March 15, 2007
Exhibits from Ithakas Collection of Cruising Wall Art
By Douglas Bernon
Taking photos is one of the pleasant pastimes of cruising. We all want to chronicle our voyage and travels with images from our wanderings. Before Bernadette and I departed on our cruising adventures, back in 2000, a good friend of our’s, who is a professional photographer, gave us a bit of advice. He said to concentrate on one theme while we’re traveling from place to place. Then, seeking out that theme will give our photography a focus. He said that he concentrated on churches during his circumnavigation, and the resulting collection of his photography had a breadth that I admired. I thought about it, and decided it was a great idea. I decided to concentrate on wall art.
Since our last log, in which I included a few of my photos, a number of readers wrote in to say that they, too, are fans of wall art, and that they carry with them a small digital camera so that when their fancy is tickled, they’re ready to shoot. Whether in a car or walking somewhere, if there’s a particular sign that calls out to them, they can add it to their collection.
In response to their emails and requests we’ve put together a small collection of representative wall art from our cruise. These pictures were taken in different countries. Each photo is labeled with a short explanation. For this mini-exhibit, we’ve grouped them into eight categories. You an click on the picture that’s next to each category and that will take you to the photos in that group.
From the Sea
Because for six years we spent most of our time at islands and at towns along coastlines, it’s not surprising that we collected more wall art of fish and sea creatures than just about anything else. We’ve only included a few here, but they are among our favorites.
Like politicians everywhere, being seen as serious is part of the game, and frequently we came to islands in the San Blas Islands where a local Kuna saihla (the village chief) had been memorialized in some splendid portrait that hung in the local community meeting house, the Congresso. Invariably the image conveyed a feeling of strained gravitas. In many of the portraits we saw (and a number were clearly rendered by the same artist), the officials dressed formally and tended to resemble stereotypic1940s cinema mobsters.
Guys and Girls on Walls
We saw an awful lot of wall art that depicted a man or woman doing all sorts of things—frequently without their clothes on—and only occasionally did we find images of couples doing something together.
One artist in particular, his work unidentified by name, is now lost because the building on which he painted these tributes has been torn down. The images of Elvis, Frank, Sammy, Dean, Desi, Lucy, Fred and Ethel were all on an outside wall at a wonderful Cuban restaurant in Miami that has fallen victim to gentrification.
Mechanical Concerns and Supplies
Throughout the Third World there are incredibly creative and skilled tradesmen who can cobble anything together from bubble gum and chicken wire; their training is generally hands-on from fellow workers, and their abilities are second to none. However, often as not, they are not men who can read manuals or signs, and frequently the stores that supply them will attract their attention and business with practical ads—paintings on the wall—that indicate what’s available within.
Professional Medical Services
Not unlike the increasing onslaught of advertisements we see on television in the States for dental services, plastic surgery, and all manner of heaven-knows-what-else, entrepreneurial medical professionals in the Third World also want to attract people -- some who can read and some who can not. In fact there often was far greater charm and sincerity in the hand-painted signs for doctors’ offices and dental clinics than in the slick videos we are subjected to in the industrialized world.
Restaurants and Menus
While we loved eating anywhere the menu was painted on the wall, we discovered quickly that just because the menu indicates a certain fare, there is no reason to believe that the offering is current or accurate. We often found in backwater cafes that the walls were decorated by local artists with food paintings or with animals that may or may not have had anything to do with the restaurant at all.
Signs of Wisdom
Public art, especially when its purpose is not commercial, generally has a whimsy and emotional vitality that is refreshing on any street. Sometimes political signs and humorous, wishful thinking offer up the finest signs of all.