Lisa Ha - The Mystery Of The ExoticTuesday, January 13, 2009
My granddaughter Rebecca is 11. Since she was about 5, when she would come to visit us on Saturdays, she and Rosemary would lie in bed and read the Vancouver Sun Saturday comics. Until recently my granddaughters and their mother Hilary would have Saturday dinner with us. Sometime around 8:30 there would be a loud plunk outside the door and I would bring in a thick NY Times, Sunday edition. I would ask Rebecca what day it was and once she would say it was Saturday I would amaze her by showing her the day and date on my Sunday NY Times. This confused for a while but only recently has she caught on that the paper is put together days before Sunday.
As I think of what seems the disappearance of newspapers and particularly of their home delivery which is such a large chunk of the expense of publishing one I know I am going to miss that thud when it no longer happens. I will miss (and I only caught on to this quite recently) what I knew existed and no longer exists.
But not so Rebecca who will grow up in what will almost certainly be an era of amateur journalism. She will not miss newspapers because she was never really aware of their existence. It is almost no difference to the extinction of some Tasmanian rat we never knew about. How can we feel a loss? How can we mourn?
I am from a generation that would invariably look up when hearing the sound of an airplane's engines. And for most of my youth that was the specific sound of the propeller-driven airplane. I am also old enough in not having had a refrigerator or a telephone in my house. In fact in 1953 we were the first on the block with a Frigidaire and my friends all came to see how it worked.
My 1953 was an orderly world particularly when we studied geography. The Chinese lived in China, the Mexicans in Mexico, the Germans in Germany and so on. In those years some maps would show sleeping Mexicans under a saguaro cactus, a German in a short leather pants and the Chinese were invariably planting rice while wearing a conical hat that in Spanish (borrowed from the Tagalog) is called a salacot.
In Spain and in Latin America whatever is exotic must come from afar. And this is almost always China. India ink is tinta china and I would make my kites with bamboo and papel de china (tissue paper) stretched and glued with a mixture of flower and water. If you wanted to tell someone to go to hell you would say, "Vete a la Cochinchina." Cochinchina was the old name for Vietnam and that was as far away from Argentina or close to hell as any place could be.
Except for the odd Bolivian woman wearing a bowler hat and begging on the street or gypsies (we were afraid of them because we were told they would take us away and then sell us) who would come house to house offering to read our fortune my Buenos Aires was almost all white. In the to-this-day class society of Argentina the darker ones were called cabecitas negras or little black heads. In my early years when I was around 8 we had some live-in help. They were a black couple, Zelia and Abelardo. They were jet black. They were from a very small population of black people who were remnants of the slave population of the early 1800s. Most had moved to Perú. I had never ever seen any Chinese or Japanese except a few Chinese at the American Grammar school I attended. The Chinese children were all from the Chinese embassy. Since my grandmother worked for the Filipino Ministry I saw may Filipinos and some looked Chinese. They even wore the salakots when we went to Christmas parties and they performed Filipino folkloric dances like the tinikling and one appropriately called the Salakót.
My mother and I were once invited to have lunch at the house of the Chinese ambassador. My mother taught his children at the American school. At the table I was amazed by food I have never in my life seen before (which I didn't dare try) and marveled at the bowls with the distinctive Chinese spoons. I bragged of the experience to my friends for weeks. While in Argentina, I had heard of a mysterious Japanese gardener called Matsumoto. But I never saw him.
Even though I have lived in Vancouver since 1975 when I gaze at anybody from China I think of mystery and the exotic. Most of the beautiful rhododendrons in my garden (rhododendrons don't grow well in Argentina) are of Chinese origin and the seem most exotic to me. I am dazzled by the way their leaves retract downwards (like a cat's ears) when it gets cold.
This idea of the exotic which comes from that formerly orderly world of mine is kept alive every time I gaze on my Russian submarine clock nailed to the trunk of my Western Red Cedar. I look at it and it as alien as those terrible Russian cars one would spot on the street so many years ago. It was almost like the steel they were made from was also alien and exotic.
In 2001 when I frequented the Exposure Gallery I often saw pictures of a beautiful and undraped Vietnamese woman called Lisa Ha. Just about every photographer that participated in the frequent group shows had photographed her. I was intrigued at the possibility seeing if I could do something different. I may have succeeded although I cannot show most of the results here because of my self-imposed rule of not posting nudes.
In my early shows in Vancouver I used to show at the Threshold Gallery which was owned by Mexican entrepreneur Samuel Frid. One of my first shows at his gallery was a show of domestic nudes which was part of a nude photography group show. I photographed women at home doing normal household tasks but undraped. I remember that a fierce and early Vancouver feminist movement panned the show (and in particular the other two photographers) because they had photographed the women as parts. A note was left that made me feel a tad content. The note read, "Thank you Alex, for showing us their faces."
I have rarely ever photographed the human body since without incorporating in some way that most important face. In some cases if the face is not there I try to use hands and the expressive use of hands which I believe in many ways can do almost as well.
Lisa Ha was a mystery and a delight in my studio. In a second session I photographed her at Nora Patrich and Juan Manuel Sanchez's home and Nora set up an altar (in her living room!) behind Lisa. I have made a series of ethnic Virgin Marys and this one I called Santa Conchita de la Cochinchina. To this day when I look at these portraits I still see the exotic, the mystery of a world in which most of the countries in Africa would have borders in red. The were part of the British Empire. But there is one thing I can say about Lisa Ha without (I hope) fearing any kind of repercussions from those feminists of yore. Lisa Ha has the most beautiful chest I have ever seen in anyone. It is as dazzing and wondrous as that Chinese spoon.
And I wonder when Rebecca grows up if she will have a memory of the exotic and of mystery. What would it be? As for the sound of airplanes, I always look up.