Brain Pickings

Author Archive

08 APRIL, 2011

Material World: A Portrait of the World’s Possessions

By:

What Japanese stuffed toys have to do with The Bible and child mortality in Mali.

We’re longtime fans of photojournalist Peter Menzel, whose visual anthropology captures the striking span of humanity’s socioeconomic and cultural spectrum. His Hungry Planet and What I Eat portrayed the world’s sustenance with remarkable graphic eloquence, and today we’re turning to some of his earliest work, doing the same for the world’s shelter: Material World: A Global Family Portrait — an engrossing visual time-capsule of life in 30 countries, captured by 16 of the world’s leading photographers.

In each of the 30 countries, Menzel found a statistically average family and photographed them outside their home, with all of their belongings. The result is an incredible cross-cultural quilt of possessions, from the utilitarian to the sentimental, revealing the faceted and varied ways in which we use “stuff” to make sense of the world and our place in it.

Freelancing in Somalia during their civil war and in Kuwait right after the first Bush War, I had some rather intense experiences that made life in the U.S. seem rather shallow and superfluous. Sitting in my office early one morning, listening to NPR, which is the way I like to start every day, I heard an amazing piece on the marketing of Madonna’s autobiographic book called SEX. The book was a sensation in the U.S. The radio report ended with Madonna singing, ‘I am living in a material world and I am just a material girl,’ or something close. I thought it was spot on. We live in an idiotic capitalist self-indulgent society where the sex life of a pop star is more important than impending starvation, land mines and child soldiers in Africa, or more interesting than the world’s biggest man-made natural disaster in oil fields of the Middle East.” ~ Peter Menzel

Mali: The Natomo Family

It's common for men in this West African country to have two wives, as 39-year-old Soumana Natomo does, which increases their progeny and in turn their chance to be supported in old age. Soumana now has eight children, and his wives, Pama Kondo (28) and Fatouma Niangani Toure (26), will likely have more. How many of these children will survive, though, is uncertain: Mali's infant mortality rate ranks among the ten highest in the world. Possessions not included in this photo: Another mortar and pestle for pounding grain, two wooden mattress platforms, 30 mango trees, and old radio batteries that the children use as toys.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com

China: The Wu Family

The nine members of this extended family live in a 3-bedroom, 600-sq-foot dwelling in rural Yunnan Province. They have no telephone and get news through two radios and the family's most prized possession, a television. In the future, they hope to get one with a 30-inch screen as well as a VCR, a refrigerator, and drugs to combat diseases in the carp they raise in their ponds. Not included in the photo are their 100 mandarin trees, vegetable patch, and three pigs.

Image copyright Leong Ka Tai

United States: The Skeen Family

Rick and Pattie Skeen's 1,600-sq-foot house lies on a cul-de-sac in Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Rick, 36, now splices cables for a phone company. Pattie, 34, teaches at a Christian academy. Photographers hoisted the family up in a cherry picker to fit in all their possessions, but still had to leave out a refrigerator-freezer, camcorder, woodworking tools, computer, glass butterfly collection, trampoline, fishing equipment, and the rifles Rick uses for deer hunting, among other things. Despite their possessions, nothing is as important to the Skeens as their Bible -- an interesting contrast between spiritual and material values.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com

India: The Yadev Family

25-year old Mashre Yadev had her first child when she was 17 and is now mother to a total of four. Every morning, she draws water from a well so that her older children can wash before school. She cooks over a wood fire in a windowless, six-by-nine-foot kitchen, and such labor-intensive domestic work keeps her busy from dawn to dusk. Her husband Bachau, 32, works roughly 56 hours a week, when he can find work. In rough times, family members have gone more than two weeks with little food. Everything they own -- including two beds, three bags of rice, a broken bicycle, and their most cherished belonging, a print of Hindu gods -- appears in this photograph.

Image copyright Peter Ginter

Japan: The Ukita Family

43-year-old Sayo Ukita had children relatively late in life, like many Japanese women. Her youngest daughter is now in kindergarten, not yet burdened by the pressures of exams and Saturday 'cram school' that face her nine-year-old sister. Sayo is supremely well-organized, which helps her manage the busy schedules of her children and maintain order in their 1,421-sq-foot Tokyo home stuffed with clothes, appliances, and an abundance of toys for both her daughters and dog. Despite having all the conveniences of modern life, the family's most cherished possessions are a ring and heirloom pottery. Their wish for the future: a larger house with more storage space.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com

Originally published in 1995, Material World was a massive undertaking that cost Menzel $600,000, which he scrapped together by refinancing his house, maxing out all his credit cards, and patchworking various small loans from friends — a feat in and of itself, and curious meta-evidence for the material world we live in, where even creating meaningful social commentary on materiality and excess has an excessive material cost of its own.

And for an excellent companion read, see Menzel’s 1998 follow-up, Women in the Material World — a fascinating look at an even more intimate aspect of the human family.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 APRIL, 2011

Ants Are Amazing: Count the Ways, Literally

By:

We’ve already seen that bees are amazing. Today, we’re looking at why ants are: NPR’s Robert Krulwich and Odd Todd, the same team who explained to us why we can’t walk straight, report on an ingenious new study, in which scientists devised a creative way to prove that ants actually count their steps.

For more on this absolutely incredible civilization, we highly recommend Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions — a fascinating and riveting journey by entomologist Mark Moffett, who’s been rightfully described as “the Indiana Jones of entomology.” From Nigeria’s ant armies to Australia’s silk-spinning ants to Brunei diver ants, Moffett’s enthusiasm for these extraordinary and diverse creatures jumps off the page and pulls you into a remarkable parallel universe of intelligence and creativity.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

07 APRIL, 2011

Skillshare: Decentralized Education for All

By:

A lot has been said about changing educational paradigms over the past year, but very little — if anything — has been done. According to our friends at Skillshare, whom you may recall as one of our favorite alternative education outposts for the lifelong learner and who just launched their online community, education isn’t something to pontificate about, write books on, or petition for; rather, it’s something to take into our own hands, a tool of decentralized empowerment rather than a hand-down at the mercy of centralized institutions. That’s precisely the sentiment captured in this beautifully animated video, which Skillshare microfunded on Kickstarter to mark the debut of the site:

Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” ~ Albert Einstein

The new Skillshare site is a portal for practical knowledge-sharing that offers a “marketplace to learn anything from anyone,” using the power of communities and networks to redefine our conception of education.

We believe that people care more about real-world skills than antiquated accreditation systems. Our communities are filled with these people who are great at what they do, whether it’s delivering a fantastic speech at a conference or baking a triple layer chocolate cake. Our vision is to unlock this knowledge and allow people to share their skills with those who want to learn them.”

We’re in. Are you?

We’ve got a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

07 APRIL, 2011

Metrocard Collages: 3 Phenomenal Artists

By:

What Oprah’s diet has to do with the Mona Lisa, Frida Kahlo and the art of meta.

The art of making whimsy out of the mundane is one of the highest manifestations of creativity. We’ve previously seen incredible artwork created out of paper, cardboard, money, spam, books, office supplies and even toilet paper rolls. Today, we turn to an even more narrow byproduct of mundanity: The iconic New York City Metrocard.

JUAN CARLOS PINTO

For the past 10 years, New-York-based Guatemalan artist Juan Carlos Pinto has been using discarded Metrocards to create vibrant mosaic portraits of cultural icons and local heroes alike. His artwork comments on issues of social justice and environmental conservation with a visual aesthetic that emanates the expressive lushness of the ancient Mayan folklore traditions of his homeland.

Frida Kahlo

Louis Armstrong

Zebra

Bruce Lee

METROCARDOODLES

If mosaic collages use the Metrocard as a pixel on a giant canvas-screen, then Metrocardoodles does the opposite, using the Metrocard itself as the canvas and superimposing on it playful doodles that comment on pop culture. From Obama to Oprah, these quirky creations are anything but high art, but we just can’t stop looking anyway.

Metrocardoodles are the work of illustrator, art director and animator Andrew Thomspon, whom we may or may not have met in a past life in Philly.

NINA BOESCH

Artist Nina Boesch doesn’t simply sample from a New York staple, she comments on New York staples with her work. From the Statue of Liberty to Conan O’Brien to the Metrocard itself, for an exercise in ultimate meta, her stunning Metrocard collages portray the Big Apple’s urban iconography, human and architectural, with a remarkable balance of simplicity and complexity.

And for the mandatory digital customization add-on, Boesch even has a microsite that lets you Metrocard yourself.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.