Meet Uldus Bakhtiozina, a photographer and visual artist currently living and working in Russia. She was born in USSR in 1986 in Leningrad city (Saint-Petersburg). Uldus studied photography at University of Arts London in Central Saint Martins College. Her career started in London, after several years she jumped to Moscow, then moved for half a year to Asia, staying mainly in Indonesia and India. After her trip to Nepal she decided to get back to her motherland and open a studio of visual arts. Uldus currently specializes in fashion photoshoots and music videos, but may be best known for her provocative series of self portraits and exploration of identity issues — particularly around Russian masculinity (as pictured above).
You can learn more about Uldus by visiting her website: www.uldus.com
Follow her on Instagram: @uldusss
The TED Fellows program helps world-changing innovators from around the globe become part of the TED community and, with its help, amplify the impact of their remarkable projects and activities. Every year we select roughly 20 Fellows and 10 Senior Fellows from around the world to join the community.
Aziz Abu Sarah (Palestine | Israel) – Entrepreneur + educator
Middle Eastern American peace activist and founder of MEJDI Tours, a travel company that offers intercultural, bridge-building tours led by both Israeli and Palestinian guides.
Uldus Bakhtiozina (Russia) – Photographer + visual artist
Russian photographer who asks ordinary people she meets in her travels to model for elaborately staged, costumed, surreal portraits. Full of color, whimsy and drama, her images tell the story of their inner worlds.
Andrew Bastawrous (Kenya | UK) – Eye surgeon + innovator
Kenya-based ophthalmologist who has created PEEK, a low-cost smartphone ophthalmic tool that delivers eye care in some of the world’s most challenging places, to those who need it most.
Steve Boyes (South Africa) – Conservation biologist
South African conservation biologist passionate about protecting African parrots and their forest habitat within the continent’s last remaining wilderness areas.
Kitra Cahana (Canada | USA) – Vagabond photojournalist + conceptual artist
Canadian documentary and conceptual art photographer currently documenting nomadic communities in the United States and the slow recovery of her father, paralyzed from a brain stem stroke.
Aziza Chaouni (Morocco) – Architect + ecotourism specialist
Moroccan civil engineer and architect creating sustainable, built environments in the developing world, particularly in the deserts of the Middle East.
Ziyah Gafic (Bosnia-Herzegovina) – Photographer + storyteller Award-winning photojournalist from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose work includes intimate portraits of people determined to carry on with their lives in the face of fraternal war.
Shohini Ghose (Canada | India) – Quantum physicist + educator
Theoretical physicist who examines how the laws of quantum mechanics may be harnessed to develop next-generation computers and novel protocols like teleportation.
Website: Center for Women in Science
Erine Gray (USA) – Software developer
American software developer and founder of Aunt Bertha, a platform that instantly helps people find social services such as food banks, health care, housing and educational programs.
Shih Chieh Huang (Taiwan | USA) – Artist
Taiwanese-American artist who dissects and disassembles the mundane detritus of our lives – household appliances, lights, computer parts, toys, plastic objects – transforming them into surreal, animated “living” organisms.
Kathryn Hunt (USA) – Paleopathologist
Biological anthropologist and Near Eastern archaeologist researching cancer in the skeletal remains of ancient peoples. Her Paleo-oncology Research Organization (PRO) seeks insight into how genetic and environmental factors have played a part in the evolution of the disease.
Janet Iwasa (USA) – Molecular animator
Biochemist who uses 3D animation software to create molecular and cellular visualizations – such as how the HIV virus hijacks human cells – allowing researchers to visualize, explore and communicate their hypotheses.
Sergei Lupashin (Russia | USA | Switzerland) – Aerial robotics researcher + entrepreneur
Swiss-based engineer developing the Fotokite, an easy-to-use flying robotic camera. His work also includes unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous cars.
Jorge Manes Rubio (Spain | Netherlands) – Conceptual artist
Artist and perpetual tourist who investigates invisible, forgotten places – Chinese cities submerged by the Three Gorges Dam Project, a little-known Pacific island paradise destroyed by mining – creating artworks that reimagine and revive these sites as attention-worthy destinations.
Eman Mohammed (Palestine) – Photojournalist
Palestinian photojournalist documenting war in the Gaza Strip and life in its aftermath, exploring many facets of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – including the formation of Palestinian resistance groups and the lives of women in the region.
Will Potter (USA) – Investigative journalist
American journalist who covers the animal rights and environmental movements and post-9/11 civil liberties. Currently he is examining how whistleblowers and nonviolent protesters are being treated as “terrorists.”
David Sengeh (USA | Sierra Leone) – Biomechatronics engineer
Inventor of next-generation wearable mechanical interfaces that improve prosthetic comfort for amputees while simultaneously reducing costs, making the devices affordable in the developing world.
Shubhendu Sharma (India) – Reforestation expert
Indian industrial engineer restoring natural forests with his company, Afforestt, which offers a way to plant maintenance-free, wild and highly biodiverse forests using specialized afforestation methodology, research and cutting-edge technologies.
Robert Simpson (UK) – Astronomer + web developer
British astronomer who creates online platforms to cultivate a community of citizen science volunteers worldwide – crowdsourcing science. Projects cover a wide range of disciplines, from hunting for exoplanets to decoding whale language to mapping the Milky Way.
Dan Visconti (USA) – Composer + concert presenter
American composer who innovates concert experiences to give musical expression to contemporary social issues, creating events that engage communities and make classical music accessible to a new generation.
Bora Yoon (USA | South Korea) – Musician + sound architect
Korean-American vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and composer who creates immersive audiovisual soundscapes using digital devices, voice, and found objects and instruments from a variety of cultures and centuries. She evokes memory and association to formulate a cinematic storytelling through music and sound design.
To learn more about the Fellows program, including past TED Fellows, Senior Fellows, how the program got started and how to apply, visit www.ted.com/fellows.
Patio 29 is a section of Santiago’s General Cemetery where political dissidents and supporters of Salvador Allende were buried anonymously in mass graves. To this day, not all of the people have been identified correctly; many families are still not sure what happened to their loved ones during that era.
Documentary photographer Jon Lowenstein and his brother Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Diego Portales, are currently in Chile in the run-up to the country’s 2013 presidential election. Together they are documenting how the nation’s people are faring during this historic period 40 years after the coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet. Jon’s images are currently being streamed on the New Yorker magazine’s Instagram feed, and the brothers have just posted the first in a series of three articles on the New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog. Below, find an introduction to the work by the Lowensteins, and more sample images from this powerful body of work in progress.
“Forty years after the coup headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile remains a wounded, divided nation where the past lives in the present. The nation’s enduring rifts are visible in the glaring contrast between the entrenched poverty in Santiago’s shantytowns and the country’s elite, who enriched themselves during the dictatorship.
History is alive in the homes of people like Ana Gonzalez, a woman whose husband, two of her sons and pregnant daughter-in-law were disappeared during the dictatorship.
And it’s a force in the November presidential election featuring Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. The daughters of Air Force Generals played together as children, but their lives were changed permanently by the coup. Matthei’s father Fernando joined the junta. Bachelet’s father Alberto remained loyal to Salvador Allende and the constitution, paying for that decision with his life.
Yet there are also glimmerings of Chile’s coming to terms with its bloody past. Among the most important: this September 11 saw an unprecedented outpouring of memory-related activity.”
Located in Santiago, Villa Grimaldi is considered the most important and infamous of DINA’s (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, the Chilean secret police) many places that were used for the detention, interrogation and torture of political prisoners during Gen. Augusto’s Pinochet’s dictatorship. The former social club was open from 1974 to 1978. About 4,500 detainees were brought to Villa Grimaldi during these years, at least 240 of whom were “disappeared” or killed by DINA. Rebuilt from survivors’ memories, the site is dedicated to preserving the memory of those tortured, interrogated and killed by Pinochet’s henchmen.
AFEP (Agrupacion de Familiares de Ejecutados Politicos – Group of Family Members of the Politically Executed) is a support group for family members of people who were executed during the Pinochet dictatorship. Group members call for truth and justice for the perpetrators and help each other to deal with the effects of the trauma.
How did human emotions evolve to help us survive? For the last decade, cultural anthropologist Chelsea Shields Strayer has studied the indigenous healing practices of the Ashante people of Ghana, discovering that emotional pain serves useful purposes — including the relief of physical pain. In this conversation with the TED Blog, she tells the fascinating story of how she struggled to free herself from her gender-biased Mormon culture to study another culture far away, in the process gathering important information about the physiological basis of the placebo effect, learning how social ostracization affects physical well-being, and getting a new perspective on the community she comes from.
How did you end up studying traditional healing cultures in Ghana?
I grew up in a very conservative Mormon culture in Utah. My father works for the church educational system, and my mother is a stay-at-home mom of eight. None of the women in my family have ever gotten a higher education or worked outside the home, so I didn’t have any role models outside my own culture, or any within it of women pursuing less traditional paths. I was a four-sport athlete and had straight As during high school, but it never even crossed my mind that I could go anywhere besides the church university, where traditional gender roles were reinforced everyday. My female pre-med friends were told that if they got into medical school they would be “taking the spot of a man that needed to provide for his family.” I never even had a female professor until my senior year.
Because of the rigid modesty culture that makes you a “good Mormon girl” I had never even kissed anyone until college. At 19, I started to date my first boyfriend. Everyone, including my church leaders, wanted me to marry him. There was a lot of pressure. So I remember feeling really trapped and very confused. I believed in my religious leaders; I believed they received revelation from God. But I did not want to marry; I was so young, and had so many things I wanted to do.
So I very quixotically said, “I can’t do anything until I accomplish my goal — which is go to Africa someday.” My boyfriend said, “Okay, I guess we could do that later, when we’re married. We can go as missionaries.” Again, so much pressure not to do my thing. I was almost like a drowning person. I just had to do something, to get out. So eventually I just did it. I bought a plane ticket to West Africa. I left the country for the first time, at 20 years old, all by myself.
What did your parents think?
No one had ever been to Africa, so they didn’t know anything. We were all just super naive. I don’t think they realized how scary it was. I don’t think even I realized. I remember my dad taking me to San Francisco International Airport and it hit me. This silly plan of mine was actually coming to fruition! I had no idea what would be on the other side of the world when I stepped off the plane. It was terrifying. The best moment, however, was when my mom called me and with tears in her voice said she was really proud of me — proud that I had a dream and that I was making it happen. How rare and special that was. I think that is what gave me the strength to get on the plane and not just live in SFO airport for six months, which was my Plan B.
I attended the University of Ghana in Legon for a semester as an international student and lived in the dorms with Ghanaian roommates. I made a lot of friends, attended my local Mormon ward in Ghana and spent the entire time immersing myself in the culture, backpacking and traveling throughout West Africa.
Being in a completely different culture was good for me, but it was really hard. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t understand the social norms. I would see Ghanaian street vendors selling things on their head and I didn’t know what was food or soap (I only made that mistake once)! It took a good four or five months of being completely out of my comfort zone and changing everything about my life (what I ate, where I slept, how I went to the bathroom, how I showered, what I wore, how I communicated, how I spent my time, etc) until resilience kicked in and I adjusted to this new lifestyle.
You see, in my culture women are supposed to be very beautiful and high-maintenance because your job is to look attractive so you can get married someday. And here I was sitting in this country where my makeup is melting off in the 100% humidity, my nice clothes are dirty in two seconds via the dirt paths and crowded tro-tros, my padded bras are completely uncomfortable in the two 12- mile walks you take everyday to get anywhere, and I was blow-drying my hair (when there was electricity) while sweating so much it would re-wet my hair. Very quickly, I had to get rid of all those cultural symbols I had about who I was and what made me special. I was stripped of everything I knew, and it forced me to create a new worldview where my decisions were based a little less on what I was “supposed” to do and a little more on what I “wanted” to do.
Shields Strayer dances with a healer as he prepares to go into spirit possession.
How did you get involved with the healing community in Ghana?
When I got back to Utah, I had enough perspective and strength to start making decisions about what I wanted. I broke up with my boyfriend, said I didn’t want to get married before I got a degree, decided to major in anthropology and helped start a study-abroad program to Ghana at my university. I ran that program in different capacities for about five years while I finished school.
All along the way, I had to fight and push against invisible patriarchal boundaries that exist in my culture. Even though I was a top anthropology student, it surprised faculty, family and friends when I applied to graduate school, but I received a Foreign Language and Area (FLAS) full-ride scholarship to Boston University for an MA/PhD in anthropology and African studies.
Over the course of the last twelve years I went back to Ghana five times, for a total of 26 months. I became friends with some Asante healers early on, and have maintained those relationships over the last decade. I’ve watched them go from apprentices to master healers, I’ve been invited to attend everything from very private ceremonies to public performances for the Asantehene King, I have even had healers who allow me to record and take measurements of them in spirit possession.
Was your interest in anthropology always focused on healing culture?
Not at first. My BA, MA and PhD were in cultural anthropology, and I was studying the religious and social aspects of Asante indigenous healing. At first, I was more concerned with what all of the cultural symbols in ritual healing meant, rather than how it worked. Halfway through my research, though, I realized that my informants and I were talking past each other. They would tell me about witchcraft cursings, familial discord and the process through which they cured a patient, and I would build an ethnomedical explanatory model — which explained Asante sociocultural constructions of sickness and healing. They were talking about ritual healing ceremonies as effective techniques for altering physiological pathologies, and I was describing why they thought that. I was not discovering if ritual ceremonies actually alter physiological processes or how and why they do it. I did not have the tools to understand, frame or measure those claims. So I went back to Boston University and completed all of the PhD requirements in biological anthropology as well.
Why did you need to study biological anthropology?
The healers I’ve worked with don’t think that they are just building the community, easing tensions or creating social support. They say they are healing — affecting a physiological change. I felt that no matter how I wrote about what they were doing, from my academic perspective, I was belittling their biophysiological claims of ritual healing unless I could understand and explain why and how social processes can influence physiological ones.
What I learned from the healers was that because the body is made up of both spiritual and physical matter, variables affected in one state can manifest in the other. Since non-physical or psycho-social (social, psychological, spiritual, etc.) variables can influence bodily states, the healer’s job is to manipulate those psychosocial processes in order to elicit specific reactions from the body. This is not a foreign concept in mind-body medicine. We know that psychosocial factors such as stress, fear, inferiority, ostracism and negative expectations exacerbate physical and mental ailments and inhibit healing processes. We also know that relaxation, expectations, empathetic relationships and meaningful interventions can activate and even enhance healing processes. What we are talking about are the context-specific physiological effects of the ritual of medicine, the provisions of care. Another word for this phenomenon is the “placebo effect.”
There’s a lot of confusion around the placebo effect. How do you approach it?
Having studied it for the last eight years I can tell you that most people don’t really understand what it is. The most common understanding is that a placebo effect means that nothing is happening when the opposite is actually the case. Something biochemically is happening — it is just that the cause is psychosocial rather than physical. An inert sugar pill has no physical effect on the body, but that same pill — when wrapped in all of the rituals, meanings and social interactions of healthcare and imbued with encultured expectations — has incredible and powerful effects of the body! A handful of anthropologists have been talking about this for years, the effect that meaning has on the healing process. What I contribute to this dialogue is describing the effect that social interaction has on the healing process. I meticulously go back through our evolutionary history and show how encephalization and increased sociality, infant dependency, juvenility and attachment make human bodies particularly vulnerable to changes in our psychosocial environments. I show how for our ancestors, belonging and ostracism were literally the difference between life and death and how we evolved very powerful prosocial emotions (psychological and physiological warning systems) that are hypersensitive to cues in our social environments. Because the fitness consequences of prosocial behavior was so costly to our ancestors, our bodies are full of somatic “warning” systems that keep us from being too anti-social.
For example, one of these warning systems is social pain, or the unpleasant sensory experience we feel when we make a social misstep; that moment of cringing or embarrassment when we’ve put our foot in our mouth or the anxiety-riddled feeling right before a speech, interview or performance. Like many of our adaptations, the social pain warning system evolved out of and on top of preexisting structures in our bodies — in this case our physical pain warning system. This is called the pain overlap theory, and basically states that because these two warning systems occupy the same neural pathways, you can inhibit the one by activating the other.
The best examples of this are when someone self harms or cuts themselves in order to numb the psychosocial pain they are experiencing or, on the opposite side of the coin, when someone’s social environment determines how much physical pain they experience. (Think about a skateboarder having a horribly painful fall but getting up quickly and laughing it off because he doesn’t want to lose status in front of his friends, or a baby who falls and then looks up to her mother to determine whether she should cry or not.)
Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra is creating virtual sanctuaries for real cities. Working in collaboration with local artists, historians, architects, city planners and musicians, Ibarra and her partner Roberto Rodriguez — who together form Electric Kulintang — have created a musical pilgrimage that takes the public on a sound walk through 12 sites in Lower Manhattan, each featuring an original composition. But more than that, the locations offer respite — they are an invitation to contemplate the special qualities of the built environment.
It’s a music mobile app sound walk — an interactive dialogue, with music and technology as the medium. It’s about bringing sanctuaries of sounds to these historical sites, and partly about bringing the sounds of the natural world back into the built environment. Roberto and I had been talking about the possibility of doing a mobile app sound walk with Andrew Horwitz, an arts promoter, writer for Culturebot and the former programs director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. We were asking if we could do a technology piece based around walking within communities in Lower Manhattan.
As the idea took shape, we started looking at sites: the African Burial Ground, the American Indian Museum, Titanic Memorial Park, the New York Stock Exchange, Castle Clinton, Peter Minuit Plaza (where Manhattan was first purchased), Teardrop Park and Battery Park Labyrinth — memorials that were built after 9/11 — and Pier 15. We asked ourselves, “What are the cultural stories of each of these places? What is the energy? And what can we offer both city dwellers and tourists?”
Other cities are interested as well. Pittsburgh is commissioning it. Troy, New York, is interested. We have been talking to Sydney, and we are thinking about taking it to Mumbai and Delhi. I’ve also just talked to a visual artist in Taipei. It’s fascinating, because there’s so much history in each city, combined with contemporary forces.
I’m thinking about bringing Digital Sanctuaries to the Visayas, in the Philippines, which recently suffered a big earthquake. My brother and sister-in-law were in Bohol the day it happened. Luckily, they are okay. Electric Kulintang has worked with the beautiful Loboc Children’s Choir in Bohol. Fortunately, the earthquake happened on a holiday when many places were closed, but the choir lost its church — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and its community and rehearsal spaces. I’m thinking about what kind of sanctuaries would be needed there. How might we help them rebuild?
What makes Digital Sanctuaries interactive?
Digital Sanctuaries offers the audience a virtual experience at each site. The music streams from each location base, and when someone enters the space, they can listen to the music and read about the site’s history. There is also a four-channel mixer page where they can make their own remix, share, and post responses.
Those who cannot visit the Digital Sanctuaries sites in person can visit the website. We’ll have short samples of the compositions on SoundCloud for each place, and information about the work and collaboration. It will also link to Electric Kulintang’s album Song of the Bird King.
Tell us about your concept of sanctuary.
It’s a very intense place, Lower Manhattan. Have you walked down there? The Financial District can really be very intense. We wanted to provide the people who live and/or work in this environment with a place of respite. We considered who might engage with such a sanctuary. It might be people who live there or work there, or just people who are visiting.
The poster for Digital Sanctuaries.
So do you think the idea of sanctuary will change from city to city?
Yes. Each city will be different historically and culturally. I think that even between Mumbai and Delhi, the sounds we create will be radically different.
What was the process of putting Digital Sanctuaries together?
In the development stage, we work with the collaborating partners — those who are hosting the piece or commissioning it — to listen to what the voice of the city is, and then we do research on which sites resonate best with that. And then, what are the stories of these sites? All this informs the composition. We’re finding that creating these digital sanctuaries of music involves a remapping of cities constructed by histories, and numerous dialogues with the people who live in each place. History and present culture both weigh into the creation of the pieces, and along with stories of indigenous people and immigrants, there’s the natural history of each site.
Roberto and I composed compositions for 12 sites. He composed some, I composed some, and then as a duo, Electric Kulintang, we co-compose. Roberto does some pre-programming with electronics. We invite guest artists for each composition to perform and record in the studio. He and I also perform and record various electronic and acoustic percussion.
All of the artists for Digital Sanctuaries, New York City, are from or live in the area. For example, African Burial Ground features Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa reciting a poem he wrote for the site, Guinean master artist Famoro Diaobate performing on balafon and vocals, and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC singing.
Our collaborating visual artists are also New York City residents. Long-time collaborator Makoto Fujimura is a former resident of Lower Manhattan and is a visionary in supporting and preserving cultural practices. Our interaction designer Shankari Murali, originally from Mumbai, has a well-developed understanding of how to integrate music, art and design for a city. Together, we developed the mobile app. These will be re-adapted for each city.
Do you think that over time, the compositions themselves will change and evolve?
Yes, I like to think so. Cities’ geographic location, natural history, current residents and those who preceded us have all combined to create cultures unique to each place. Music is one of these amazing gifts that ebbs and flows and rises out of these pockets. Culture has defined music, and music has defined culture. And one of the things that interested me in creating Digital Sanctuaries was the potential and possibilities for collaboration. I like the idea of digital public art, a web that can grow and move — something people can build and add onto.
If you happen to be in New York, join one of the inaugural hosted walks happening every day until Sunday, November 10. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Red Walk, at the African Burial Ground, 290 Broadway, New York, 10007. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Green Walk, at South Cove Park, 50 Battery Place, (Between 1st and 3rd Pl), New York, 10280. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Blue Walk, at the India House, 1 Hanover Square, New York, 10004.
Laurel Braitman (USA) – Science historian + writer
American historian and anthropologist of science writing about the mental health of animals and what it means about humans. Her upcoming book Animal Madness, posits that other animals can suffer from mental illness too. And that all of us can recover. View Laurel’s TED Fellow Network Profile to learn more.
Yana Buhrer Tavanier (Bulgaria) – Activist and social entrepreneur
Human rights activist protecting and promoting the rights of children and adults with intellectual and mental health disabilities; while building do-more-good culture in the Balkans. View Yana’s TED Fellow Network Profile to learn more.
Renée Hlozek (South Africa | USA) – Cosmologist
South African cosmologist working to better understand the initial conditions of the universe – the tiny fluctuations that grew to be the large structures we see today, such as galaxies. View Renée’s TED Fellow Network Profile to learn more.
Susie Ibarra (USA | Philippines) – Composer, Percussionist + Educator
Filipina-American composer/performer and co-founder of digital music company Song of the Bird King, creates live and immersive music that explores rhythm in Indigenous practices and the natural world. View Susie’s TED Fellow Network Profile to learn more.
Jon Lowenstein (USA) – Photographer
Photographer/filmmaker specializing in long-term, in-depth projects confronting the realms of power, wealth inequality, and violence — also working to create a foundation committed to social justice through visual communication. View Jon’s TED Fellow Network Profile to learn more.
Alexander McLean (UK | Uganda | Kenya) – African prison activist
Founder of African Prisons Project, an organization working to improve the lives of people living in African prisons through healthcare, education, access to justice and community reintegration. APP identifies, develops and equips prisoners and prison staff to transform their communities. View Alexander’s TED Fellow Network Profile to learn more.
Sarah Parcak (USA) – Space archaeologist
Archaeologist who uses high resolution and NASA satellite imagery to discover new archaeological sites and “long lost” cities in the pyramid fields, Nile Valley and Delta of Egypt, most of which remain undetected and unexcavated. View Sarah’s TED Fellow Network Profile to learn more.
Several years ago, TED Fellow Jen Brea was diagnosed with a little know, little understood disease commonly referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). Today, she’s embarked on a mission to bring this disease to light, share its challenges, and ask you to help her raise awareness for both those that suffer from the debilitating affects of CFS and doctors that frequently misdiagnose it.
Unexpectedly, and In just 3 days, her Kickstarter campaign raised the $50,000 she was asking for. Now Jen has set her sights higher, aiming to make Kickstarter history by having more backers than any documentary film ever, and in doing so, she hopes to fully fund the making of her CFS film, Canary in a Coal Mine.
Nigerian astronomer Johnson Urama wants to promote the future of astronomy in Africa by looking deep into history. With his African Cultural Astronomy Project, he is gathering the lost ancient astronomical traditions and stories of indigenous Africa, hoping to show modern Africans that the science of the skies is relevant to their past, present and future.
The TED Blog interviewed Urama to find out much more. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
So, tell us about yourself.
I’m from the southeastern part of Nigeria. By training, I’m an astronomer, and teach astronomy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But I have a passion for indigenous astronomy — the ancient cultural astronomy of parts of Africa. Our forefathers had some knowledge of astronomy but it was, unfortunately, not written down, so much of it has been lost. My organization, the African Cultural Astronomy Project, is trying to recover part of this knowledge and use it to create awareness and interest in modern astronomy — and science in general — among Africans today.
How old are African astronomical systems? Have they been dated?
African astronomical systems are as old as the people themselves, because our forefathers depended on the skies for navigation, for agriculture, for their calendar, for their rituals. Practically everything revolved around the sky. The calendar, largely based on astronomy, determined farming periods, and everything was organized around that. Before the advent of the modern calendar, the African calendar was lunar. And even now, in some parts of Africa, calendars are still based in lunar systems.
How was the information lost?
The information was passed down orally in folk tales from generation to generation, and the present generation has no time to give for such folk tales. People are migrating to urban centers, and they’re just interested in Western education. Nobody talks about our indigenous knowledge.
A typical ancient wall painting in parts of southeastern Nigeria, which portrays astronomical information. Photo: Johnson Urama
Give us an example an indigenous African astronomical practice or story.
Among the Hausa speaking people of West Africa, for example, they have it in their folk tales that the moon and the sun were friendly until the sun gave birth. Then the sun called the moon and asked him to hold her daughter while she went and washed herself. The moon took the sun’s daughter, but was not able to hold it, for it burnt him, and he let it go, and it fell to Earth — that is why humans feel hot on earth. When the sun returned, she asked the moon where the daughter was, and the moon replied, “Your daughter was burning me so I let her go, and she fell to Earth.” Because of that, the sun pursues the moon. Another variant is that the moon’s path is full of thorns, while that of the sun is sandy, and because of that the moon cannot travel as quickly as the sun. So when the moon can proceed no farther, he gets on the sun’s path, and the sun catches him. When the sun has caught the moon, the people take their drums and ask the sun to spare the moon. This “catching-up” occurs during an eclipse of the sun — usually partial or annular.
Also, among the Igala speaking people of Nigeria, when an eclipse happens it is believed that the world wants to come to an end, so the people start beating drums, buckets, plates and bowls as a plea to their god to spare the world. And when the eclipse is over, they start chanting, “Thanks be to our gods, for they have heard our prayers.” It is also believed that the moon has two wives — and these are the brightest stars that stay very close to the moon when it appears in the night, the most loved one staying closest to him.
Three years ago, Jennifer Brea, then a PhD student in political science, was struck down by what appeared to be a severe flu. It turned out to be the beginning of a long illness — including neurological dysfunction and extreme exhaustion — that she has yet to recover from. Discovering that the medical community did not recognize her illness and worse, dismissed it as hysteria, Brea did her own research and discovered that there is a name for what she was experiencing: myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), a devastating, misunderstood and ignored disease affecting millions.
To call attention to the plight of those suffering from ME, Brea is making a film, titled Canary in a Coal Mine, to offer firsthand insight into what it feels like to live with this debilitating disease. Its Kickstarter campaign, launched just days ago, has already almost met its target, a clear indication that the time for this film has come. Here, Brea tells the TED Blog her story.
When you did you become ill?
I first became ill in 2010. I had 104.7-degree fever that lasted for 10 days. A year later, in 2011, I was at a restaurant with some friends. The check came, and I couldn’t sign my name. I would look at the paper, and I couldn’t move my hand. I found I could no longer draw curves or circles. Over the course of the next day, I went in and out of periods where I would be totally lucid, I could understand everything anyone was saying to me, but became completely unable to think in any language. It was a little like being a dog. I could understand speech, and I could conceive of things in general impressions, and pictures, but there was no monologue in my head.
That sounds terrifying.
I think in some ways it was actually a blessing, because I could not be afraid of what was happening to me. Something I’ve learned is that in order to experience fear, you have to be able to project the future, and for that you need language. You need the future tense. You might even need the past tense. I was living in the present, and that was all that there was.
My neurologist told me I was suffering from conversion disorder: my illness was caused by stress or a psychological trauma that I might not even recall. Although my physical symptoms were real, there was no organic basis of my illness. It was all very Freud.
This doesn’t speak very well for doctors.
Since starting the film, I’ve become much more sympathetic to doctors, because it’s really not their fault. It’s a product of the training they have received. They’re taught to cure the world’s known diseases, and my disease is not taught in medical school. So if they can’t put me in a box, they can’t treat me.
That said, I was shocked. It was the first time I had ever been not taken at my word, had ever been condescended to like that. I started to wonder, well, if I — with my personality and education and privilege — am being treated that way by all of these doctors, what the hell is happening to people all around the country? What would happen if I were walking into a public clinic, or if I’m in a rural area? And what if I’d been someone who hadn’t had the education to feel like I can challenge people who are in positions of authority? This is one of the reasons I wanted to make this film.
Brea and her husband Omar. Still image from Canary in a Coal Mine.
What were you doing while all this was happening?
Throughout this experience, I was doing tons of research. I was getting my PhD in political science, but I was also doing a master’s in statistics, and so had some training to know how to read and understand research. My husband and I were just constantly reading. We’d go to the doctors with stacks of journal articles, and they would say, “Where did you find that, on the internet?” I’d say, “Yes I did. Here’s an article from Nature, here’s an article from Science, here’s an article from the New England Journal of Medicine.” I had one doctor actually make a guttural sound when he tossed the articles on the floor. I mean, I was really naïve — I didn’t realize that most doctors don’t read medical journals. It’s just not the way that system works. Even one researcher — who was a fantastic doctor — was not reading anything on my illness that was being done by people in other fields. She was an infectious disease doctor, but she wasn’t reading what’s happening in immunology, or people who were looking at gastrointestinal stuff.
What’s the difference between chronic fatigue syndrome and ME?
Chronic fatigue syndrome was a name created by a CDC committee in 1988 in response to a series of outbreaks, most notably the Incline Village, Nevada, outbreak of 1984. It was really unfortunate, not just because the name sucks, but because one, there was already an internationally recognized name for the disease — myalgic encephalomyelitis — and two, the definition they came up with said nothing about some of the most severe neurological and autonomic dysfunction many of us experience. So some of our most devastating symptoms are said to be impossible because they are not in the definition.
The horrid name and the exclusion of those symptoms means that many people diagnosed with CFS probably don’t have ME. A lot of people want to lump chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and so on into one group. I think we need to study people who are patently self-similar in terms of their histories and symptoms and stop saying “It’s all very murky” when the murkiness is man-made.
That said, I do, at the end of the day, think that strict diagnostic criteria are useful for clinical trials but harmful for treatment. Our bodies don’t obey medicine’s boundaries, and I don’t think many diseases do either. For example, I’ve learned through my own research that what is probably happening to me right now, physiologically, has a lot in common with certain features of multiple sclerosis, HIV, diabetes and certain genetic mitochondrial diseases. Now, who would ever think those literatures should be speaking to each other? But they should be.
Artist Sharmistha Ray has spent her life moving between India, the Middle East and the United States, discovering, layer by layer, her own sense of self, sexual identity and artistic vision in contrast or harmony with each new environment. Now, as her latest exhibition Reflections + Transformations is set to open at the Aicon Gallery in New York City on October 24, she tells the TED Blog about how her journey has unfolded so far, taking her from figurative art to abstraction and back to vibrant colors and lush, sensual textures that celebrate and reclaim the female body.
You have quite a complicated background. When people ask where you are from, what do you say?
It’s complicated because I’m an artist. People want to know where you’re from as a way of understanding your deepest creative impulses. I started to define myself as diasporic because the many migrations in my life played a very big role in terms of defining who I was, as well as my outlook on life and my artistic practice. I was born a British citizen in Calcutta, but spent my growing-up years in the Middle East and then migrated to the United States with my family later on. I didn’t stop there; a residual nostalgia beckoned me towards India, and after exploring Kolkata for a few months in 2006, I moved to Mumbai and made it my home.
Growing up gay in a traditional Indian family in an Islamic society in Kuwait also created its own displacement. I experienced oppression very early on within my family and society. My sexuality, which started to emerge in my early teens, was a terrifying realization for me. I lived in mortal fear of anyone knowing my dark secret. But ironically, the fear also bore my love for art. It was through art that I was finally able to find my own voice.
Even though I spend most of my time in Mumbai now, I can’t attribute any one of my multiple social, linguistic, cultural, queer, ethnic and geographic ties as the singular source of imagination. It’s really the grazing together of all these identities that has created a messy hybrid form, with many points of location. I am even starting to recast the term “diaspora,” as it feels limited to a binary of homeland and not-homeland. Once the migrant has moved back to the homeland, does he or she continue to be “of the diaspora?” I’m gravitating towards a new term I encountered in reading Gyan Prakash’s excellent historical account of Mumbai in his book Mumbai Fables. He revisits the notion of cosmopolitanism throughout the book, and it struck me that to be “cosmopolitan” strips the subject of a desired location or need to belong. To be “cosmopolitan” essentially means “being in the world.”
Nude #6, 2013
What prompted your decision to move to India?
I was curious — and curiosity is probably the starting point for deep infatuations. I had schooled in Kolkata for close to two years during the Gulf War in Kuwait, where my family lived at the time. Becoming a refugee and living in forced exile with my family formed, at a young age, a confusing network of associations between stability and belonging. As I matured as a thinker, the idea of India took shape as a sort of dreamland, a place of possibilities. I wanted to live without the burdens of identity politics for a while and investigate a more poetic entry point into the question of “being.” Of course, I’m not saying that identity politics is exclusive of poetics, but my work had become riddled with an anxious rhetoric caught between the binaries of “self” and the “other.” I wanted to find a different way of locating myself in a milieu that accepted me first as “Indian.” Interestingly, in India I found myself thrust into other negotiations — with gender and sexuality in particular — which took me many years to untangle. And despite my initial longing to connect to an Indian identity, I am as much an outlier there as I was in America, as I am anywhere else!
You mention gender and sexuality. When did you start exploring these themes in your work?
I started in the last year of high school. Although I lived in a conservative Islamic society in the Middle East, I became emboldened in my final year of art studies and decided to take the plunge. But as I had to be careful, the work is very subtle. In those early works, some of which are lost now, the narratives center around myself and a female agent, but there’s always this physical and psychological distance between the two figures in the frame. It mirrored my life at the time, and the feeling of disconnect from my family and society.