Brain Pickings

A Design Ethnography of South African Barbershops & Salons

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What the history of Apartheid has to do with signage design and communal storytelling.

In his fantastic 2009 TED Talk, Steven Johnson explores how the English coffeehouse of the Enlightenment was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years. This tendency for physical places to transcend their mere utilitarian function and serve as hubs of (sub)cultural development is evident throughout history, from the cave fire pit that sparked the dawn of communal storytelling to today’s coworking spaces that offer fertile ground for innovation through collaboration.

In South African Township Barbershops & Salons, photographer Simon Weller explores the peculiar cultural and social hubs of South African townships, salons and barbershop, which too transcend their mere function as places to get your hair cut and serve as pivotal places for the local community to gather, gossip and exchange ideas. Weller contextualizes the rich and vibrant photographs of the shops and portraits of their patrons with fascinating essays that expound on the aesthetics of these hubs and their signage though interviews with the owners, customers and sign designers.

In many was, South African Township Barbershops & Salons is both a parallel and opposite of last month’s Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, the vernacular design of the barbershops’ signage standing in stark contrast to the overdesigned vintage type of New York’s storefronts and yet just as evocative of its community’s spirit, the social norms and function of its physical place, and the cultural traditions of its location.

Out of — of courseMark Batty, my favorite indie publisher.

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A Rare Look at Japan: Hand-Colored Images from the 1920s

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What Geisha parlors have to do with arranged marriages, Buddhist priests and earthquake recovery.

It’s been an incredibly trying year for Japan. Tragedy has brought a proud nation to its knees, making it difficult — yet all the more essential — to remember this ancient culture’s history of beauty and dignity. These remarkable hand-colored images from the early 20th century, unearthed from Oregon State University’s public domain archive, offer a rare look at Japan’s rich cultural legacy. From Tokyo city life to countryside landscapes to worship to play, the images — with descriptions from the verbosely titled 1923 educational book Japan at First Hand, Her Islands, Their People, the Picturesque, the Real, with Latest Facts and Figures on their War-Time Trade Expansion and Commercial Outreach, in which they originally appeared — emante Japan’s timeless pride and breathtaking beauty sleeping beneath the rubble of the recent devastation, awaiting awakening.

Learning To Write

'No such national furore for education has ever been seen elsewhere as that which has gripped the mind of Japan. Japan proper had a population of 59,138,900 as reported October 1, 1924. At the same time her school enrollment from kindergarten through the university was given as 8,221,615. Over a million and a quarter complete the elementary school work each year. There are sixteen colleges and universities, five being imperial universities. The largest of these -- Tokyo Imperial University-- had a student body of 5,283 and 414 faculty members in the autumn of 1924.'

The Barrel Maker

'This is one of the important trades of Japan. The average wage of coopers is only about fifty cents a day.'

Fujiyama from Omiya Village

Geisha Giving Entertainment

'The geisha houses, rather humble, certainly unpretentious abodes, group themselves in certain quarters, and the hiring of the girls is done methodically through a central office. The hiring should be accomplished by the restaurant keeper or by the housewife as early in the afternoon as possible, but not after six in the evening, unless absolutely unavoidable. For the preparation of the Geisha is an elaborate affair from the wonderful coiling and adorning of her hair to the fit of her white, heelless shoes. They are taken in rickishas (sic) to the house of entertainment and carried home in the same way when all is over.'

Danjuro

'Danjuro the greatest actor, the Irving of Japan, in his famous role of Kangoneho.'

Geisha Girl Playing the Samisen

'The geisha or singing girl to the Western mind fills out the romantic ideal of modern Japan. To the native she is simply a sublimated waitress with dancing and singing trimmings, but she is also a chosen vehicle of Japanese romance. Visions of her dressed in showy silken robes waving a large fan, her black hair marvelously coifed, a fixed smile on her face and moving in rhythmic steps with a special flowing elegance of gesture, rise before those who have seen her at her high functions. Ever to the accompaniment of the tinkling strings of the of the samisen and the full beat of the tsuzumi that picture comes back to the foreigner as the flower of his reminiscence of Japan.'

Tokyo

'Tokyo, the capital of the Empire is one of the foremost cities of the Orient. In spite of the terrible destruction wrought by the earthquake of September 1, 1923, Tokyo will soon be a greater city than before the earthquake. Tokyo city proper under census of August, 1925, had a population of 2,036,136. Including suburbs -- that is, Greater Tokyo -- the people numbered 3,859,674.'

Bridge of Iwakuni

Buddhist Priest

'When the Buddha priest of Japan seats himself among his congregation to preach, he wears the simplest of robes, a white or sober-hued cassock, but when he opens the sutra or recites the litany, his vestments are of brocade that would serve worthily to drape a throne. Buddhist priests live on contributions of their parishioners and on the income of their lands, now greatly reduced.'

Graves of Forty-Seven Ronins

'The 47 Ronins committed suicide to escape death by the executioner and in death have become popular heroes.'

Winter Costume

'The costume of women in winter is mostly of silk, coarse or fine according to the means of the wearer. The shoes are raised on pieces of wood, like stilts, about three inches above the ground.'

A Village Waterwheel

Japanese Woman

'The woman is taught from girlhood to be modest, retiring and obedient as daughter and wife, and as a rule she is almost certain to avoid spinsterhood, so well-planned is the marriage machinery in Japan. Courtship is unknown as we know it. The bringing about of marriages regularly the work of a private go-between, who brings the young people together after the parents on both sides, with additional precautionary inquisitorial go-between, have agreed to a proposed match.'

A Geisha House

'A Geisha House is not generally a large establishment-- six or seven to a dozen Geisha's and half as many musumes make it up. The mother or keeper is generally an old geisha, often a once celebrated dancer and entertainer, as one may guess fro the many middle-aged or aging men who will sit down beside her and swap stories with her about merry old times of other days.'

For more Japan love, don’t forget the lovely 2:46: Aftershocks “quakebook” project — a Twitter-sourced anthology of art and essays by and for Japan, benefiting earthquake and tsunami relief.

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BBC’s The Human Animal

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What offensive Italian hand-gestures have to do with beauty and the evolution of sexuality.

In 1994, BBC and Discovery Channel reached out to British zoologist, ethologist and popular anthropologist Desmond Morris for an ambitious and unusual endeavor: To illuminate human behavior from a zoological perspective — because we are, after all, just another animal species. The result was The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species, a fascinating series later adapted as a book entitled The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal.

More than the mere fascination of finding out about our deep pre-wiring, I find the documentary particularly timely in a cultural moment where we’re constantly caught up in some sort of media-perpetuated otherness, making it ever-easier to see those of other cultures, faiths, political beliefs or sexual orientation as so distinctly different from us that we forget our shared humanity.

Everywhere I go, I’m struck by how similar human beings are to one another in all important respects. Of course, there are many superficial differences and these are often so impressive that we pay too much attention to them and start treating one another as if we belong to different species — with disastrous results. But despite all our variations in costume, ritual and belief, biologically we’re all astonishingly close to one another — a fact that I find very reassuring.” ~ Desmond Morris

The documentary is now available on Google Video in six parts, each examining a different biological component of our beliefs, behaviors and ways of being — a timeless and timely reminder that we share far more than we think.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY

The series begins with The Language of the Body — a fascinating look at how mankind communicated before the evolution of language. From gestures and expressions are so deeply ingrained in our collective memory that they appear to be universal to the curious, confusing and often comically misinterpreted cross-cultural difference of insult gestures, the segment explores the rich vocabulary of body language, both universal and regional.

Most regional body language has a long and complicated history, with the origins often forgotten. One of the special qualities of regional gestures is that they’re amazingly conservative — they remain confined to their own particular area, regardless of the fact that all around them national boundaries keep changing. As a result of this, within a particular country today, you can find what we call a ‘gesture frontier’ — a place where one gesture stops and another one begins.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUNTING APE

The second episode, The Hunting Ape, looks at our most fundamental activity — the quest for food — exploring how our origins as hunter-gatherers permeate every aspect of our modern lives, from fast-food culture to dating.

Viewed as a pattern of human feeding behavior, a trip to the supermarket is the remarkable endpoint of a long journey through evolutionary time, a journey that started in the primeval forest and at the checkout counter. To me, it’s a story of an arboreal ape, which became a ground-dwelling predator, which in turn became a credit card customer.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE HUMAN ZOO

Part three, The Human Zoo, examines how we managed to go from mud to skyscraper in what’s no more than a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. From the subtleties of human hierarchy in an English pub to the tribal behavior displayed by gangs in Los Angeles, the segment looks at the complex sociology of our species and how it shaped our civilization. It’s also fascinating to see, in 1994, one of the earliest time-lapse simulations of land change as Morris explores the construction of human cities over time.

Some people call the city a ‘concrete jungle’ — but jungles aren’t like that. Animals in jungles aren’t overcrowded. And overcrowding is the central problem of modern city life. If you want to look for crowded animals, you have to look in the zoo. And then it occurred to me: The city is not a concrete jungle — it’s a human zoo.” ~ Desmond Morris

THE BIOLOGY OF LOVE

Episode four, The Biology of Love, explores the profound impact standing upright had on our sexuality and how this simple anatomic fact affect all our lives today. Morris analyzes how patterns of behaviour and signals of health and fertility evolved to ensure pair-bonding and genetic survival, ultimately underpinning many of our romantic quests and decisions. From the stages of courtship to the aesthetics of physical beauty, the segment looks at the very foundations of our sexual behavior.

The more we understand, the more fascinating the subject becomes. But how did it all begin — how did boy meet girl?” ~ Desmond Morris

THE IMMORTAL GENES

Part five, The Immortal Genes, explores the biological basis for parental love.

Our species has the heaviest parental burden of any animal on earth. Why are we so selfless when dealing with our children?” ~ Desmond Morris

BEYOND SURVIVAL

The final part of the series, Beyond Survival, addresses the question we’ve all been asking ourselves since the very first rub with the program’s premise: Are we really merely another animal? And, if so, why do we have things like art, music, literature and philosophy? Morris concludes by exploring the deepest humanness of humans — what we do and who we become once we have our basic needs for food and shelter met. The episode explores concepts like creativity, artistic progression, play and symbolic thinking.

The human animal is not satisfied with mere survival. Our greatest rewards are obtained when we go beyond survival.” ~ Desmond Morris

The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal is one of the most extraordinary books on being human that you’ll ever read, a rare and thought-provoking look at the tender and complex creature behind the socially constructed facade.

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