Archive for October, 2010

The Trove: Fanon Che Wilkins
October 20, 2010

The polymathic professor.

Since meeting the powerfully named Fanon Che Wilkins over a year ago while dancing Michael Jackson’s memory to the skies in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I have seen him only twice: ringing in the new year at the Harlem home of mutual friend, theHotness Grrrl and just last month as we enjoyed pristine September weather in the Prospect Heights garden of Le Gamin. Though I’ve kept up with the Kyoto-based scholar/lecturer/photographer/curator/DJ/hip-hop head/hardcore Lakers fan and his travel exploits via Facebook (snowboarding in Aspen, visiting his Pops in Belize, surfing in Costa Rica and Second Lining in NOLA) it was good to have an unhurried sit-down to catch up as the old folks say, “proper-like,” Over salmon crêpes and merguez omelets, we covered the gamut — the wisdom of our sages from August Wilson to the RZA, the merits of non-conformity and beauty of serendipity.

In fact, our having met in 2009 had a delightfully serendipitous consequence. Fanon, strapped with a long-lensed Canon shot the MJ park celebration and posted the pics to Facebook where his mom, Akiba Kiiesmira saw them and recognized me. She, an incredible textile artist and designer whose work I’d used in the pages of Essence, and I had been friends in the nineties but we’d lost touch.

During the final year of the sixties, twenty-year-old Akiba (then MaryAnn) gave birth to her first child in Los Angeles.  She and her partner, Ron Wilkins, poised for revolution, named their manchild after revolutionaries Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. A member of the Slauson Village gang in the 1950’s, Ron was at the center of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “a politicizing moment for him.”  Akiba was reading voraciously: “dialectical historical materialism and Marxist theory.” Both were members of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.) Organizing was the young family’s lifeblood.  When Fanon was six-months-old, Akiba ventured to Cuba for a month to join the Venceremos Brigade, cutting sugar cane and showing solidarity with the Cuban Revolution while “Pops held it down” in Cali.

By the time he was two-years-old, Fanon’s folks amicably parted ways, sharing custody. He bounced between parents and cities. His mom relocated to Atlanta to work in a shirt collar factory with the goal of  “organizing the workers at the point of production.” They lived in a collective house and Fanon attended the independent liberation school, Learning House, where the children pledged before each meal, fists proudly raised, “I will eat all my food to grow big and strong to work in the struggle for African people.” At some point during the early years a decision was made that Fanon would alternate years with each parent.

He returned to Los Angeles and a father who was serious about working outside “the system.” For a kid, “no Disneyland, no Christmas, no frivolity,” was a drag, but his grandmother and aunt “brought balance. They made sure I had a rib,” he smiles. “That was their resistance.  In a lay-down-the-law move, G-ma had him photographed with St. Nick and hung it on the wall. “He was a big, pink-white Santa…the penultimate, and I’m sitting on his lap.” He speaks lovingly of her clear-headedness, “she wouldn’t fly,” her refusal not from fear but rather practicality; she’d witnessed many pilots tippling the cocktails. “I see the world from the ground up. I ain’t no fool,” she’d say.

The journey from South Central to the halls of academia has been an interesting one. Six-year-old Fanon was stymied by stage fright when his Dad took him to audition for the Jackson Five Variety Show in 1975. As they exited the studio set, teen idol Michael consoled him by getting down on one knee, wiping the tears from his eyes and offering some words of encouragement.  “A beautiful brother,” he fondly recalls.

In esteemed company: with the future “King of Pop” and the good doctor “Brother West.”

Amid “radicals, pimps, drug dealers and scholars,” he had an “irreverent, sacred and secular upbringing.” He was “partially raised by Richard Pryor,” he says. This resonates in his endeavors now, from his academic pursuits to his lush photographs.  “To do what Romare Bearden did, what August Wilson did. In an unalloyed way, to see the beauty of the real. Its tragic, sacred and profane beauty.”

Though he’d been introduced to photography through his dad, he didn’t realize that “you could go to school to get a BFA.”  The cerebral high school athlete (basketball and football) became a Morehouse man, returning to Atlanta to embark upon what would become an accomplished career in the study of history (with a concentration in African American Studies.) The summers of his early twenties were spent hosting and bonding with his younger (by ten years) brother Kamari. Graduate school would take him to the eponymous university in Syracuse, NY, where he would live for nine years–the longest he’s ever lived in one place. He did, however, take a year off to travel to Cuba and Southern Africa, spending much of it in Zimbabwe. In one of the many providential experiences of his life, he met author/scholar Robin D.G. Kelley and set his sights on a doctorate, exploring (at NYU with Kelley as his adviser) the global liberation struggles of oppressed and marginalized people –particularly in African nations– and their profound impact on the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the US.

Fit and fabulous: the gorgeous, ageless Akiba and her sons, Fanon and fitness trainer Kamari.

Upon his return from the continent, he committed to being “a real black man…settle down, raise a family.”  He married fellow academician, Assata and in 1997 they became the parents of a daughter, the creative, oboe-playing Coltrane.  In 1999, joyful, “extremely laid-back” son Irie followed. Though the couple divorced, just as his own parents were “totally cool, not together, but fully functional,” Fanon and his former wife lived near each other, peaceably co-parenting in Champaign where they both were graduate professors at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Fanon met Lashanda, who has since relocated to Japan with him where he was offered an Associate Professorship in African American History and Culture at the Graduate School of American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Used to a very hands-on relationship with his children, Fanon has felt anxiety over his newly peripatetic fatherhood, but given his own childhood, he realizes too what a broadening experience it can be for the children to spend the school year in Champaign and summers in Kyoto. He of course, visits the children stateside a few times a year and maximizes every moment.  Though he definitely gets his travel on, when in Kyoto he lives “a simple life. No frills. I don’t have a car. I ride my bike or take public transportation.”

Fanon invites us to “see what eye see” on his photo blog— the beautiful Lashanda, his kids in flight and glimpses of life in Japan.

He recently co-edited From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution, a 2009 collection of scholarly essays on black internationalism and contributed the fifth chapter, “A Line of Steel: The Organization of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969-1974,” to the just released The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism edited by Dan Berger.

Recent publications.

In spite of the rarefied worlds he’s found himself in, Fanon remains incredibly grounded and grateful. His Mama, Daddy, village raised him up right. He’s an intellectual who’ll drop the knowledge without pedantry, a cat you can kick back and have a brew with. Of academia, he says, “I’m with people who posture all the time. I’m trying to live as authentically as possible. Life happens in the blur, the grey areas. I can’t front.” So from this authentic life enthusiast, a few things he enjoys in the blur…

1. Fragrance Oils. He hasn’t worn cologne since high school. “It’s all oils.” He got hooked after he was given and advised to sell a “hefty supply of Somali Rose and Arabian Sandalwood to make some money for books and supplies.”  The “terrible businessman,”  got a little too hooked, breaking one of the “Ten Crack Commandments and ‘got high on my own supply’ by keeping it all to myself and wearing it on a daily. I have come to fashion myself a connoisseur of fine oils.”

“Uncut and as pure as they come,” a quartet in his fragrance cache. “Gold Dust is sick and I can generally rock any Musk, especially when it’s hot and my skin is moist.”

2. Deejaying. “I live for music and have been deejaying for a while out of necessity. I’ve lived in more than my share of backwater towns and have had to resurrect the good old house party just to keep my sanity. I have done a few clubs in my day, but I mostly get down for fun and push my friends to throw parties and hire me.”

“My music equipment and untouched clutter. I figured I had to be a real DJ and keep it all the way real.”

3. Shirley the Surly. “I ride every single day. Big Shirley takes me all over the streets of Kyoto. She’s a simple fixed-gear Surly Steamroller that has never failed me — aside from a flat or two or three.  Everybody should own a bike and ride it.  Bike lanes need to be mandatory.”

Big Shirley keeps him fit, saves money and is eco-friendly.

4. 35-pound Kettlebell. “It’s the most important piece of exercise equipment I own. I love to go hard and keep it simple and safe.”

“Join the revolution and buy one,” Fanon enthuses.

5. Sneakers. “Like the great philosopher Nasir Jones, ‘I’ma addict for sneakers.’ I truly believe that Hip-Hop’s greatest contribution to civilized behavior was making sneakers high fashion because I prefer a nice pair of tennis (a nod to the Left Coast vernacular) over just about anything that goes on my feet.”


“I copped these [Puma] joints in Kyoto about a year ago, but recently pulled them out and I think they look better than when I bought them.”

6. Leica Digi-Lux 2. “I am a camera gear fanatic. I love photography. I lust and salivate for the tools of the trade. This Digi-Lux is my first ever purchase on Ebay and I am having a blast with it. One day I will own an M9, but for now I am getting my Leica on with this trusty little throwback that was made way back in 2004.  In digital camera years that’s like 20 years ago.”

“You just can’t front on the seamlessness of Leica design — sleek, simple and uncluttered.”

7. Blendtec Blender. “I pretty much make a smoothie of some sort every single day. When I was in search of a trusty blender, it was between the Blendtec and VitaMix.” The Blendtec won him over. Three years in, he hasn’t been disappointed.

Even though he ordered the black model but received the white, “he got over it and made a smoothie.”

8. Skype. “People often ask me how difficult it is to live abroad. ‘Don’t you miss your family and friends?’ they always ask. Yes and no, thanks to a wonderful invention called Skype. I got put up on it when I was in Brazil in 2006 and it has made my life abroad a cinch.”

Modern technology: Coltrane and Irie can pick up their home phone, dial their Dad’s “Skype in” number and it rings on his computer 6000+ miles away.

9. Eyeglasses. He’s worn them since his sophomore year of college. “I jokingly tried my buddy Arshad’s on and damn near lost my mind because I discovered that blurred chalkboards were not actually blurry at all. I used the first credit card I ever got — a Sears jammy — and bought my first pair of eyeglasses.”

“Simple, elegant, timeless and nerdy as f***, but in a hip way, he says of his artisanal frames from French eyewear company, Vue dc.”

10. Snowboarding. He’s been surfing the slopes for about eight years (Nagano, Aspen, Whistler, Tahoe.) “When it comes to something I live for I don’t think anything tops the list more these days than snowboarding. Ride a snowboard, you will live longer,” he opines.

“When the mountains are steep and the snow gets deep,” he uses his (left) Tanker 200 by Rad-Air—a long board only built for Cuban Linx.  His “go-to board for all-around conditions” is the Prior All Mountain Freestyle with hybrid rocker. “I had the pleasure and honor of visiting the Prior plant and taking a tour of the factory in Whistler, BC.” The gear geek admits the tour got a “rise” out of him.

*Excepting Blendtec and Skype, all photos of Trove items courtesy of Fanon Che Photography.

Ink Plots at SVA
October 14, 2010

This evening, from 5:30 – 7pm, The School of Visual Arts hosts a reception for the exhibition, Ink Plots: The Tradition of the Graphic Novel at the Visual Arts Gallery 601 West 26 Street, 15th floor, New York City.  Among the many SVA alumni included in the show is my friend, N Steven Harris, creator of the Brotherhood of the Fringe, and subject of a previous pendulum post . If you can, roll through, Steven is quite talented as are his peers.

The Trove: Aashumi Shah
October 7, 2010

Aashumi, at home.

On a blazing early summer Saturday I, in my infinite wisdom set up temporary shop at Silver Spring, Maryland’s answer to Brooklyn Flea, the Fenton Street Market, without benefit of a tent.  In this “babies and fools” moment I had the good fortune to be placed next to Aashumi Shah. I was selling vintage goods, she her wonderful, whimsical, eco-friendly line of handmade kids toys, pillows, gifts and accessories, mirasa design. Though I initially enjoyed the caress of sunshine, when Helios’ kisses became a little too intense, Aashumi kindly allowed me to sit in the shade of her beautiful, canopied booth. In vendor camaraderie we chatted and soon discovered we share an alma mater.

Aashumi (“Tears of Joy”) was born the youngest of three daughters to Anju and Kishor Shah and raised in the bustling city of Bombay (now Mumbai.)  She attended J.B. Petit High School for Girls, where Principal Shirin Darasha “encouraged independent thinking and empowered us to dream high. Our school badge and slogan is ‘Ever Forward’ which I think is beautiful and powerful,” she says.

The Shah girls, Aashumi, Manasi and Shivali.

Upon graduation, the honors student planned to take the exams for Law School in South India. “I love analyzing,” she says.  In an ironic twist, her older sister, who’d planned to become a fashion designer, didn’t make it into art school and is now an attorney while Aashumi shifted to art–she had been, after all “very industrious,” creating handmade cards since childhood.

She settled on Sophia Polytechnic, though she was not very happy there. “I felt the grading system for art and design made no sense; not enough creative space to grow and be different.”  Nonetheless, she met the first of two important mentors with whom she remains friends and sees whenever she returns to India. Professor Snober Mistry of the textile design department, introduced her to woven design. “She understood me and encouraged me through my textile specialization.”

The second mentor was entrepreneur Neeru Nanda, for whom she began working at 19 as she neared the end of art school. “I did design, product development and managed production for lifestyle products such as placemats and pillows. It was a great learning experience and I loved working with Neeru. She understood my need to grow and spread out into the world. I wanted to be independent in every aspect of the word. I wanted to live on my own, pay my own bills, make my own decisions…I love my family and so it wasn’t about running away from home. It was just me and I had to live it, express it and prove it to myself, that I can.”

In 2002, with family living in New York City, her parents were comfortable with allowing their youngest to pursue her artistic passions in the United States.  She spent a month studying graphic design at Parsons, “just to make sure,” before majoring in textile and surface design with a concentration in woven design at F.I.T.  Admittedly her U.S. college years were “very spoiled,” as she lived with her mother’s brother Nitin, his wife Sunanda and cousin Bijal (a Master’s candidate at Columbia) in a spacious 5-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. “I am so grateful,” she says of that time.  Though being welcomed into their warm and loving family “made my transition to a new city, culture and country very comfortable,” she immersed herself in school and spent much of her time on campus. “I totally loved it,” she says.

A year later, she would meet her dearest and most influential friend at her cousin’s birthday bash.  Bijal’s good friend Paresh drove up from Washington, DC with his buddy, attorney Carlos Vanegas in tow to attend the festivities. Carlos, spilling wine on the white carpet, could be said to have left an impression. Though he was terribly embarrassed, it was a “cordial party atmosphere,” Aashumi recalls and all was forgiven. It would be six months until  Carlos and Aashumi’s paths would cross again in Washington, DC, where he lived and worked as a Public Defender and she and Bijal were visiting Paresh.  When Aashumi mentioned that she’d like to go running, Carlos offered to take her and she was taken by the “amazing music,” he had playing in his car.  Upon her return, she shared with her cousin that she felt “a real connection,” to Carlos. On her November 18 birthday just weeks later, she received a Fed-Ex package at her NYC home filled with glorious music. Carlos had sent sixteen compact discs: Poncho Sanchez, Alpha Blondy, pre-Wailers Bob Marley, Carmen Sings Monk, Cachao’s Master Sessions 1 & 2 and an Afro-jazz mix that he’d compiled among the birthday booty.  She was elated and the two became the best of friends, speaking daily across the miles.

Los and Shumi.

Graduating Summa Cum Laude from FIT in 2004, Aashumi took an invaluable post at Britannica Home Fashions, doing design and product development. She was responsible for production artworks and followed up with the overseas factories for product eventually sold at retailers such as Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, JCPenney and Fortunoff. She’d secured the career, so it was time to “make it on her own.” She moved from the comfy family digs to an affordable apartment in Queens.

On a March day in 2008, she asked Carlos, visiting from DC and with whom she’d had general conversations about marriage, if he wanted to marry her.  He said yes.  She cried.  Months later whilst enjoying celebrated chef José Andrés’ DC mezze hotspot, Zaytinya on July 4th, youthful-looking Aashumi hadn’t brought her identification so she was refused alcohol. “Los got up to go to the restroom. Then there was a random tall glass of lemon fizz in front of me. He suddenly appeared with a ring and proposed.”

The year 2009 brought exciting change; the two married in a traditional Jain ceremony in Mumbai; she moved to DC and she launched mirasa.  Of her supportive husband, Aashumi says, “he has no expectations of me other than to do what I feel passionate about.”

Above Aashumi’s desk, she and Carlos radiant in brilliant color at their wedding alongside a long-ago black and white portrait of her beautiful parents.

As a gift for Atia, Bijal’s one-year-old daughter, Aashumi created some “soft toys with tactile elements to stimulate Atia’s sense of imagination and play. The toys were bundled into a cloth bag that Atia could easily carry around with her.” After having toiled long and hard for Britannica, Aashumi decided to put her experience and energies into her own product line inspired by Atia’s gifts and named mirasa–Hindi for “heritage”–in homage to hers. Incorporating the colors of the Indian landscape with kantha and ari style embroidery, she honors the traditions of  the sub-continent and creates gender-neutral items uninfluenced by western notions of pink and blue.  A socially responsible venture,  mirasa design utilizes fair trade practices, employing artisans in Mumbai to hand craft Aashumi’s designs in eco-friendly, azo-free, dyed cotton.  In a gesture of “giving back what I was so lucky to receive,” a portion of the company’s proceeds are donated to Room to Read, a non-profit dedicated to creating educational opportunities and encouraging literacy among girls in the developing world.

The wonderful world of mirasa design. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography.  “Like” mirasa design on Facebook.

The mirasa animal kingdom, now on tiny onesies. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography.

“Designing for kids is fun, freeing,” she says. Though her entrepreneurial foray has its challenges, she enjoys nurturing her young business.  “It’s like a baby.”  The delightful products are available online, but she garners most of her sales while vending at markets and art fairs, which provides valuable and deeply satisfying feedback. “What brings me the most joy is when a child attaches to a particular animal.” I’ve borne witness to and been as charmed as Aashumi by the decisive selection process of the wee ones.  The choices are definitive–and enchanted.

As we had coffee in her lovely Columbia Heights home, her absolute enchantment with her Ecuadorian-American husband was evident.  “Is it okay if I put Carlos on the list? I know he is a person, not a thing, but he influences me a lot.  He is a big part of who I am.”  When I complimented her on their home she said, “it’s Carlos,” his visual sensibilities aligned with hers, “he’s aesthetically-driven.”  True to the shy aspect of their shared astrological sign of Scorpio, they aren’t horn tooters but they are each fervent in their passions.  Here are a few of hers…

1. Hand-thrown Coffee Cup. She enjoys her morning joe in a ceramic mug bought from Contemporary Arts and Crafts in Mumbai.  From age six to twenty-three she lived near the emporium of “real treasures of handmade product” and brought her beloved cup with her when she moved to the United States. “It’s a very easy, very pleasing shape to hold; a wonderful color to wake up to. I love the contrast of the matte dragonfly and the glaze and I love the imperfection of the inside.”

The perfect cup.

2. Her Bike. The first bike she’s owned, it is “really empowering. It meant a lot. I’d worked really hard and used my bonus money to buy it.”  She enjoys its smooth, comfortable ride.  “Riding is addictive.” She squeezes in a 20-mile ride through Rock Creek Park whenever she can.  “It’s the best way of escaping.” 

“The best thing in the world after Carlos,” her Giant OCR model .

3. Mauritian Coconut Handbag. On a family trip to celebrate her father’s 60th birthday on the island of Mauritius, Aashumi’s parents wanted to gift her with a memento.  A handbag in the airport there caught her eye. “I love that it is a coconut, the yellow cross stitching and that it’s leather-free.”

Aashumi eschews leather goods, so the coco-purse is an animal-friendly option.

4. Carlos’ Pesto. “It is the best thing he can make — and he’s a very good cook.” But it’s the lack of cooking that makes for an easy Sunday quick mix. “No flame required, he can mix it up, watch the game, have his Guinness and make me happy all at the same time. He always has it ready for me after the market, little sandwiches he makes with love.”

Carlos enjoys making pesto. “I think he enjoys the smells of it,” she says.

5. Swatch Skin. I love that it is so clean in its design, and it’s thin.”

From the Swatch Skin Collection, Ligne de Vie, Aashumi’s favorite watch.

6. Monsoon Vermont. Carlos’ friend Julia Genatossio founded this company which produces home and fashion accessories of non-recyclable plastics in Jakarta. Aashumi uses her Monsoon Vermont passport wallet every weekend to hold her monies at market. “I think it’s incredibly fun.”

She owns several of the colorful, eco-friendly offerings from the socially responsible Monsoon Vermont.

7. FabIndia Soap. She’s formed a real attachment to these natural soaps and the refreshing ritual of bathing with them.  They scent her home with fragrance and transport her (particularly the Jasmine bar) “to the smells of India,” where children sell garlands of jasmine blossoms strung together at nearly every traffic stop. “My skin feels really soft and smooth.”  She snaps up several bars (in various fragrances) every time she goes to India.

Her favorites among the many available FabIndia scents are tucked in ceramic bowl made by her Aunt Sunanda.

8. Yoga.  Practicing Vinyasa mostly,  “it is a recent obsession,” fostered by the “great teachers” of the studio Past Tense, just blocks from her home. She volunteers as a studio assistant three days a week and incorporates practice four times a week.

Aashumi joins fellow yoga devotees in an outdoor Past Tense class in Lamont Park.  Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography for Past Tense Studio.  

9. Frida Kahlo. During a trip to Mexico City, Aashumi visited Museo Frida Kahlo, the house where the revered artist was born and died. She was stunned by the number of people who spoke of her resemblance to the icon. “Frida was so inspirational, so dynamic, so talented, such a woman…and of course, her work is amazing.  It is such a clear expression of what she’s feeling and who she is.  To express with such honesty takes a lot of courage.”

A gift from Carlos, Aashumi treasures the published diary of the iconic Mexican artist.

10. Music. “Carlos is so passionate about music, he opened a window to a world:  jazz, reggae, bossa nova, Fela Kuti…They all came alive for me through him.” From tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Lincoln Center and Mexican-American conguero Poncho Sanchez at the Blue Note in New York to Brazilian singer Gal Costa at George Washington University in DC, Carlos has gifted Aashumi with the wonder of live performance.

Gal Costa lent her voice to this charming animated commercial for Brazilian skin care line, Natura.