The cliche laps at my feet with every swell of the Caribbean ocean, begging to be acknowledged; it is eleven in the morning, and I have broken my year-long alcohol fast with a tropical umbrella adorned cocktail. It is undeniable—I am every bit the tourist, with my oversized sunglasses and undersized shorts, asking the staff of this beautiful establishment to adjust my beach chair in painfully broken Spanish.  All I am missing is an American twang and horrific tan-lines. Little do I know, paperback fluttering listlessly in my napping hand, that the latter is soon to follow.

I am in Santo Domingo, the largest city in the Dominican Republic, and the most highly populated in the Caribbean. It is recognized as the first established city in the Americas, with Christopher Columbus having arrived in 1492. The Spanish speaking Dominican Republic shares a land mass with French speaking Haiti, but from what I gather, they do not share much else.

My introduction to the two countries came by way of books. Penned by authors with an extraordinary ability to transport, transcend, and translate, reading their writing has almost always come with the feeling of the sun’s heat cascading across my skin, the faint smell of coconut permeating the sea salt tinged air. This happens when I read them in Brooklyn, on the plane, in Makati. I credit it to the magic of the islands.

Isabel Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sea” came first, an emotion-invoking tale of a slave in Saint Domingue (which I thought might be Santo Domingo, but turns out to be modern day Haiti), whose muddled relationship with her master sets the spine for a spell-binding story. Literally. Invoking spirits, the islanders burrow through the backbreaking torture of field work and meager conditions, preparing for the time to steal into the mountains and plot rebellion. It is a story of physical and emotional love, of primal instinct, colonialism, and courage. Shedding light on conditions of European colonies at the time, Allende’s writing lends as much empathy for the enslaved Haitian underdog, as it does the white-skinned land lord, balking under the heat and tropical disease, far from the comforts of libraries of leather-bound books, and political conversations over drinks. She is unapologetically honest in the portrayal of all her characters, and brings them to life in between paragraphs of scene-setting poetry.

But it is the little gem that is “This Is How You Lose Her”, courtesy of Junot Diaz, that truly sets the precedent for my Dominican experience. He unleashes a story that lends a voice to every face I pass on the street, from the ample bosomed mother carrying a basket on her head, to the clean shaven young man, his eyebrows so manicured they make me feel disheveled and unkempt in comparison. The story is contemporary, I identify with the nuances of the New Jersey immigrant, the first trip back to the motherland, the girlfriend on holiday, the overpriced drinks at a club sure to leave you with a headache should the tinny techno music not do it first.

I think about the Philippines and wonder whether there is cadence beyond say, Jessica Hagedorn’s “Dogeaters”, that the world might fall in step with when reading about our home. Something that draws our complicated history out through characters, rural and urban, that pokes fun at our Momma’s boys and raises questions about our young martyrs. Writing that forces important deliberation about where it is we are going, by dissecting the conundrum of where we currently are. May such novels come out of the woodwork and find their way onto the oiled laps of foreigners on our beaches, sipping through straws a multitude of colorful beverages made with cheap liquor. Authors that trigger an excitable understanding in a contemporary setting, piecing together “aha” moments—why some Filipino words sound Spanish, why so many of our countrymen speak English, why we cannot understand the concept of a queue, or are quick to offer apologies when solutions would be better. A book is a tool the Department of Tourism may be sleeping on. A book can magnetize, mesmerize, and convert a daydream into an online purchase of a long haul flight destined for NAIA.

Are there writers doing this that I am not privy to? Share a book with me. Or write one. Would you?

You may reach the columnist at curiosityfilledthehat@gmail.com / Twitter or Instagram: @sarah_meier


Originally published in the Manila Bulletin.

Let’s Get In/Formation by Sarah Meier

The politics of entertainment and the entertainment of politics

by Sarah Meier
March 14, 2016

Manila Bulletin Lifestyle | Arts and Culture

Beyonce’s thought-provoking performance at the Super Bowl 50 Half Time Show

Beyonce’s thought-provoking performance at the Super Bowl 50 Half Time Show

Seriously, you put your phone down for 45 minutes these days and somehow you’ve missed live footage of the solar eclipse, Kris Aquino bidding her home network farewell, and the deaths of David Bowie, Nancy Reagan, and two directors that traverse the same hallways you do on a regular basis.

In the amount of time I’ve been on hiatus from my beloved Manila Bulletin Lifestyle column, so much has transpired that I’m not entirely sure in what realm of culture I ought to begin fussing. In the spirit of camaraderie, I’ll do what often works best in these situations by sidling up to the watering hole, taking my cue from other fussers, and plunging into the depths of what is already underway—commenting on that which just about everyone has tickets to these days—the absolutely titillating show being staged at the intersection of the avenues called Entertainment and Politics.

Now, there are other pages in this broadsheet that will give you a much more credible and comprehensive understanding of the ins and outs of Super Tuesdays and Supreme Court rulings, and the links between show business, Donald Trump, FPJ,  and the presidency. The brand of politics we discuss here is less about government and falls more into the jurisdiction of, well, to be frank, the purveyors of the realms of pivotal cultural phenomena like Rush Hour 3 and Bootylicious, actually. *coughs*

No, really. Before you start walking away, think about it. We witnessed the rising of the stage as an actual political platform in more ways than one in the past weeks. Beyonce’s decision to debut her new single “Formation” live at the Super Bowl (annually declared America’s most watched television event), was no spontaneous affair. If you take a look at Bey’s career, the smattering of empowering messages in her lyrics are often nestled strategically in poppy beats and catchy hooks, and that seems to be her modus operandi: to make the statements sing-along-able and digestible for the masses while sneaking in a poignant message that speaks the coded language of discriminated classes.

But this most recent release was the most forward statement we’d ever seen of Beyonce. The video for “Formation” has all sorts of symbolism, from imagery reminiscent of crucifixion, to more literal reminders of the discrimination and injustice we watched unfold in places like Ferguson. Statements. The stuff the singer’s little sister Solange (of self-assertion infamy) has been more publicly known for.

While on the surface, Mrs. Carter-Knowles strutted out into the football game’s halftime show wearing an outfit that many immediately alluded to as an homage to Michael Jackson, the totality of her production spoke of an era of a different “king” altogether. The black berets and harnesses donned by Beyonce’s back up dancers are a direct reference to the Black Panthers, a militant group that deviated from Martin Luther King’s philosophy of peaceful activism during the civil rights movement. The entire song, as a matter of fact, is in itself a call to arms—the millionaire singer empowering and acting as a black female Pied Piper of sorts, calling her sisters to “get in formation.”

Under another jungle of trussing and spotlights, this time at the Oscars, Chris Rock peeled through countless teleprompter screens full of unapologetically direct references to racial inequality, and the Grammy’s saw Kendrick Lamar with a musical manifestation of struggles from the same vein.

"It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals.” -Emma Watson on gender equality at the UN

"It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals.” -Emma Watson on gender equality at the UN

Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham use their distinct comedic flair and consequent fandom to address patriarchy, and Emma Watson infamously held both her own and the audience with her plea for gender equality at the UN in 2014. What am I getting at?

Again, the stage. It’s a platform. And while the use of it as such crippled Nina Simone’s career many moons ago (she stopped getting booked for live shows when her songs became too political), it begs to be asked — why is Manny Pacquiao one of the only local celebrities using this physical platform to communicate his political (read: religious) platform? Well, unless you count Alma Moreno on Headstart that one time, but she was about as platform-less as they get.

Government wannabes aside, does it take an Americanized Lea Salonga and Giselle Tongi to be decidedly verbal about controversial topics? What courage! Are our other mainstream Filipino celebrities complacent, oblivious, afraid, or…not allowed?!

Rock the vote. It’s a term that the MTV generation ought to be familiar with. The pun, the jab, the true spirit of the phrase is to actually rock the boat. If our most followed people on television and social media continue to communicate that it is acceptable to sit pretty and look aimlessly out the window while our country is spiraling in so many ways, then we are losing a crucial opportunity to groom a new generation of action takers. Rock. That. Boat. And should that not be a saying of your age, I offer a plethora of memes to communicate this point, beginning with:

<If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.>

With a tip of the hat to Beyonce, I say; okay, Millennials, now let’s get in Formation.

Coz we slay.

Read the original post at http://www.mb.com.ph/lets-get-information/#vtFrblpdhSovCXB1.99

Lorenzo's Way by Sarah Meier

It is eight o’clock in the morning in Manila and the business types are sprinkled around the lobby of the Fairmont, newspapers yawning open to greet them and whatever their agenda for the day may to be. This isn’t my typical Thursday breakfast hangout, but Lorenzo Rudolf is in town to scope out the Art Fair across the street at The Link, and having just arrived fresh off his fifth successful execution of Art Stage Singapore, it was necessary to find a way to catch the founder and director before he hied off again.

Beard, breadth, black shirt, tinted glasses, and a Swiss accent that immediately makes me miss my father, Lorenzo comes in looking like a Hollywood director on holiday. The attendant asks if he wants his espresso macchiato this morning, and it becomes apparent that it is me, not he, that is the visitor here.

True to form, he tells me more about the Manila art scene in the first five minutes of our conversation than I know otherwise, and explains that it is this sort of overview of all the industries in South East Asia that helps him solidify his position and make good on his vision

ART PLAYGROUND | Lorenzo Rudolf says the art scene in Asia is vibrant and buzzing.

ART PLAYGROUND | Lorenzo Rudolf says the art scene in Asia is vibrant and buzzing.

“The first country I picked when I came to Asia to do something was China. That was 2007, and there, in Shanghai, we did probably the first big international contemporary art fair,” Lorenzo recounts. After realizing that it was not the easiest city to start something in, he had another epiphany. “I had certain knowledge, a knowledge that was quite interesting. Asia, still today, is totally fragmented into many, many national scenes, and you have a lot of people who know China perfectly, and then if you ask them what is in Korea…” He trails off and simulates a clueless shrug and stare. “I was maybe one of the very few who had an overview, who had an insight into many scenes without being too deep and, at that time, it was clear to me that I wanted to do something in Asia.”

But this was not the first time Lorenzo had been faced with the prospect of bringing a concept into a city; of educating, adapting, and translating. It is the stories of his days as director of Art Basel, which spanned from 1991 to 2000 that make me forget I’m holding my cup of tea, as I perch, listening intently on the edge of my seat.

He begins by painting a picture of the climate in those times, when he and the team knew that their next step had to be toward the United States. Art Basel was already solidified in Switzerland, but Lorenzo’s vision and advocacy to hone in on the social potential that could surround the contemporary art world pointed them in the direction of the Statue of Liberty. New York made the most sense, but the city was already “365 days an art fair and, at the time, New York would kill anything coming in because they wanted to keep the cake.” Los Angeles? “People from the West Coast travel to the East, but the other way? No.” They were also motivated to schedule the American staging of Art Basel in such a way that it didn’t cannibalize the original event in Europe, which meant they were looking at the winter months. “So you try to see, where does everybody go in winter time?” Ah. Florida.

But even then, there was the decision on where in Florida to set up shop. “Go to Palm Beach and you see all the old money of America. And then you go a bit South, and that was at the time when it was really beginning to change. Miami, it was clear that could not be the place. That’s Latin. Even if we need Latin America, the fair cannot be Latin.” Miami Beach? “It was not yet developed like it is today. It was really still somewhere in between a crack dealing place and God’s waiting room, but you already had the first beginning to invest. You saw the potential.” They had found their new home.

But the stars aligned for them as well, as momentum began to shift to Miami Beach. This was about the time that Gianni Versace came down, Lorenzo tells me, so it was not only art, but a crossover. “This was also the time MTV was discussing opening its studios in Miami Beach, so there was the music.” Then came the hotels, starting with the Delano. Soon after, the Rubells came to put up a hotel of their own, a couple who Lorenzo knew solely to be passionate collectors. They had inherited a large sum of money from a brother who had just passed from AIDS, and were exploring opportunities in Miami Beach. This brother was Steve Rubell, long time friend and business partner of Ian Schrager—together known best as the owners of iconic party pillar, Studio 54. This meant the entire scene from the New York heyday was now also flocking down to the sunnier state and, all of a sudden, the line they had been trying to straddle between serious high brow art and VIPs and partying, fizzled into a whisper. A limitless and electric new energy and attitude toward art was born. Soon they had “more private jets flying to Miami than to the Super Bowl,” and the rest is contemporary art history.

This, however, only clues us in to the beginning of what became a global phenomenon in the staging of art events. It was Lorenzo, in fact, that pioneered the idea of bringing sponsors on board to support the industry back in the dawn of the 1990s, a strategic move that would change the landscape of how society experienced the art world forever.

It is this brand of insight, experience, artillery, and prowess that Lorenzo Rudolf brings to Asia, and he seems thrilled to have the region as a playground to nurture the art scene in. I am enthralled, entranced, and have my sights set on next year’s Art Stage Singapore. The energy in Asia, he says, is what it was when things were brewing back in Basel, in Miami, in Frankfurt—whose epic book fair became his responsibility come 2001. Exciting, he says, and there’s a twinkle in his eye that makes me happy to be alive in this era, in this city, on this morning at the Fairmont.

As published in the Manila Bulletin on February 9, 2015