India through a designer's eyes

In October of 2016, I took a 3 week trip to India. It was, quite honestly, one of the most amazing trips of my life. As a designer, I kept my eyes wide open, taking in as much as I could of this amazing country. As we’d only visited the southern portion of India, I was aware that this was very different from the North. With its warmer temperature and tropical climate, I was surprised to see that in addition to the climate, India had in common with the Caribbean where I spent my formative years. The vegetation was familiar; lush hibiscus flowers, shak shaks (Woman’s Tongue) and coconut trees were everywhere.

The southern inhabitants of India are very dark-skinned with jet-black hair to match. Before visiting, I was aware of the caste system and how lighter skinned Indians are revered over their darker skinned brothers and sisters. Colonialism looms large in this country and southern India seemed to have borne more than its fair share. The English, Spanish and Dutch all invaded and colonized India, leaving traces of their culture while attempting to subvert Indian culture in the process. It didn't work. India, had a rich history of its own prior to colonization -- and it still does. It was interesting to learn also, that the sari, an item of clothing we most associate with Indian women, was encouraged by the Europeans when they initially encountered native woman, who went topless. Indeed old statues, paintings, sculptures and carvings show Indian women with nothing on top other than jewelry. That changed, with the advent of Christianity and Eurocentric ideals.

Color is everywhere

When you’re from a country unlike the US that truly is a melting pot and you visit a country where everyone looks the same, it can be a bit jarring. As Americans, we are used to seeing people from all nationalities and cultures just by walking down the street.  So, India was definitely different for me where I became a curiosity for most people.  Most of them men there wore short mustaches (I learned that men wore mustaches if their fathers were still alive) and the women wore their hair in a simple braided or ponytail. But even so, there were bursts of originality. Even though every woman wore a sari, the silk garment draped around their bodies -- each woman was able to express herself with color. Color was everywhere. There were rich reds, greens, and orange accented with gold. Also purples and pinks as far as the eye could see.

The color that struck me most was yellow. It was everywhere. Vivid and slightly transparent, this was a shade of yellow that called out for attention. But yellow was also present on trucks, signs and the sides of buildings advertising, flowers, bananas in the market, on saris and as the accent color on statues in temples. A bit of research revealed that “Indian Yellow” was actually a thing. And, the color yellow in India represents the color of merchants and commerce –those selling good or products. Thus the color was especially prominent on the sides of buildings advertising goods and services and the ever present motorized tuk-tuks seen virtually everywhere.

Typography

Indian written language is beautiful. As even the smallest of towns had bustling, crowded marketplaces, signs were everywhere. Some handwritten and others painted on the sides of buildings, shacks and walls. Anywhere there was a surface, really. When written in English, they didn't make much sense to me and when  they were written in Hindu, I couldn't tell what they said. But, it is important to note that the typography was beautiful to look at.

 

A sense of space

In their design and in real life, the way Indians make use of space was fascinating to see. Villages and towns are typically crowded with storefronts at the forefront and housing which typically consists of one or two rooms for a family of 4 in the back.
Streets in India are jam packed with tuk-tuks, motorcycles and compact cars. In the southern districts (Thekaddy, Kerala) I never once saw a crosswalk or a stop light. Traffic flowed in a zen-like way. Commuters wandered into traffic to cross streets and the traffic moved around them in a kind of dance. It was beautiful to see. For us as Americans, it seemed dangerous but once you realize that the drivers aren't whizzing by at 70mph it made total sense.

I try to look at everything from a designers perspective. Not only as a creator though, but also as a user. It is especially enlightening when one is immersed in a totally different culture. Sometimes, it's easy to get caught up in the ideas and design precepts of home but I found it refreshing to get out of my comfort zone to explore and learn while in India.


"I Love It"; The Art of Constructive Criticism

“I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” ~ Erykah Badu

Who could forget this line from the intro to Ms. Badu before she launched into her amazing rendition of her hit song “Call Tyrone”. The chart-topping song references a woman who may or may not be Badu and her frustrations regarding not enough alone time with her man.

BOOM.

But what’s interesting is that Badu, a star since her genre-busting first album “Baduizm” was released in 1997, prefaced the song with a request to the audience to be kind. She was previewing the song for the first time and it was not featured on an album. So, Badu beseeched the audience to be gentle on her in case they did not like it.

It might seem inconceivable to us that Ms. Badu the High Priestess of Neo Soul would be sensitive about her “shit” as she so eloquently states. But artists and creatives are notoriously thin-skinned at times and when it comes to their work, even more so. It is widely believed that artists and creatives are overly emotional. But how to you navigate the all-important “What do you think?” question when it is inevitably lobbed your way?

As a creative person, I’ll share some tips for offering your opinion when asked to do so.

Add “because” to your initial statement.
Don’t just say, “I like it” or “I don’t like it” and leave it at that. Try to, in addition to your opinion say why. So, instead of “I like it” or “I don’t like it”, add because to the end of the statement and try to explain what you’re feeling while experiencing the work.

Check your body language
Pay attention to your body language. If you are the kind of person who has no poker face, be aware of what your face and body are saying as you provide feedback. Think as well about what your arms are doing. When offering feedback, remember to be open in mind and body.

Ask other questions
Ask about the audience for the work. Who is it intended for? Ask about the artist’s intent behind the piece. Artists, typically create a piece with certain intent in mind. Finding out more about the intended audience could help you frame your response in a more constructive way.

What do you want people to know?
Creative works are … sometimes they tell a story or come from a place of great pain, love, loss or joy. Try to understand what the artist is trying to convey. When a piece of work is being experienced, the artist isn’t always present to explain. But if you have the opportunity to ask the artist, try to explore the backstory of the piece and what is the one true thing that they artist would like to viewer to know.

Be Honest
Never lie. Doing so is a disservice to the artist. Does the piece confuse you? Do you have questions? Do you just not get it? Say so. Despite the belief that artists are overly sensitive, most are looking for honest feedback on their work. So, giving a glowing review when you don’t understand the work isn’t helping

Find out about the Creative Process
Most artists create work as a part of a unique creative process. I’ve yet to meet and artist that doesn’t have one. Ask about the process that creates the work that you are providing feedback one. Most artists are happy to discuss their creative process. How long did the process take? What inspired the work? What materials or instruments were used? How long did it take? These questions might seem mundane but can be critical to you providing more constructive feedback. Use them as an exploration into the work.

What is the Why?
As you prepare your criticism or thoughts about the work, put yourself in the position of the artist. Creating a piece of work is the artist at their most vulnerable. Be aware of that and try to understand the why behind their desire for your feedback. Your feedback should be food for thought. It should feed the Why not just boost an ego. Whether or not you personally connect with the work is secondary. In the end, your opinion does matter but if it helps to move the conversation all the better. Try to get to the intent behind the work. You can ask, “What was your intent here” or "What do you want people to feel?"

Ultimately, most artists are eager to engage in a conversation about their work, but how you approach the feedback they need should be handled with care.

 


My review of Fences, the movie

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences movie
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose Maxim in Fences.

I was still a kid when an English teacher thought it was a good idea to take our class from the Bronx to “The City” to see Fences on Broadway. I am not sure what teacher it was, but I knew that the story has stayed with me ever since. I cried and cried watching Troy Maxson and his family navigates the waters of their lives.

I am not sure if it was my father’s own cheating, philandering and fathering other children while married to my mother that made it so real for me. Maybe it was Rose’s ultimate decision to raise a child that her husband fathered or Troy’s refusal to give up his extramarital affair that did it for me. But somewhere in my pre-teen mind, I felt the story deep in my soul.

We’d read the play by August Wilson but, the playwright, the man, wasn’t real to me, nor was his contribution to the culture.

Yet.

Years later, I would meet, via Twitter, Kimberly Ellis aka Dr. Goddess. We met at a tech conference for black women, and later on, she was my roommate at my first SXSW. Our friendship has blossomed over the years. It wasn’t until there were rumblings that Denzel Washington was bringing Wilson’s seminal work to the screen with Viola Davis, that I found out that Dr. G was August Wilson’s niece. What a secret to keep! But it wasn’t a secret at all. Dr. G has been, on and off Twitter, deeply involved in the work of preserving August Wilson’s work for some time. A quick scan of her Twitter timeline reveals this and even her visits to the set during filming.

For this and other reasons then, I could not miss the opportunity to support Fences the movie. I didn’t, for a second consider ways in which the story would be even more real for me as an adult.

Fences is, quite simply, a masterpiece of a film. Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, the story revolves as does the play, around Troy Maxson, the troubled patriarch of the Maxson family. Troy is played by Denzel Washington and his wife Rose, is played by Viola Davis. It is not an exaggeration to say that Davis and Washington are two of the finest actors anywhere on the planet right now. The pair also played the couple in the Broadway revival of Fences in 2010, for which both actors earned Tony Awards.

There is ease between Davis and Washington that belie the great respect they show not only for each other but also for the characters so masterfully and skillfully created by Wilson so many years ago.

Viola Davis has the ability to morph completely into whichever character she plays. She manages to embody Rose so completely that there is virtually no trace of Viola left. And yes, of course, that IS what acting is and few are better at it than Ms. Davis. The quiet, long-suffering quality shrouded in dignity rarely afforded Black women on screen is matched only by the fiery intensity of Mr. Washington’s Troy Maxson.

Denzel Washington review Fences movie
Denzel Washington and Jovan Adepo in Fences

Much has been written of Troy but not nearly enough about how Washington has brought him to life. For the first 15- 20 minutes of the film, Washington’s Troy captures us in a way rarely seen on screen.

The dialogue is rapid fire and Washington’s Troy moves easily between the raunchy, and the raucous, the bravado and the brooding. Washington plays Troy with so much respect, it is as if now, in middle age, he is able to finally understand and embrace the underlying humanity in Troy Maxson.

Troy Maxson, the man, is someone with whom we are all familiar. He’s our uncle, cousin, grandfather and just maybe, for some of us, our father, too. He is by no means perfect and Washington does not attempt to fool us into thinking that he is. To understand Troy is to see the hopes and dreams of a generation crushed by white supremacy. Those around him try to explain to Troy that things have changed --- are changing. But trapped in the realization of his own unfulfilled dreams, Troy proceeds to stifle the dreams of his young son Cory, played by Jovan Adepo who wants to play football. We understand this well, those of us with parents who had dreams and ambitions that were thwarted by ‘the way things were’.

He is mired in his bitterness and languishing in anger for those unrealized dreams and now makes his living as a garbage man. Maxson was once the greatest baseball player of his time, a star in the negro leagues but these days, he rides the back of the truck picking up what people throw out; dreams and all. His spirit is restless and in more ways than one. He wrestles with what could have been – a promising baseball career cut short; he wrestles with his son, who pushes back every step of the way and is a shining example of what he could have been and possibilities ahead. He wrestles with his job and his push to improve his standing from picking up garbage to being a driver – a job once only held by whites. He wrestles with his masculinity, which leads him to father a child outside his marriage and most of all; he wrestles with his own mortality, keenly aware that death is ever present and just a wink away.

We know Troy Maxson. We’ve seen him with a fifth of gin at the liquor store. We’ve heard his raucous laughter at a family cook out, we’ve seen the flash of brilliance in his eyes and his easy smile gives a hint of what could have been. If only… We see Troy a few times a week, maybe even every day. Our neighborhoods are full of Troys; unrealized dreams and lots of potential.

It isn’t easy to love Troy, to live with him. As Davis’s Rose tearfully and emotionally explains – she planted herself and her dreams deep inside him only to find out that the ground was cold and rocky and her dreams could not take root, much less grow.

Troy and Rose Maxim are not easy to understand. They are complex characters. As complex as we’ve seen on the screen this year. In this, what seems to be a golden age for African Americans on screen, Fences asks us to briefly take a look back. It peels back the surface of what we think we see to reveal the bare soul of a family.

I think that anyone who takes this journey will easily find familiarity in the story of Fences. After all, at its core, it is a story of an American family. There is no great triumph at the end of the story. Families, especially black families know all too well that life must go on despite disappointments. It is what we do because we must.

Fences is the movie theaters now. More about Dr. G here.