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Pop-up African home, in an Oakland park, marks Ethiopian and Eritrean New Year

zena artist talkUsing the stories and voices of Ethiopian and Eritrean taxi drivers as inspiration, ten Bay Area artists have created a special pop-up art installation called “Home Away from Home” on a park lawn near Lake Merritt. The show is part of a series of local events honoring the Ethiopian and Eritrean new year.

Ethiopians and Eritreans around the world hold their New Year’s Day on Thursday, marking the end of the rainy season in eastern Africa and the start of that region’s spring. Though Bay Area Ethiopians and Eritreans will not be celebrating the day with a change of weather, one of the highlights of the week here is “Home Away from Home,” a temporary gallery set up in traditional-style circular home— an Ethiopian gojo, or Eritrean adjo—right in Eastshore Park, next to Lake Merritt.

“We wanted the theme to be ‘home away from home,’ and we thought, ‘Why don’t we take a home, away from home?’” said co-organizer Ellias Fullmore, an Ethiopian American musician and artist based in San Jose, California.

The Eastshore Park lawn welcomes curious passers-by. Along the gallery walls, the wood designs in the circular structure cast patterns of shadows on the artwork, and the shadow art seems to take on a life of its own as dusk approaches. A nearby soccer practice and the sounds of cars driving by make it feel less like a museum and more like a home.

Each of the artists who participated was given in advance a recording and a transcript of an interview with an Eritrean or Ethiopian taxi driver. Though not all the artists are Ethiopian or Eritrean, they all have ties to the community. Without meeting or knowing the name of the drivers, the artists then used the taxi cab stories for reflection and inspiration.

The art goes beyond the individual taxi drivers and touches on themes of home, travel, identity and space. Organizers Meklit Hadero, an Ethiopian-American singer, musician and cultural activist, andSephora Woldu, an Eritrean American visual artist and filmmaker, conducted the initial interviews with the drivers, and each of the ten artists created his or her own interpretation through art, music and poetry.

In explaining the importance of taxi drivers, Woldu said theirs are “stories of migration” that “inspired new artwork from artists who wanted to honor their experience.” Many Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants settle into taxi driving, Hadero said. “Everyone has an uncle or cousin who is a taxi cab driver,” she said.

Zéna, a visual artist and musician who goes by one name, said, “It’s important for people in the world to see their stories on paper.” She added, “Some people’s histories are left out of the picture.”

The Bay Area is home to a large Ethiopian and Eritrean population. While the statistics do not account for people who are originally from Ethiopia, but traveled through other countries, according to Hadero the population is close to 20,000. “It’s huge and it’s growing,” she said. In many cases, working as a taxi driver is also an immigrant experience around the United States. In 2000, a Brooklyn-based consulting company found, nearly 40 percent of taxi and limo drivers in the United States were immigrants.

Zéna happened to be matched with the transcript and audio from a female taxi driver. Her watercolor painting for the show, which she calls “what was lost, what was gained,” has an almost religious feeling. The dominant image is a woman’s face, with bright purples and reds surrounding her. The neck gives way to what appears to be a deer, and hands that hold strings woven into an old-school boombox.

As she listened to the tape recording she had been given, Zéna said, she noticed hip-hop music in the background, and the tone of some of the language favored by her cab driver, “African-American culture and hip-hop had impacted her,” Zéna said. “One of the first things I thought of was her holding a boombox.”

Home Away from Home is part of a larger initiative sponsored by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Bay Area Now (BAN7). BAN7 aims to make art more accessible to all people.

BAN7 pairs artists with community members for projects like this, to provide participatory arts experiences in places like parks, neighborhood centers and housing complexes. Other projects include collaborations with artists in SOMA, Mission, Excelsior and West Oakland.

“Mostly I do my art for myself,” said Natasha Shompole, a Kenyan-born visual artist, now living in El Cerrito, whose painting in the show is called “Nara.” The taxi driver Shompole was paired with, she said, had traveled through nine different countries to reach the Bay Area. Shompole’s piece depicts the profile of a face at the bottom left with an elaborate crown of shapes with nine points. The lines from each of the nine points are strung together like a geometrical spider web.

“I am hoping people will see, or at least think about, how the small components make a whole,” Shompole said.

She might just as easily have been describing the Ethiopian and Eritrean community in Oakland.

Randy Newman I’m Dreaming Political Satire: New Song From Perspective of a Racist Voter

I just lost 3 minutes and 17 seconds of my life that I will never get back. I wanted to watch the whole video, as I thought there might be some moral in the end, some clarity or clear call to vote. The video is a for a new song by Grammy-winger singer Randy Newman, the man who most recently won the Best Original Song for “We Belong Together” in Toy Story 3.

According to the Associated Press, Newman is playing the race card through his song “I’m Dreaming.” Never mind the fact that race is not a card to be played. It is either a reality of existence, something you are born into and grow into an understanding of (ideally), or is something you learn about through others. No card game that I have yet played can claim a race card, so let’s stop using the term. Nonetheless, Newman uses race as a the central focus of his new song, in which he assumes the position of a racist voter, who just wants to vote for a white person.

As Newman’s website states, “With lyrics from the viewpoint of a voter who casts his ballot solely based on skin color, the song draws attention to something Newman has noticed and written about for 40 years: racism in America … anyone wishing to contribute is encouraged to donate to the United Negro College Fund at www.uncf.org.”

The lyrics are slightly entertaining, if you like that kind of mock-racism type of thing: “A real live white man, who knows the score, how to handle money or start a war, wouldn’t even have to tell me what we were fighting for … He won’t be the brightest, perhaps, but he’ll be the whitest.”

Though he does not believe people will admit it, Newman thinks, “there are a lot of people who find it jarring to have a black man in the White House and they want him out.”

As quoted in the New York Times blog, Newman said he was worried there, “may be backlash from conservatives.” Perhaps the next song will be a satire against Obama? It all seems a bit strange and silly. I am curious to see if there is a boost in funding for the United Negro College Fund. Somehow, I doubt it.

“Hard work” (on what it takes to be a farmer)

Sarojany Devi has four daughters between age 14 and 20. All of her daughters are in school now. Sarojany manages 40 nali (20 nali = approx 1 acre) of land herself. Her daughters are unable to assist her and her husband cannot plough because he is ill. Her husband says that no one will farm here in the future once the daughters have moved to the families of their husbands, but Sarojany says, “if we can, we will do it, if we cannot, then we don’t know.”

Sarojany is 38, and she came to Sauri when she was 18 years old. Before marrying, she only learned how to cook. In Tonada village where she was born, she explains that there was another type of farming that uses more water. “Here the work is different.”

After she was married, her mother-in-law taught her farming. “They teach ‘little little’ and until I knew everything.” Saroj says that it took three to five years to gain experience in farming.

Sarojany says she “grows everything.”Generally, the family is able to support themselves from the land, “due to climate change we have to buy food sometimes.” “There is a very big problem with monkeys” she adds.

It takes hard work to be a farmer, according to Sarojany. Since January, she has had support in the form of the local Mahila Anna Swaraj (Womens Food Sovereignty Group). She collects all kinds of seeds and exchanges them with others in the village. The women’s group started in January and has already collected Rs 5,000 or Rs 6,000. “We discuss what work we have to do, about seeds, how to make compost…” Sarojany says. They also sing songs together.

Sarojany believes it is important for her daughters to be educated so that they can “Do well with farming.” Already she is teaching her daughters  “to make roti, to weed, to make compost, to clean.”

Concerning her daughters’ futures, she says, “That depends on luck. If they can do service that is good, if they do agriculture then she will do it well.” Sarojany received help for her farming work from her studies. She explains that she gained a better understanding of how much to sow which helps not to waste seeds. Sarojany says she is able to tell if it is a good seed or not by the yield: “If it gives a good yield, then it is good.”

Her husband believes it is important to grow food, because then it will be “pure.” According to her husband, if the rain is good they will exchange some crops for salt and if the harvest is enough, then they will sell some of the crops.