Black Mermaids Aren’t Far-Fetched

A little while ago there was an Internet brou-ha-ha over Disney’s decision to cast singer Halle Bailey as Ariel in their upcoming live action version of The Little Mermaid. The harrumph is due to Bailey’s skin color.

I say the uproar is silly—it’s a fairytale, and if there’s one carved-in-stone-truth about fairytales it’s that they must and do change with the times. (Besides, I haven’t heard Bailey sing, but apparently she’s got an amazing voice. Scratch that: here’s a video clip of her singing “Unforgettable”, and her voice is indeed awesome. Talent is talent despite the shell it comes in.)

But in case someone’s arguing how black mermaids aren’t historical or some other claptrap (not even starting on mermaids being fictional to begin with), allow me to present a statue of one:

Smithsonian Dona Fish Statue Angola

This statue depicts Dona Fish, part of the many Mami Wata traditions of Africa. As a water spirit that straddles earth and water, she often appears with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish—i.e., just like a (western) mermaid.

Smithsonian had an exhibit on Mami Wata, and some materials are still available online. I encourage you to visit.

Found via Mahealani Uchiyama on Facebook.

Image: Dona Fish, photo by Don Cole via Smithsonian National Museum of African Art  (Ovimbundu peoples, Angola; c. 1950s-1960s; wood, pigment, metal, mixed media)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

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Historical Miniaturization: An Astronomical Ring that Opens into a Sphere

The Swedish History Museum shared this nifty gadget on their Facebook page:

FB Historiska museet Astronomy Ring1

We all know looks can be deceiving, right? That’s definitely the case with this item. It’s a German 16th-century ring that turns into an astronomical sphere:

FB Historiska museet Astronomy Ring2

It’s a brilliant example of the possibilities of miniaturization technologies. I’m immediately thinking of a fantasy or alternate history world where a (rich!) scholar takes this with them when traveling for work.

Images by Historiska museet via Facebook

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Visual Inspiration: Small Aqua-Blue-Brown Lizards

Now that summer is properly on the way here in the northern hemisphere, it’s time for summer critters. This aqua-blue-brown lizard, Anolis grahami, would make a lovely detail in speculative—or, indeed, in any kind of—story-telling.

Wikimedia jpokele Grahams anole Jamaica

In the real world, they’re endemic in Jamaica and an introduction to Bermuda. According to Wikipedia, occasionally you can see a pure turquoise blue lizard.

iNaturalist waynewg Grahams anole

Goodness, they’re incredible!

Found via Jon Suh on Twitter.

Images: Graham’s anole on Jamaica by jpockele via Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0). Graham’s anole on a piece of wood by Wayne Godbehere on iNaturalist (CC BY-NC).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

The Ancient Underground City of Derinkuyu

The Derinkuyu (also known as Malakopi) underground city is situated in the historical area of Cappadocia, which is in Central Anatolia in modern-day Turkey. And it’s pretty astounding.

Apparently, underground cities were A Thing thereabouts: according to Wikipedia, there are over 200 of them. Looking at the landscape, it’s no wonder.

Flickr Anthony G Reyes Derinkuyu Pigeon Valley

Much of the rock is easily accessible, i.e., not covered by layers and layers of vegetation, and there are plenty of rock faces to carve into.

The first mentions of underground dwellings in Anatolia come from Xenophon’s Anabasis (c. 370 BCE), but they were probably built much earlier as places of refuge from attacks. Derinkuyu seems to have been in use for millenia: the last recorded use was at least as late as 1909.

According to a tourism site, there are about 600 entrances to the underground Derinkuyu, and some can be closed with a door resembling a mill stone.

Flickr Dan Merino Derinkuyu Stone Doorway

Underground City in Cappadocia

In addition to tunnels and rooms themselves, there are other notable features. There are stairs, ventilation shafts, wells, and storage areas with nooks and crannies of various shapes, including wine troughs.

Underground City in Cappadocia

Flickr Helen Cook Derinkuyu Wine Recepticles

Clearly some areas were left in quite rough shape.

Flickr jyl4032 Derinkuyu Unnamed View

Flickr Patrick Barry Derinkuyu Room w Woman

Others were carefully detailed. For example, there is a room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Flickr Takehiko Ono Derinkuyu Vaulted Room

At its largest, Derinkuyu seems to have been able to house 20,000 people and their livestock and supplies.

Found via Ticia Verveer on Twitter.

Images: Cappadocia: Derinkuyu and Pigeon Valley 2015 by Anthony G. Reyes on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0). Stone doorway by Dan Merino on Flickr (CC NY-ND 2.0). Stairs down by David Welch on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Two levels with steps and corridors by David Welch on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Wine recepticles by Helen Cook on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Unnamed view of rough corridor by jyl4032 on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0). Room with a woman for scale by Patrick Barry on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Vaulted room by Takehiko Ono on Flickr (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0).

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Striking Iron: A New Exhibition at the National Museum of African Art

One of the current exhibits at the National Museum of African Art is “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths”. It focuses on blacksmithing in sub-Saharan Africa and features works dating from the 17th century to recent times: not just weapons, but other tools and implements such as musical instruments.

The range and design of shapes is truly impressive. Below are just some of the examples.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Ceremonial Knives

I wasn’t familiar with the concept of rain wands (image below) before. They were planted in the earth with the intention of drawing the life force of the Earth up toward the heavens in order to bring down rain.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Rain Wands

Various kinds of sound instruments are also displayed, including lamellophones.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Lamellophone

And, since it’s ironworking, there are weapons.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Double-bladed Dagger

I’m especially struck by the multiple elaborate curls of the ceremonial knives and the rain wand in the shape of a three-headed snake. Simply stunning.

The exhibition runs until October 20, 2019.

Found via NPR—make sure to visit the article for more photos!

Images: Ceremonial knives by Olivia Sun for NPR (Democratic Republic of the Congo; 19th century; iron). Rain wands by Olivia Sun for NPR (Nigeria; iron). Lamellophone (chisanji) via Smithsonian (Chokwe artist, Angola; late 19th century; wood and iron). Double-bladed dagger by Olivia Sun for NPR (late 19th-century Sudan; iron, bone, and crocodile skin).

The Graceful Curves of the Vogelherd Horse

Like the Stone Age twig horse I blogged about a few years ago, this ivory horse is rather magnificent:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:4_Pferd_Vogelherd_Kopie.jpg

Found in the Vogelherd cave in south-western Germany, it’s carved from woolly mammoth ivory with flint tools in the Aurignacian period, from 40,000 to 28,000 BCE.

Like other animal figurines found in the same layers, the horse appears astonighingly lively and graceful. I’ve done a little bit of wood carving in my life, and—like all sculpting—it definitely takes not just skill but also pre-planning. I can’t imagine what carving ivory with flint would be like, but I’ve no doubt there are quite a few tricks that go into it.

Whatever the use of the Vogelherd horse was, it’s clear that the maker(s) invested time and significant effort into making their art—a good indication that the creativity, dedication, and determination of the modern human do have deep roots.

Found via The Ice Age (@Jamie_Woodward_) on Twitter.

Image: horse figurine from the Vogelherd cave via Wikipedia (Baden-Württemberg, Germany; c. 32,000-35,000 BCE; ivory)

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Traditional Andean Design Finds New Life in Architectural Details

The city of El Alto in Bolivia, high up in the Andes, is the country’s second largest city and right next to the third largest one, La Paz. Something that El Alto beats its richer neighbor in is unique eye candy right on the building facades.

That’s because an architect, Freddy Mamani Silvestre, is slowly working bright colors into El Alto’s red-brick and concrete scenery.

Wikipedia Mamani Cholet1

Information on Silvestre seems scant in English. A member of the indigenous Aymara, he apparently started working on buildings as a bricklayer. There’s a feature on El Alto in The New York Times in 2013 and in The Washington Post in 2014. He’s referred to in a 2014 BBC News article on president Evo Morales. The Architectural Association, Inc., still has their exhibition info Salones de Eventos from 2015 available online. I also found two articles via the German Wikipedia entry for Silvestri: one in The Architectural Review and the other in Quartz, both from 2015. The best bet at the moment might be the 2017 book El Alto by Silvestre and Peter Granser. For Spanish readers there’s more, including the 2014 book La arquitectura de Freddy Mamani Silvestre.

Quartz Mamani Salon Montecarlo

Silvestri draws on traditional shapes and colors in his designs. Some of the detailing reminds me of jugend (I believe the phrase art deco is used in the U.S. instead), but Silvestri’s work is clearly not derivative of it.

Architectural Association Mamani Green Building

If the exteriors seem colorful and detailed, just wait until you see the interiors!

Colossal Mamani Green Interior

Wow! His style has been described as Neo-Andean, new Andean, space-ship architecture or, plainly, kitch. However you may want to describe it, the word colorful will have to be there!

Found via Colossal.

Images: Cholet (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikipedia. Salón Montecarlo by Alfredo Zeballos / The Architecture of Freddy Mamani Silvestre via Quartz. Green exterior via The Architectural Association, Inc. Green interior via Colossal.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Turning Vinegar and Lobster Shells into Sustainable Bioplastic

Four Master’s students from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London, UK, have created a bioplastic from chitin combined with vinegar. This sustainable plastic can be manipulated to produce items of varying stiffness, flexibility, thickness, and translucence by adjusting the ratios of the base ingredients.

Instagram Shellworks Variety of Material Properties

Instagram Shellworks Bags Bubblewrap

Apparently, the material can also be turned back into the original bioplastic solution.

Shellworks is Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar, and Andrew Edwards. Their work is still at prototype stage, but it sounds like there is a potential for increasingly (if not utterly and entirely) recyclable, non-toxic plastic here. Sounds awesome!

Visit the Shellworks website or Instagram for more.

Found via Colossal.

Images: Variety of Material Properties by Shellworks on Instagram. Bags and bubblewrap by Shellworks on Instagram.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

An Example of the Infinite Possibilities of Writing Systems: Mandombe

I recently came across Endangered Alphabets, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization engaged in “preserving endangered cultures by using their writing systems to create artwork and educational materials”.

An article in Colossal pulled several examples from the Endangered database. The most striking of them, I thought, was Mandombe. It was created about 40 years ago by David Wabeladio Payi. His work was influenced by the look of a brick wall and a wish to connect the direction a shape pointed with pronunciation.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe-script-example Sm

Apparently, Mandombe is based on consonant and vowel graphemes, but they are organized into syllabic blocks (like written Korean) instead of word-length units.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe Script Table Sm

Today, Mandombe is taught in Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, and Brussels.

Wikipedia Mandombe Book Sm

Isn’t it fascinating?

P.S. Did you know that the United Nations declared 2019 The Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019) in order to raise awareness of the thousands of languages that are in danger of disappearing? Also, go ahead and visit the gallery or atlas at Endangered Alphabets for even more eye candy!

Images: script sample and table via Endangered Alphabets. Mandombe book via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Visual Inspiration: Now I See from Where Ents Might Have Come

As a kid, I spent time playing in the small wooded areas nearby and imagined all sorts of critters living there. I know I did, but at some point I lost the ability (or willingness, or perhaps leisure? I remember an increase in homework around the same time). By the time I read of the enormous woodlands in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I remember having trouble imagining the really large trees of Lothlórien or Mirkwood, or how Ents might be mistaken for trees.

You see, I grew up two hours south of the Arctic Circle. We have woods up there, of course, thanks to the Gulf stream. The trees may not necessarily grow very big, however—although there are exceptions—and the ones that do grow tall tend to be relatively thin and arrow-straight instead of bulky and gnarly. (Two examples here and here. Both are further south than where I grew up, but nevertheless very similar.)

So, even I can easily imagine how a forest might invoke stories of elves, trolls, ents, and other creatures on the basis of photos of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, Devon, England.

Flickr Andy Walker Wistmans Wood

Flickr Clifton Beard Wistmans Wood

Flickr Natural England Peter Wakely Wistmans Wood

Isn’t it breathtaking? It’s like there are Ents about to walk out from behind a tree at any moment!

Images: Andy Walker (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flicker. Clifton Beard (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr. Natural England/Peter Wakely (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?