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A Night at the Barnes

On Saturday February 16, the Barnes Foundation hosted its annual “Artist Bash.” The bash invited artists to explore the concept of “home,” as I’d read on the website. Although I didn’t stay for the whole event, I still got a sense of the cultural scene beyond Haverford.

I checked in and was directed downstairs to the coat check, where several sophisticated-looking people sat around on lounge chairs. A brightly colored gift-shop was adjacent to the staircase and there was a display case of Greek vases. As the time reached 8 o clock, some people sitting on the chairs began to slowly move upstairs.

I walked upstairs and into the central event space, where a bulky man in glasses and a sweater was tuning his guitar. “Feel free to come closer and sit in the front,” he said, gesturing to the rectangular block of seats closest to the stage.

That first performance was by No-No Boy, a singer-guitar-back-up singer trio that featured Julian Saporiti, who started No-No Boy from doctoral research at Brown University. Drawing specifically on the Asian immigrant experience, No-No-Boy’s inspirational origins encompassed no less than Chinatown, Vietnam, and WWII Japanese Internment camps. The meager attendance gave way to a steady stream of people flooding in, and Julian’s voice became louder.  

With the beginning few songs, the guitarist gave a short introduction. The first song was about a changing Chinatown in New York in the 1980s and featured a refrain about a boy who likes the Ramones, as seen in a black-and white photo of a boy with a Ramones T-shirt on.

The next song, “Behind Barbed Wire,”  was about a love-story that takes place in Japanese Internment camps in the 1940s and featured ethereal, feather-light harmonies from Julian’s friend Amelia. The group sings about a girl whose parents won’t allow her to date, but has a romance with a boy anyway. The song describes the two  holding hands under the dishwashing sink.

By the next song, “Little Vietnam,” a considerable amount of people had entered the space and the singer cut down on his introductions for the less intimate setting. “Little Vietnam” was about this imagined Vietnam that he had some claim to as “home.”  The singer’s mother is Vietnamese.

Many of the songs were imagined reconstructions of events, individualized stories that take place in such historical contexts as WWII Japanese internment camps, rock-and-roll in Vietnam while the world is falling apart.

Julian admitted that as the child of an immigrant, it is often hard to know a place you supposedly come from. It can be difficult to get parents to relive those experiences or explain them in an understandable way he says,  but nevertheless it’s still good to try. “

By the time “Little Vietnam” was being performed, Julian was audibly projecting more so that people talking and drinking wine in the back could hear. The amount of people had increased by now, and No-No Boy was wrapping up its act. It’s hard to describe the milieu— there were some college students like me, businessmen, artists, groups of friends laughing and sipping drinks together, families.

Next up was choreographer and dancer Rhonda Moore’s “Dancing with the Elephant”, which was intended to address race. It featured two performers, one a white man, the other a black woman, who were blowing up balloons. The balloons, one white, one black represented their racial identities They were fiercely protective of their balloons and suspicious of each other, hesitantly and then aggressively hitting each other with their balloons and drawing laughter of the audience. This was all to Shostakovich’s Waltz. No 2, which only heightened the comic effect. Someone in the audience even gasped as the woman’s balloon slipped away. Then, as they got closer to each other, the man wrapped the woman in his arms, and they started ballroom dancing.

Aside from the special Artist Bash performances, I also got a chance to explore The Barnes Foundation’s collections. The Barnes Foundation houses a nice array of works by Cezanne, Picasso, and Renoir, as well as Chinese imperial portraits and some Dutch and Italian Renaissance works.

Stationed in a corner of the museum, Sistahs Attune were about to begin their act. They sang Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love” and “Happy” by Pharrell. They elicited audience engagement, getting the crowd to snap their fingers and put their hands in the air. The group’s  goal was to promote woman vocalists of color in the Philly area.

The next act I saw was from dancer and choreographerChristina Castro-Tauser, who performed about their childhood experiences growing up and going to school.

I left in the middle of the slightly voyeuristic performance of Gabrielle Revlock’s “Sex Tape,” which was two teenage girls in shorts tickling and caressing each other on a raised platform while people silently watched to non-descript, time-suspending mood music. It fit well into the concept suggested by the title—a moment of physicality viewed from afar, captured and held for eternity.

As I left the event, I traced my steps back to the grimy, yellow-walled, pee-smelling underground train station where people sleep slumped against the wall and bundled in blankets. I left at a good time, because the next train was at 10:45pm. I missed my stop, but soon enough I was back in my dorm.

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