I love it when boundaries are blurred, worlds bleed into each other, stereotypes are shattered. This is life, as it should be - vibrant, dynamic, curious, seeking and journeying to new destinations, open, embracing. I suppose it is comforting to erect barriers, to pigeonhole identities, to surround ourselves with people whose ideas, ideals, interests and beliefs align with ours. But that is so boring, so limiting. And even if that is what we want, situations and events have a habit of finding and wandering down unusual pathways. Life likes to toss things around and mix them up and and then sits back and enjoys a quiet chuckle at the resulting spectacle.
A case in point: my family. I often marvel that the four of us, who may have well been beamed from four alien worlds, are each other’s closest relatives. Four beings, spinning in wildly different orbits, converging and connecting in the slenderest sliver of common ground. Oh, but that slender sliver, it might look meager and tenuous, but it is watertight and secure, dense with love and loyalty. And it can result in bizarre conversations and incongruous confluences. A few years back, my daughter burst into our home, aglow with excitement after her meeting with a Richard Hamilton. She went into raptures about how “cool” he was in spite of his great fame and his greater achievements, how encouraging he was of her work, and more along these lines. My son, who thinks and dreams either basketball or music, sat up. “What!” he exclaimed, “you met Richard Hamilton? That is so cool!” The conversation continued in this vein, each waxing eloquent about Richard Hamilton for a few minutes before they realized they had each been talking about a completely different person. Her Richard Hamilton was the mathematician; his, the basketball player.
I have veered off track, as usual. What got me started on this was an exhibition at the Rubin Museum in New York, of paintings and sculptures by an Italian-born and raised artist named Francesco Clemente. The first thing that caught my attention was that Clemente’s works of art in this exhibit were inspired by his time spent in India. And another was that as part of this exhibition, Clemente was invited to select eight people, from any walk of life, that he wanted to have a conversation with; those conversations, taking place over 8 nights, would be open to an audience. I was fascinated by his choice of people who included a Buddhist lama, a chef, a movie director - and my son’s idol and hero, the rap artist Nas. Right there was a meeting of worlds so diverse, so wide-ranging, and yet so much a part of my life, that I had to go. And just a few days back we did, my son and I, each anticipating and seeking something quite different from the evening. For my son, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see his superstar rapper hero Nas in the flesh; for me, to bask in his happiness and also see what two people with wildly divergent lives would have to say to each other.
I knew nothing about Francesco Clemente but the Internet took care of that. What I read intrigued and excited me - here was a delightfully restless, nomadic spirit, seeking and finding inspiration from far-flung places, his art growing and evolving with his understanding of himself and his world. He was born in 1952 in Italy, a country that I often think of as my second spiritual home. India and Italy are so alike in so many ways. There is history everywhere in both countries, existing casually, easily, rubbing shoulders with the newer entrants to the scene. Gossiping is a favorite past-time and in both countries, avid gossipers revel in stage-whispered shock-stories as well as in the full-throated sharing of scandals shouted across the street. They are madly chaotic and the most human places I have been to, the most alive, exasperating, mind-blowing. I could go on, but I won’t.
So perhaps it’s not much of a surprise that Francesco Clemente made his way to India to nurture and find inspiration for his art. He spent long stretches of time in Madras, living on the grounds of the Theosophical Society, and in Pondicherry, in the Aurobindo Ashram. He soaked it all in: the daily life and rituals, the symbols, the myths, the ideas, the larger-than-life movie posters and the profusion of gods and goddesses and their openly-flaunted sensuality; he befriended and worked with local artisans and made use of indigenous materials like the hand-made paper of Pondicherry, fabric and embroidery from Jodhpur, and objects he found during the course of his travels in India. In Clemente’s hands all of this metamorphosed into vividly colored and imagined paintings and sculptures that lend a contemporary halo to the life and pulse of an ancient land. I suppose he could be called an orientalist, but a modernistic one with none of the dark connotations of prejudice, colonial imperialism and misguided stereotypes that characterized Edward Said’s definition of orientalism.
The art world has its own language for describing, explaining and passing judgement on paintings, sculptures and other works of art. It is gobbledegook to me and it makes me giggle with its over-serious pontifying on things like the deconstruction of post-modern structuralism and the parodying of the arcane as a metaphor for the ironic artist. Something along these lines was going on in the guided tour that took place at the Rubin Museum before the conversation between Clemente and Nas began. I deftly side-stepped the tour and made my way around the gallery by myself. According to the writing on the wall the exhibits were laid out in a way that echoed the plan and layout of a South Indian temple. I was glad to be so informed; it would never have occurred to me. I will let the paintings and sculptures speak for themselves. You decide what you feel about them.
(Apologies for the indifferent quality of the photographs; they were taken in poor light with an ancient IPad)
I made my way downstairs to the lounge outside the auditorium where my son was waiting and the lines and anticipation were growing. We entertained ourselves by trying to guess who was there to see Nas, and who was a Clemente fan and I must say, we stereotyped to the hilt! A pointless but fun way to pass the time. Nas was running late - he was making his way here from another show (and for an awful moment I thought that perhaps he would not show up - isn’t that what legends and celebrities sometimes do?) and while we continued to wait, I asked my son to tell me more about Nas and rap music.
I have to confess, the first time I heard rap music (courtesy my kids), I had the knee-jerk recoil reaction that any parent would, listening to the stream of angry profanity that was sullying their children’s innocence. Why this awful, loud, expletive-littered unmusical noise, when they had been exposed to the soothing sounds of Indian and Western classical music? It was a phase, I consoled myself, they would grow out of it. But they didn’t. And so I had to force myself to listen, to try and understand this music that was such a big part of their lives.
In time, I developed a grudging admiration for some - not all - rap music. It was not all misanthropic, misogynist violence-lashed cacophony. My kids assured me that they did not listen to that. There is poetry in rap, and wit and foot-tapping rhythmic virtuosity, and this most densely worded of all music forms tells stories, espouses social causes and challenges the socio-political status quo. It has embraced and swallowed forms as diverse as reggae and bhangra and has spewed out the resulting fusion to delighted audiences around the world. Rappers assume monikers that are funny, clever and self-deprecating all at once: Ludacris, Kurupt, Mos Def. Then there are rappers like Baba Brinkman, glowing brightly at the far reaches of the rap universe, who writes and raps about the Canterbury Tales, Evolution and Religion. I have watched him perform and I think he should be required viewing in schools and colleges.
The rap cosmos is crowded with celebrities and legends and wannabe icons, and among the dazzling superstars at the very top is Nas, today’s participant. Nas grew up in the gritty Queensbridge Housing Projects in Queens. His home was different from many of the others there - he and his brother were loved, cared for, his home had books and music and laughter. He managed to escape the fate of most of his friends there - who are either dead, or spending time in jail. In 1994, he released an album, Illmatic, that made people sit up and take notice and that helped to propel him to a rarefied perch in the rap stratosphere. He has been called a poetic sage, and his words and music have been described as sublimely lyrical, superbly fluid and highly literate. Nas’s Illmatic has garnered gushing praise; it has often been called the greatest hip-hop album of all time.
It is to Clemente’s credit that he, inhabiting and experiencing a world vastly different from Nas’s would want to talk to him and learn about him; it is to Nas’s credit that he accepted Clemente’s invitation.
Finally, the doors opened and we surged in. A few minutes later, there they were, Clemente and Nas! Tim McHenry, the brilliant and creative director of programming at the Rubin Museum made the introductions: Clemente, the artist who ran away to find his voice; and Nas, whose voice, his lyrics and poetry, bubbled out of the wellspring of his life here in this city, his hometown. The one, whose paintings and sculptures sparked by his travels far and wide tried, among other things, to make the arcane and the ancient connect with the present; the other whose music and words try to make sense of and transcend the horrors of ghetto life. Two artists, illuminating human experience, sharing it with the world.
The dialogue got off to a flat start. Nas was clearly exhausted and his body language seemed to indicate that he really did not want to be here: he leaned far back in his chair, away from Clemente, and he would not look directly at him, but from the corner of his eyes, wary, on guard. His voice was was soft, a bit raspy. At that moment, he seemed like the farthest thing from a poetic sage or sublime lyricist; he just looked like a tired young man. But Clemente was not deterred by this. Gentle, smiling, calm, he got the conversation moving, in no hurry for anything dramatic or exciting. He has steeped himself in Buddhism and he has learned patience, has cultivated serenity. I could see Nas starting to relax, to drop that watchful mask.
The conversation was supposed to open with an exchanging of gifts - what those gifts would be, would be revealed on the stage, and they could serve as a conversation-starter, a catalyst of sorts. Clemente had brought something like looked like a doll-sized hat atop a stick. He said it was a Yoruba talisman, a sort of divine message-transmitter. This was what I understood - between Clemente’s thick Italian accent and soft voice and an inadequate mike, I found it difficult to follow some of what was said. He (Nas) was a bit taken aback, I could see; as someone who was probably accustomed to receiving expensive gifts he didn’t know quite what to make of this humble stick. It did break the ice a bit, though; Nas couldn’t help smiling; a small chuckle escaped his lips. Clemente sat back, smiling. He had done his homework: he knew that Nas was interested in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, that he had visited Nigeria. Nas had not brought anything along, but he took the hat off his head and presented it to Clemente, who received it with delight.
Slowly, Nas warmed up; unhurriedly, Clemente listened, always attentive, always smiling. Nas spoke about his fascination for the art and history of Nigeria, a country he described as interesting, poor, corrupt, complicated, impossible to fix. Did you know, interjected Clemente, that in faraway Brazil ancient Yoruba practices are still alive? Nas leaned forward, looked Clemente in the eye, smiled. Wow, he said, softly.
The conversation picked up steam. Clemente mentioned a French writer from the 1850s (I did not catch the name) who asked the question: can there be great art without danger? What did Nas think of this? Another smile from Nas; the world is a jumble, he said, but we cannot live in fear. Not a direct answer, but perhaps a statement of fact about his life. Clemente’s next question was a reference to rap, the medium for Nas’s art, that it was very new. What did Nas consider old?
I am old, said Nas, to laughter from everyone. But seriously? - The Bible, the Pyramids, the Yoruba culture. I am inspired by older artists - the Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Tom and Jerry cartoons (more laughter), LL Cool J, Melly Mel, Double Trouble.
Nas was relaxed now and looked like he was beginning to enjoy himself. The wariness, the mask, the air of fatigue, all dissolved in the serene ambience created by Clemente.
Clemente told Nas he would lead him down a path of 7 words, a nod to the Buddhist tradition of multi-fold path to a meaningful life. He wanted Nas to respond with the thoughts those words evoked.
Refuge, said Clemente. Work, home, culture, replied Nas. The talk meandered down little side alleys. I need peace and quiet to work, Nas said, I have enough hustle and bustle and noise in my life, it is a struggle to tune all of that out, but I have to, I need to.
They spoke about artists and activists; it warmed my heart when both said that the two are mutually incompatible. Art can be cruel and shocking and cannot fix things, said Clemente; Nas agreed wholeheartedly. An artist cannot - and should not - be a Malcolm X; I know what I am good at and do not want to make a fool of myself sticking my neck into places I shouldn’t. The two men smiled at each other - they got each other, their pressures, their goals, their vision.
What is your offering, Clemente asked Nas. My music, he replied without hesitation, it is something I put my heart and soul into, that is my offering to the world.
Any regrets? No, said Nas, I am not perfect, I know that, I do not live my life with regret. Clemente did have his regret - about the things that got in the way of better insight into Buddhism. But regret is a luxury, isn’t it, he asked Nas, to laughter from everyone.
We watched a relationship evolve before our eyes. Warmth and admiration flowed from one to the other. Both men were at ease, now, and both were real, themselves, without artifice or guile. They were two people who tried to make sense of their worlds and struggled to express it. Isn’t this something we all do? They connected at the human level that lies beneath fame, race, religion, nationality, and this really elevated the evening into the realm of the special and one-of-a-kind.
I like how you think, man, Nas told Clemente, I like how you talk - your talk is like poetry. And they talked about poetry - Nas said he does not read much poetry because it makes him feel inferior and inadequate. Humility - a rare trait, indeed, especially in superstars.
Nas then spoke about how he does what he does - that he works off the things he sees on a daily basis, his childhood memories. He watches people with a storyteller’s eye. Man, my hand is too slow, he said, while Clemente nodded knowingly, it cannot keep up with my thoughts, my music! This led to a short discourse about the speed of rap music; Clemente was curious to know why rap was so fast, whether there was slow rap. Nas answered that yes, there was slow rap, but rap was like an instrument that had to keep up with the rhythm. The nature of rap requires the use of many, many more words than any other music. I guess he has not heard about our Muthuswami Dikshithar, who spins his own genius magic with his poetry and words.
What about results, asked Clemente, the result you seek and enjoy from all your hard work? Nas’s answer: the appreciation of my work by my family. Clemente shook his head ruefully: I wish I could get my children to listen to me for an hour, he said, to gales of laughter.
The next question was about guidance, who he looked to for advice, who set his compass straight. Nas’s answer would warm the heart of any Indian: older people, he said, they have the wisdom and experience to help you navigate life. He believes in guardian angels and the signs they leave for you, if you keep your eyes and mind open to look for and find them.
There followed a ramble through concepts of enlightenment, their ideas of heaven and hell. And among many other things - love, tears of joy - Nas’s idea of heaven included winning the lottery! The man might be a legend, an icon, a millionaire, for all I know, but he sure has his feet on the ground.
And the final word, dedication. Nas dedicated his work to his parents and his children. For him, the point of everything was to make them proud of him; he strove to do his best, to be his best, as a man, a son, a father, a brother.
There was a question and answer session after this, and then it was over. I wish that Clemente had spoken more about his time in Madras and elsewhere in India, but the conversation did not flow that way. It was a truly wonderful evening, witnessing two disparate minds connect and then wander together through the paths of their journeys through their lives. It really drove home the point that if we shatter the barriers and walls we erect around ourselves, we are all really not that different from each other.
Thank you, Clemente. Thank you, Nas. You guys are awesome!