On losing eyelashes for the sake of scholarship and art

On Sunday afternoon, eleven students from liberal arts colleges across the country arrived at Carleton College for the inaugural AALAC* Humanities Lab. My lab, “Mask, Character & Myth,” is investigating the function of masks in Greek tragedy. For modern audiences accustomed to small, indoor theaters and the close-up shots made possible in cinema, masks can seem like an obstacle for actors to overcome. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni summarized this view in the eighteenth century: “The actor must, in our days, possess a soul; and the soul under a mask is like fire under ashes.”

The Greeks, however, found tragedy deeply moving, masks and all — it certainly did not seem “soulless” to them. How, then, can we imagine masks, not as a hindrance, but as a catalyst for creativity?

Each of the five members of my lab has chosen a research specialty to explore; mine is the differences between masks for chorus members and those for main actors. Eric Csapo observes that in artistic representations of the theater, chorus members are more clearly identifiable as “actors,” whereas members of the main cast are often subsumed into their new, mythical identity. Consider, for example, the famous Pronomos vase:

Pronomos 360[2]

Most of the chorus members are talking to each other while holding their masks, officially out of character. The Heracles actor, however, is labelled “Heracles” and, even though his mask is off, it looks just like his actual face; he has no distinct identity of his own. Are mythical figures like Heracles so strong that they overpower their actors’ own identities? How might the mask’s influence over its wearer change, depending on whether it is a choral mask identical to 11 others, or a representation of a unique, legendary character?

Alongside these academic inquiries, we’ve been getting our hands (and faces) dirty in our lab — because why should science students get all the fun? On Tuesday, we covered each other’s faces in bandages to make masks. It can be a little unsettling to be unable to see, speak, or move your face for nearly half an hour, so the unmasked among us took turns reading Winnie the Pooh aloud to pass the time.




When I pulled my mask off, some of my eyelashes were stuck in the plaster. The sacrifices we make for art…

On Wednesday, we poured plaster into those masks so that we can now make masks from those molds, instead of losing eyelashes every time we want to try something new.



Plaster mold of my head in a swim cap. My parents will treasure it forever, I’m sure.

Now, we’re hard at work making and painting masks for the characters we’ve chosen. I spent yesterday playing with modeling clay in an attempt to make my face look like an old man’s face, since I’m creating masks for Amphitryon and the Heracles chorus.


In my defense, there’s scholarship on the role of asymmetry in masks…

Art projects were never a strong point of mine, but I’ll make it work eventually…I hope.

Next week, we’ll start actually performing selections from tragedy while masked, so stay tuned — there’s sure to be a wealth of embarrassing and wonderful photos and videos…

*Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges

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gods, and masks, and murders, oh my!

My work in progress.

My work in progress.


The first week of the Hum Lab: A Consortial Workshop is coming to a close.  We arrived in the land of ten thousand lakes as a motley, enthusiastic crew of students from various liberal arts colleges and of various majors, bound together only by our shared reading of Euripede’s Heracles and a general confusion about what would we could and would produce over the course of an intensive, two week, collaborative working period. 

Many research articles, Google Docs, and plaster molds later, and our projects are beginning to (literally) take shape.

Half of us are working on contextualizing and recreating tragic masks of the sort that would have been utilized in 5th century B.C.E. Athenian theater; tragedies were all performed in mask. There is not a whole lot of information running around about this, but some visual evidence remains in vase-paintings (especially the famous Pronomos Vase) and texts (the often-quoted, but dubiously reliable descriptions of the origins of drama that Aristotle writes, for one). There is also a significant amount of contemporary scholarship about the symbolism and purpose of tragic masks, exploring everything from the meaning of a frontal gaze, the possibility that masks protect the actor and spectators from the spiritual and moral pollution of the atrocities portrayed in the tragedies, and the role of ambiguous facial features in the perception of human emotion. 

While these and some other, more technical questions (i.e.: can spectators see the features of a mask at the distance that would have been typically between a viewer and the performing space in the 5th century B.C.E.) will be tested once we have our masks, my own particular interest is in the dramatic portrayal of the divine in Heracles.

Hanging over the play is the gods’ role in justice: do they uphold it or do they toy with it for their own pleasure or perhaps they are outside of it altogether? Moreover, just like the humans in the play, the gods are constrained by fate, by more powerful beings, and by their own flaws. At the tragic crescendo of the play, Heracles’ returns from the underworld just in time to save his family from the murderous plotting of a political usurper– only to then kill them himself in a fit of madness brought on by the goddess Lyssa. The spectators are privy to a conversation between Lyssa and another goddess, Iris, just before Lyssa sets Heracles to doom.  Lyssa states that Heracles does not deserve to be subjected to the horror of killing his children, especially because he faithfully served the gods in his recent labors; Iris waves away her objections, and so Lyssa accepts the will of Iris and Hera. In one line of text, it is as if her moral compass’s bleeping warnings of cruelty never sounded off; she gleefully describes how her madness is inescapable and overpowering, and sets off to destroying Heracles’ family.

In making a mask of Lyssa, I am attempting to explore the imaged manifestation of the divine in the Greek tragic world. It seems, from the little historical evidence remaining, that divine masks were not much different than mortal masks– and that the gods’ actions within the tragedies were just as troubling of the question of free will and right action as the mortals’. 








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Mapping myth at Carleton College

Thanks to Haverford’s own Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities and Carleton College’s humanities center, eleven students are currently spending two weeks at Carleton, located in Northfield, Minnesota to participate in the HumLab: A Consortial Workshop.

I’m woking on mapping the interlocking myths of Jason, the Argonauts, and Medea and linking these intertwined stories to both material and mythical spaces and ancient artifacts.  I’m using Omeka to catalogue the artifacts I want to use to tell this story, and Neatline to map it into both our world and that of Greek myth.  Here’s a behind-the-scenes screenshot of my project thus far:

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 2.41.43 PM

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House Managing during a Festival

physicalSo the summer has been chugging along. I’ve continued to do some marketing work for Links Hall, creating ticket sale pages and programs for visiting artists. I also cleaned up the digital archives, updating them through June of this year. Next week I’ll start updating July’s events. The big news from July was Physical Festival, a 9-day festival celebrating physical theater. There were two weekends during which visiting companies performed, and during the week local Chicago artists took the stage, including a scratch night. I house managed a night during the weekend. This involved checking people in at the door and selling tickets, cleaning the space before and after the show, and basically just being available for whatever the artists needed. The house manager’s perk is that they get to watch the shows once everyone has been checked in, so I was fortunate enough to watch Out of Balanz from Denmark perform their adorable 2-man show “Next Door”, and to see 3 artists from Oregon perform their new show “Circo de tu Corazon.” It was a really lovely night. I’ll be sad to leave in a few weeks.

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1After a few days of travel, I finally arrived at Japanese Seto Inland Sea for a feast of dialogue between artworks and the space in which they are contained, and between human creations and the natural environment. I heard about this Seto art project last year when I was participating Kijimuna Children’s Theater Festival in Okinawa City and while I was doing research on the artworks that remain on the islands, I became increasingly excited about encountering them in person. Naoshima was my first stop.


From Yayoi Kusama’s red pumpkin gazing at the islands afar besides Miyanoura port to six House projects sitting quietly among other local houses, I felt that the boundary between space and object, museum and artwork, container and its content starts to fade. The relation between the object and the space makes both of them parts of an integral artwork: the walls and floors of the house become textured canvases, directional narratives or three-dimensional sculptures. The house contains objects of art as it is made of these objects. It pushes me to continue to think the book as a more literal architectural space: the media not only serves or corresponds to the content but becomes an integral part of the work itself.

3Another piece of House project consists of a newly built wooden house inserted in the middle of reminiscent statues of an ancient shrine and a modern glass ladder in contrasts with the mossy stones coming up from the underground cave that can only be seen at the end of a walk through a narrow tunnel with a flashlight. The art object stands in place of the disappeared shrine architecture and the underground design invites a discovery of not only the glass ladder, but also the surrounding space of mountain and sea, and the history and memory that emerges from the depth of our mind. I wonder if the book space can become something similar, a functional presence, a directional discovery and a metaphor rooted in its own architecture.4


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Stonewall, Pride, and Trans Justice

Hi Everyone!

Thanks to the HCAH, I’ve spent most of my summer in New York doing research for my Anthropology thesis. At the moment I’m in the final steps of my volunteer-research project with NYC Pride, the official pride organizer for the events in Manhattan, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a trans* and gender non-conforming legal clinic and community organizing collective that focuses on racial and economic justice. For the first month of my project, I was focused on helping NYC Pride with various events for the Stonewall Riots 45th anniversary and conducting a demographic survey for them during the march (which people estimate had 2-3 million people attending this year!). During the Rally, I had the honor of driving Susan Sarandon in a golf cart and meeting Laverne Cox!!! It was awesome–she was really nice and even asked about my project:



That day, I also participated in the 10th Annual Trans Day of Action with the SRLP. That march I had much more time to observe, enjoy, and engage as I wasn’t running around with volunteers in 90 degree weather trying to fill out a 1000 surveys! At both events I  was studying how different queer and trans* groups memorialize and understand the Stonewall Riots, which I’ve learned are much more about myth than they are about definitive history. Check out this awesome poster I saw at the TDOA:

IMG_7013 (1)

Now, I’m finishing up my work at the SRLP and doing some last interviews with volunteers, staff, and board members at NYC Pride. I have three weeks left to finish, and spend some time in the two archives I’m using, the National Archive of LGBT History and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. I don’t want to leave New York at all, but with the endless distractions here I know I’ll never start transcribing the hours and hours of material I have!

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Blowing My Cover

Now that my FringeArts internship is winding down (this is my last week), I think it’s time to come clean. You may have thought that I took this internship because of my love of the arts, my affection for editing, or my fondness for my coworkers. Fools! I have actually been here undercover, furthering my own agenda. That’s right, I have been abusing my vast powers as the FringeArts guide and information management intern to subtly propagate the Doctrine of the Oxford Comma.

Why am I blowing my cover now? Because the Festival Guide has already gone to print, and with it, all my imbedded propaganda! (*Cue evil laugh here.) Now bask in these screen shots from the Festival Guide, or, as I like to think of it, The Comma-ist Manifesto:

Check out that oxford comma.

Check out that Oxford comma.

Oh wow you guys, there are three oxford commas in here.

Oh wow you guys, there are three Oxford commas in here.

Picture 8

There are zero commas here. I just thought it was a very important sentence.

Those are very black-and-white. Here’s something for your color-deprived eyes:


Because poison dart frogs are awesome, that’s why. Photo from FactsColumn.

I hope you appreciate my restraint. You wouldn’t believe how many Oxford comma examples I screenshotted (screenshot? screenshot-ed?), but I figured this post was already pushing the limits of what anyone would willingly sit through, so I held back.

In the name of diversity of expression, I will leave you with this guest appearance by the vocative comma:

Oh hey, vocative comma.

Oh hey, vocative comma.

So now you know. You’ll never again be able to see the Festival Guide as anything but a tool of the system (the system, of course, being me). But hey, if you do still wanna see the Guide after this confession, you can join us at our Guide Launch party this Friday, Aug 1, featuring plant-generated music and a complimentary beer for you over-21-ers.

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos

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The Garden of the Afterlife

Those poor unfortunate souls among you who read my last post may remember that I’m working as a research assistant for Professor Jamel Velji, a religionist who specializes in the apocalypse. Among my projects for the summer has been helping Prof. Velji design a new course called Mahdis and their Movements about Muslim messianic movements and helping him edit his existing course called The End of the World as We Know It to include a unit on Ancient Egyptian pseudo-apocalyptic. Between the two subjects I have noticed an interesting connection: the afterlife is visualized on earth as a garden.


The image above is a photograph that Prof. Velji took in the British Museum in London; it comes from the tomb of the 18th-Dynasty (ca. 1350 BCE) scribe Nebamun in Thebes, Egypt. The descriptive plaque in the British Museum refers to this tomb painting as “Nebamun’s garden of the west”, explaining that “Nebamun’s garden in the afterlife is like the earthly gardens of the wealthy in ancient Egypt.”

The ancient Egyptian conception of time was not linear but cyclical, based on the cycle of the sun: in the morning the sun-god Re is born in the east, in the evening he dies in the west, and overnight he returns underground to be reborn in the east. For this reason the Egyptians saw burials as actually moving closer to the sun: the deeper and darker a burial chamber, the closer it would be to Re during his nighttime travels. What this also meant was that the west, being the site of Re’s daily (re)death, was also the appropriate burial place for Egyptians.



The map above (sorry it’s so small) depicts the city of Thebes, the holy city of the god Amun, who was the chief god of the New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties), excepting the Amarna Period; Thebes was therefore the religious capital of Egypt from approximately 1550-1352 and 1356-1077 BCE. On the east side of the Nile we see the two major temples at Karnak and Luxor. On the west, beyond the floodplain, are the funerary sites: the desert bay at Deir el-Bahri, which houses funerary temples for Mentuhotep II of the 11th Dynasty as well as Hatshepsut and Amenhotep I of the 18th; the Valley of the Kings, famed as the site of Tutankhamun’s tomb; the Valley of the Queens; the mortuary temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu; the Tombs of the Nobles at Dra Abu el-Naga, a complex which includes the tomb of Nebamun; and many, many more.

In the temple at Karnak resided the solar barque of Amun-Re (the two gods had been merged early in the 18th Dynasty). Normally he lived in the east, the land of the living, but once a year, during the Festival of the Valley, his barque would complete the solar cycle, crossing the Nile from east to west and then, when in the land of the dead, visiting the innermost chapels of the Deir el-Bahri temples to symbolize going underground before returning eastward for his rebirth at Karnak.

All of this symbolism draws clear ties between the west and the land of the dead; logically, Nebamun’s tomb is in the west. The garden depicted on the tomb walls is therefore a garden in the afterlife, not in the present life. But what do gardens have to do with the afterlife? Well, Egyptian conceptions of the afterlife saw it as like the present life: the land would be sowed and tilled; the people would eat, drink, and be merry. For a wealthy man like Nebamun, the ratio of rest to work would mirror that in life itself: the wealthy were buried with servant figurines who would do the manual labor for them; Nebamun himself would spend his time relaxing around the garden depicted on his tomb wall.

Turning the page to Islam, we see that the afterlife (at least for those who merit entry to paradise) appears as the opposite of the current life: where life is a time of labor, the afterlife is one of relaxation. The very word “paradise” (in Arabic firdaws) refers in Islam to the highest level of Heaven. Heaven is known as jannah – which directly translates to “garden”.

File:Alha Generalife1.jpg

The image above comes from the Patio de la Acequia, in the Generalife gardens adjacent to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This garden, as with others in the Islamic world, is a place for resting, not for walking. The other emphases of an Islamic garden are water and shade – two features that stand in stark contrast to Islam’s arid desert homeland. Together these features make the Islamic garden a representation of paradise on earth.

One of the most famous gardens in all of Islamic architecture is depicted below:

I’m sure all of my readers recognize the image above as the Taj Mahal. The elements of paradise-on-earth in the Taj Mahal garden are all there: water and greenery, places to relax and reflect. But the Taj Mahal takes the connection between garden and afterlife one level deeper:


On the left is an aerial view of the Taj Mahal grounds. The image on the right may be familiar to those of you who read my last post: it’s Ibn Arabi’s diagram of the Plain of Assembly on the Day of Resurrection, from the Futuhat al-Makiyya, which just keeps on popping up throughout my research. Do you see the resemblance between the two images? According to at least one scholar, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan designed the Taj Mahal grounds to resemble Ibn Arabi’s diagram, placing himself and his beloved consort Mumtaz Mahal at the foot of the throne of God on the Day of Resurrection. Such a connection is furthered by the Qur’anic inscription (from Sura 89) on the Taj Mahal’s gateway, the last thing a visitor reads before entering the gardens: “Oh thou soul at peace, Return thou unto thy Lord, well-pleased and well-pleasing unto him! Enter thou among My servants — and enter thou My paradise!”


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The Great Central Fair

Every month or two at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a new document display goes up in the lobby. Each display has a theme and contains HSP’s sources that relate to that topic. Currently, there is a WWI display  to commemorate the centennial of the start of the war. Next month, the display theme will be the Great Central Fair, also known as the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair. What is a Sanitary Fair, you ask? What made this fair so “great”?  Well, let me tell you.

A lithograph of the Great Central Fair. HSP owns two copies, and one will be shown in the display.

A lithograph of the Great Central Fair. HSP owns two copies, and one will be shown in the display.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission was a precursor to the Red Cross and was founded in 1861 to help support the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union army during the Civil War. Their main fundraisers were Sanitary Fairs, public fairs held in major cities that raised money for the soldiers. The fairs were held successfully in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Boston, before it was decided to hold one in Philadelphia in 1864. The buildings of the Fair were constructed in a mere 40 days in what is currently Logan Square. The Fair opened on June 7th, 1864, and closed three weeks later, on June 28th. The Fair included displays of art and historical relics and  vendors selling various items. 9,000 people attended per day, on average. In total, the Fair raised over $1,000,000, an incredible amount of money in 1864.

A pass check from the Great Central Fair. Found in United States Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch Collection, HSP.

A pass check from the Great Central Fair. Found in United States Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch Collection, HSP.

Over the last few weeks, another intern and I have been working on this display. We have looked through HSP’s collections on the Great Central Fair and have pulled items that are important and visually appealing. Looking through all this stuff from the Civil War era was exciting, and we never knew what we were going to find. One day, we found a blank invitation card from George and Martha Washington. We were not sure where it come from or why it was there. Later, we found a similar one in another collection, and it turns out that someone had donated the original plate, and copies were made and sold at the fair.

At the Fair, people paid $1 to vote for their favorite Union general. The general with the most votes received this sword.

At the Fair, people paid $1 to vote for their favorite Union general. The general with the most votes received this sword. Found in United States Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch Collection, HSP.

By far the biggest event of the Fair was the visit of Abraham Lincoln on June 16th. He came with his wife and son, made a speech, and donated 48 signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, which were sold for $10 each.  One of these copies currently resides at HSP, and will be part of the display.

In addition to selling signed copies of the Proclamation for $10, it seems that  a manuscript version was given away in a contest. Not much is known about this contest or what happened to the manuscript afterwards.

In addition to selling signed copies of the Proclamation for $10, it seems that a manuscript version was given away in a contest. Not much is known about this contest or what happened to the manuscript afterwards.

The display opens in mid-August, and HSP is located on the corner of 13th and Locust in Philadelphia. Come see it!

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Peanut Oil and The French Empire

Working to oil the gears of French North Africa to accept an Anglo-American invasion in late 1941, Robert Murphy was introduced to Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, an edible-oil-man himself. Lemaigre-Dubreuil, a business and newspaper owner, expressed to Murphy an interest in creating a provisional French government in Africa to aid the Allied forces. Murphy, unsure of the trustworthiness of the rightwing, business focused colonizer, expressed his concerns and Lemaigre-Dubreuil’s plan in a Memorandum for the State Department. (First page seen below).


One of Lemaigre-Dubreuil’s demands, or suggested ‘necessaries’ for the success of the Allies, was that the United States and Great Britain must “guarantee the complete restoration of all the French Empire to France after the termination of hostilities.” This was not a new idea for Robert Murphy or even the State Department, in fact, it is such a common theme throughout all of Murphy’s letters to State Department officials and vice versa that I can see the phrase “the French Empire must stay fully intact” with my eyes closed.

The vision that Lemaigre-Dubreuil expressed and Robert Murphy shared with his fellow diplomats is not short of irony for the French position during the war, or the American position in accordance with after the war. For Lemaigre-Dubreuil French North and West Africa had the potential to become the point of leadership for the Empire, which included in his eyes, Metropolitan France. This role would ironically make Algiers or Dakar more important political cities than Paris. For the Americans, who trumpeted self-determination and anti-colonialism under the banner of Trusteeship for former colonies, the assurance of a lasting French Empire after the “termination of hostilities” clearly backtracked from the Anglo-American Atlantic Charter which promised the right of self-determination, as well as a perceived American condemnation of European colonialism.


(Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil — In triplicate)

Despite any irony or h ypocrisy, the United States did promise full control of the former French Empire to whatever French government would succeed after the war. But history is not free from some confusion, in that Lemaigre-Dubreuil, painstakingly supportive of French empire, had a distinct change of heart in the 1950s. His support of Moroccan independence left him assassinated in 1955.

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