toyol Witz. I had so many bananas and bottles of Coca Cola as lunch.
tessa (1 of 1)-4

Tessa attempting to hide from my constant camera gaze while she eats again. This time I brought a crew to Spartacus, the best tacos in San Cristobal, and some of the best tacos I’ve had anywhere.

tessa (1 of 1)-3

Tessa, like a boss, with Dasha as we document Viki, one of the FOMMA actors, making homemade tortillas in her attic.

tessa (1 of 1)-13

Eating at Toyol Witz again with Amy. Tessa said fuck it to clothes and wore green fabric as couture. You see why she’s the most awesome roomie ever? Yeah, yeah!

She is also the best dancer, ever …

tessa (1 of 1)-15

… and wears awesome outfits.

tessa (1 of 1)-2

With camera. Always creeping.

tessa (2 of 2)

This was our penultimate day and we stood around watching an intense performance by Ana Correa from the Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani. It was during this performance that I realized the Spanish language knows pain so well. I need to learn Spanish to move through all the pain that constitutes me & to attempt to understand a world in a language that will never belong to me. Although the realization was probably also heightened by Niko’s translation (this is a reminder that I need to make a post about the Chiapas experience through the tenacious and generous interpretations of the various Spanish speakers).

tessa (1 of 2)

On one of the last days after seeing Doris’s intense installation/vigil for the Chiapas femicide victims (some as young as two hours and as young as 70 years old), everything started to unravel. The constant emotional trauma smashing us with no room to breathe manifested inside and out in many of us. I came up to Tessa standing alone and then it all came out and I felt such a privilege that she was able to be open with me. She cried. I stood stoic and asked questions and listened. I channeled Joan Didion minus the elegance and eloquence. Our experience went on and on and continued at the dark low-ceiling art space for Brittney and Stella’s performance and then standing against a wall full of Mezcal and cigarettes I also cried.

Tessa noticed, like always, that something was wrong” “C’mon! I’m your roommate, even though it’s been a few weeks I can always tell your shifts in mood now.”

“Do you think others are able to tell?”

“I’m not sure, but it’s obvious to me. Do you want to go outside?”

Claustrophobic, I reply in the negative.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I don’t hesitate because it is so easy to run away, it is so easy to go outside and dodge the truck smashing into you but I have a choice and I hold my body up to let it keep at me. I push my white shawl covered back against the wall until as much of my scoliosis spine rolls into it and stand still. Everything is coming at me, all of my life comes at me. I am thankful for Tessa, for her standing still with me. It is because of that, later, during Brittney’s performance, I recognize an emotion so dark and so painful that it undoes all of me and all of what I have thought about myself and my way of being in relation to lovers and friends. I am thankful that Tessa was there, in all the ways.

tessa (1 of 1)-14

At 4am on our last day I hurried back to our room to pack up everything I had accumulated on the trip, including seven shawls, and in the dark while we waited for our bus to Tuxtla Airport, I made Tessa hold our “Chamula” cabin key as the last photo together —hands in hands.

Day 20 – Caracol tattoo

tattoo (1 of 1)-8

I have wanted a tattoo for two years but planning an elaborate tattoo with your baby brother, well, isn’t a productive venture. I have also been actively wanting a tattoo of the “does not equal” sign for a few months now but that has been put on hold. With those potentials within me, after visiting the Oventic caracol, one of the Zapatista sites, two times during this trip, I was convinced I needed a caracol (snail) tattoo. I mentioned this to my classmate Niko who also said he wanted to get a tattoo on this trip to physically and permanently mark the memory of everything this has been (that was with a week left of the trip still) and then we made it happen. Because of so little free time it was a mutual pressure. We could have said ‘fuck it’ & got the tattoos back in our respective hometowns, but then it wouldn’t be what it is and it wouldn’t be what it will become. It wouldn’t be the layers of meanings and memories on our bodies. It was in the Chiapas that everything about my art practice and my own being in the world changed to such an extent that I can no longer continue with how it all was. Niko shared this sentiment, as did many others in the course. Mitsu told me: “I’ve only had a few experiences like that. And they marked my life. Redefined things. Amazing.”

tattoo (1 of 1)-9

tattoo (1 of 1)-10

Sailing being part of Niko’s identity, he had been designing a nautical themed tattoo to match his other intricate tattoo for two years and decided to get it at one of the tattoo shops. His tattoos are exactly my aesthetic sensibility. With that in mind, Niko and I collectively designed my tattoo (in less than 2 days), and like everything in Chiapas, it was done with no room to breathe and at the last possible minute. He was impressed I went through with it, probably because it was my first tattoo and it seemed somewhat whimsical and ridiculous. The last thing I wanted was to have an idea and not follow through, which is something I know so well and one of the things that the caracol represents for me. The snail is a symbol to guide me with being deliberate, thoughtful, humble, patient and slow. All things that I want to have with me.  Now my body has a reminder every time I am too fast, too scattered, too impatient and pre-emptively assuming (which is much too often).

After I showed a photo to Will, he said: “It’s discrete and elegant to the uninitiated, and deliberate and thoughtful—opening onto memories and the intricacies of your life in its change—for your loved ones. Well done cat  >^..^<“.

Mitsu also said: “I love the snail. It’s funny how in some ways more things happen when you pay attention slowly. If you’re going to get a tattoo it should be for something that marks you like this.”

tattoo (1 of 1)-2

tattoo (1 of 1)

tattoo (1 of 1)-4

tattoo (1 of 1)-7

The day after Niko got his tattoo, we finished designing mine and went to a different parlor in which the artist was gentle and put me at ease. The inside of the upper arm is supposed to be a sensitive spot, but the feeling of the needle ripping through my skin was one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever felt. I also have a high pain threshold so the ecstasy kicked in straightaway. I bounced up and down the street while Niko laughed at me. In the end all the people I told laughed at my excitement. My gods! The joy! The orientation shift of my perception!

Day 20a

In San Cristobal de las Casas fireworks are set off day and night and by the 17th day I did not find them unsettling but as part of the background soundscape. Using gun powder is also a common practice as neighbourhoods battle to become sonic weight champions.

olszanowski-gunpowder (1 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (2 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (3 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (4 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (6 of 14) olszanowski-gunpowder (5 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (8 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (7 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (9 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (10 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (12 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (11 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (13 of 14)

olszanowski-gunpowder (14 of 14)

Day 10 – Oventic, Zapatista visit

“Dime con quien andas u te diré quien eres.”

—Mexican saying

oventic_mo (1 of 1)-2 oventic_mo (1 of 1)-6On August 7 we went to visit Oventic, one of the five and largest Zapatista caracols (autonomous zones). We were about to enter another zone physically and emotionally. This trip was planned months in advance by our professor Diana Taylor and copies of our passports were given to authorities. Just like any other nation state, we had to show our passports to enter and even then we could be denied for a plethora of reasons. If any one of us was denied none of us would enter. We also had a long discussion about quietude and the reverence for silence is Zapatismo philosophy. We are about to be faced with a radical humility —no one speaks on their own, it’s all a collective voice. If you think about it, none of us ever speak on our own, we just think we do. We are trained to be individuals, but only to mask the insidious institutional parasitic practice that makes us all spokespeople for the discursive practice of oppression. It is in recognizing our collective voice we build community and recognize that we can strive towards autonomy and let loose from, at least, some of the capitalist shackles. As Zizek says, “We feel free because we lack the language to articulate our unfreedom“.

Oventic is situated about 1 hour from San Cristobal in the Chiapas highlands. I could not tell you in which direction because you  can’t (thankfully) G-Map it. On the bus ride we were asked to write down questions to ask during our visit. I didn’t want to ask any questions because questions pre-suppose a desire to capture with knowledge. Preconceived questions orient you in a specific way of thinking about a situation rather than attempting a tabula rasa. I recognize the impossibility of a clean slate but I wanted to remain as open to the vast potential as I have been so far on the trip. (To the surprise of my colleagues, I did not even google Chiapas or San Cristobal before my arrival in order to be taken by the experiential knowledge of my body in that space rather than an internet-made aesthetic). In the end, I wrote down something about creating safe space(s) online and how that is achievable and how the Zapatista’s went about doing that for their movement & for their community.

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-12On the way there, I sat up at the front because I get car sick and all I heard from the back was constant chatter. I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying unless I was adressed but even if it wasn’t about the Zapatistas, the excitement penetrated the conversations. I assumed a position of quietude, something I often do in those situations (because everyone knows I can talk a lot). When we arrived everyone went in for the frozen fruit popsicles and cheap fruit. I bought several bananas and a mango popsicle. My body was relaxed but I didn’t want to talk to anyone which made it difficult because when you want to be quiet and not talk people assume they are being snubbed, you are assuming a hierarchical position or something is wrong. Sometimes I need moments to be in a space without opening my mouth, and that can be alone or among many people. I need to feel the words bouncing off the inside of my mouth back inside me again without opening my lips.

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-18After about two hours we were let inside. None of us realized it had been two hours at the gate until Prof. Diana Taylor remarked on it in our debrief later that evening. It felt like maybe 20 to 30 minutes. The iPhone is a constant reminder of time and since we weren’t able to take photos I didn’t have a reason to use it and take note. Time in Mexico operates in a different way anyway 1 and is an exemplar of the Bergsonian duration I can write about theoretically and catch glimpses of forcefully, but have never take part in so acutely. We were scheduled, in two groups, to visit the main hallway and to hear a speech and have time to ask those questions we wrote down on the bus, but since the Zapatista’s were throwing the first ever open-to-the-public party to celebrate their caracole 10 year anniversary, they were all too busy to do that. A fortuitous turn of events because instead we were able to walk around the main area of the caracol and explore instructed to only take photos of the murals—no people, no dogs and no cars. We did not have to ask questions, questions I did not have.

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-6Everyone’s stentorian voices were too much for me so I trailed behind and moved between the small buildings to find another plot of open land. A veritable calm filled every part of my being and I had to stop moving for a moment. I sat down underneath a tree and all of a sudden all these thoughts about belonging, identity and care rushed between the layers of my skin. I felt the ground move through me and without a conscious effort what became clear to me was that we are all looking to belong, to fit in, to build and maintain community in safety. That is what the Zapatista’s are doing through these autonomous nation caracols. It isn’t about seclusion or separation but about autonomy and care. The Mexican government does not protect its people 2, and does not provide them with any care or community or autonomy. There is so much at stake for the Zapatistas—their humble life that constitutes non-violent resistance is to be respected. I use the word humble with purpose, because what I felt and witnesses was humility. I’m not revering it as some standard to uphold, or trying to revere the Zapatismo ways to further exoticize and in turn Otherize them, but fuck, I was affected and that was the point. They let us in to affect us, to show us a small part of their life and feel the energy at Oventic. Especially since they have stopped their military ways.  That is all planned. It’s not by some random chance that I, a Polish Jewish girl from Montreal stumbled upon the Zapatista’s and took some snapshots against the murals to show my family back home. For the record, and this isn’t to deride the others, I was not compelled to take photos of myself against the murals, but that’s also part of my travel ethics. I have an on-going series that deals with that, Standing with Art Giants. Niko, one of the other photographers in the course who took photos of everything, later told me that he didn’t take any photos at all (possibly didn’t even bring his camera?). I wonder what he saw without a lens between him and Oventic like the rest of us. He said he did notice me against that tree.

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-13

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-9

The tree’s roots digging into my back and legs as I pushed against it to sit still and fumble to put my camera away. I was overwhelmed with the recognition that I, too, want to belong. Want to belong so much. You go through life indoctrinated into the “Fuck the world, I don’t care what people think.” attitude even though, of course you care, of course everyone cares, it just gets manifested in different ways with different people in different times in your life. This appetence grew and I started to cry and cry and cry. Then I took out my phone and made a Vine of the area and my tears. Yes, in that moment I was compelled to capture the feelings so pellucid. Oventic captures a patient, thoughtful and slow energy, an energy that I seem to never have but always want. The energy of a caracol, translated from Spanish to snail. I could have fallen asleep there if I was allowed. I couldn’t believe what I was feeling and how I was feeling it. It reminded me of how shy I got upon seeing the hills in Belle Ile in 2009 when I actually turned away because I couldn’t believe I had the privilege of looking at something so magical. It seems so banal—community, belonging—but these ideas are fraught with so much struggle, violence and even death. Perhaps they are the most quotidian of ideas and that makes them paramount.

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-8

I continued to sit between gables and Gabo managed to take a photo of me. Is there any escape from the gaze of the Other?

23e30d4c012d11e3a1c622000a1fbcae_7

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-7

oventic-olszanowski (1 of 1)-11How is strength measured? What becomes of our difference?

Te Amaré 

Te Amaré 

Te Amaré 

The Zapatistas held a 10 year anniversary party a few days later with music, food and love. Many of us went. This will be continued…

  1. another post I have to write!
  2. another post about the exponentially rising violence against women is in the works

Day 13 – orienting my body

Orienting my body in the way to make sense of my body in space.

gardennymph (1 of 1)-2

One of the ways I make sense of a place that confuses me is to take photos inside it, with it, and around it —making use of my body in relation to it. This is NaBolom, the grounds I walked up and down several times a day from my room into the world and back again. Talking to NK it turns out that part of his photographic practice is homologous to mine (a practice of inserting the partially-covered body in spaces I reductively considered female-centric) & then we spent hours making sense of angles, light & bodies in space until it grew too dark.

gardennymph (1 of 1)-3

A wild sheep chase.

gardennymph (1 of 1)

A tourist man moved through the garden & I followed him closely.

gardennymph (1 of 1)-8

gardennymph (1 of 1)-6gardennymph (1 of 1)-5

Day 7 – communal eating

Today, the wonderful Lily and Patricia let me hang out in their beautiful Kukurutz villa and in return I made a simple dinner for a few of us with help from Lily and Evan and Natalie contributed some of her vegetables too. It truly was a communal meal, and is there anything better than building community and care than through sharing food and filling our stomachs with fresh food?

It was the first time I had home made food since I’ve been here. Since cooking and baking is my all-time favorite activity my whole demeanour changed. Jeh came by after and I told him that it’s the first time I felt truly happy since I’ve arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas. We made some white rice with sautéed onions, garlic, zucchini, roma tomatoes and swiss chard. We were able to get some fresh cilantro and rosemary for just a few pesos at the local market.

Here are some photos I took of NaBolom, my residence in San Cris & some of the crew eating.

chiapas_mo (1 of 1)-31

flowerdiptych

chiapas_mo (1 of 1)-34

chiapas_mo (1 of 1)

chiapas_mo (1 of 1)-2

Day 4

We finally got out of the classroom and went for walks around the city, a “city historical walk” and a “graffiti walk”. I’ll discuss what that entailed and what it means in the context of the course and me being in San Cristobal de las Casas later. For now, here are some photos defined by the only lens I shoot everything with —50mm.

san_c (1 of 1)-3

san_c (1 of 1)-7

san_c (1 of 1)-4

san_c (1 of 1)-9