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Celebrating Kitschmas, plus a new memoir navigates Jewish and Muslim cultures

 November 30, 2023 at 2:15 PM PST

S1: Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hindman. Today is our arts and culture show. We're telling you about a Christmas kitsch exhibit , plus other events happening this weekend. And a local professor shares her experience of cultural exchange in a new memoir. This is Midday Edition Connecting our communities Through Conversation. In our weekend preview , we have some dance , a new nativity play , soul music , and a kitschy Christmas installation. Joining me with all the details is Kpbs Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Julia , welcome.

S2: Hi , Jane. Thanks for having me.

S1: Always glad to have you here. So let's start with what's called a kitsch Miss Pageant. Tell me more about that.

S2: So this is the artist duo known as Brian and Ryan. And they've been working together , mostly taking the form of performance art and installation art. They've been working together for a long time , like decades. And it's two artists , Brian Black and Ryan Bullis. They're fun , they're irreverent and abstract and just really curious. And that comes across in their art. It's all super engaging , and one of the things they do nearly every year is what they call Christmas. And this year it's at the Athenaeum Art Center at Bread and Salt. That's in Logan Heights. And they've set up a whole kitschy , lowbrow Christmas scene with installations and displays. There's a ton of little sculptures and and weird Christmas ornaments. It's all on view through the end of the month. But the opening reception that's Friday night will also have a bunch of performances. There'll be some singing , but also performance art stuff. One example is Michelle Mountjoy. She is this amazing local fiber artist. She will be knitting a giant sock while she's sitting in the audience.

S1: And you had a chance to sit down with Brian and Ryan this week to really ask them where this fascination with kitsch comes from. Let's take a listen to that interview.

S2: Okay , let's talk about Christmas.

S3: We're really interested in all kinds of Jonas of of Christmas , probably dating back to the 1950s , all the way up to current. And we're always personally interested in new and unique interpretations of the season and how people create decor. And especially for Christmas , things that really shouldn't exist exists all of a sudden. And there's definitely a lot of television specials and things that we definitely reflect on. And we're we're interested in and try to bring that into into our practice. I know one thing we have happening this year that I'm excited about is we have a giant talking Christmas tree , and this is something in my childhood in Peoria , Illinois , my parents would like just drop me in front of this giant tree that would talk to me for like , I don't know , however long it took them to to buy Christmas presents , they would just leave me at this tree. And and I'm explaining that to Ryan and he's like , don't know what you're talking about. I'm like , didn't everybody have a giant talking Christmas tree ? And he's like , no , I don't think so. And no one else did. I ended up researching in it. It was a phenomenon in this little Midwestern kind of area of central Illinois. And so I guess it's just kind of remembering all the things we we particularly loved about Christmas. You know , we didn't just love getting toys , but we just liked the trees and going to my grandma's house and seeing her older plastic ornaments and , and just all the different variations of , of Christmas and the Christmas decor that's out there.

S2: So you're , you're opening a kitsch mass exhibition at the Athenaeum Art center , and it's in Logan Heights. Can you tell us what that how this manifests in an exhibit ? And what are some of the elements that are that are part of Christmas ? I'll toss that one to you , Ryan. Sure.

S4: Sure. So , by and large , the bulk of our kitchen's past has been. Ornament driven. And so we've made many , many ornaments over the years , and they're often kind of sourced from little toys and little vintage items and all the kind of bric a brac of Christmas. But through the years , we've also been able to , like , decorate hotel lobbies , and we've created a scene that kind of created a narrative about us saving Christmas from mutant gingerbread men. And along the way , we just kind of built up all these little other forms , including quasi sculptural imagery. And we've been interested in expanding this out and and bringing other voices into the conversation. And so there are many ornaments in places you would expect them , like on Christmas trees and on Garland , as well as on racks for sale. And then all these other kind of embellished sculptural forms will be dotted around the space. But this year is kind of special because we have a we keep calling it a pageant , but it's a little bit more of a showcase of different performance artists who are taking on Christmas in a kind of when a youth Christmas pageant happens. You go and see a class like sing , right ? So you see all these little acts perform maybe at a school. And it was kind of reminiscent of that idea. And so we have a variety of artists who are participating in that. And so that that begins at 7:00 and goes until we finish. And so the whole event is from 6 to 9. But the pageant begins at seven , and hopefully it will be like a fun celebration of Christmas and variety of forms. And we're also unsure what that will look like , because we've never done a pageant like this before , so we're excited.

S2: So kitsch. The idea of kitsch is is really wrapped up in this idea of like lowbrow art or lowbrow culture , and that also implies a high brow art or a high brow culture. What does that distinction mean to you in terms of kitsch and in terms of your work ? Ryan , let's let's go to you. Sure.

S4: Sure. I mean , I think not having access to much of contemporary art or art museums growing up , most of my exposure to visual culture was through objects and images , comic books , things that many artists probably are inspired by. But I think being able to appreciate something that's mass produced and maybe cheaply produced , or standing in line at 7-Eleven and looking at the gumball machines with the little toys inside and and just appreciating these , the smallest of gestures that somebody designed , that somebody spent time and energy making decisions. And then along that mechanical process , there are often little inaccuracies. And when a little object is painted , like , sometimes you get these really kind of beautiful mistakes. And so I think by and large , I feel like an artist's responsibility is to shine light onto things that we sometimes overlook. And in a very small way , when you appreciate these kitsch objects that are often throwaway objects , images , cards , you're bringing more empathy to the world and in a very small way. And and I think we embrace the absurdity of that idea. But the more we commit to it , I think the more real that kind of kitsch magic becomes.

S3: And had a little bit to that. Ryan , I think also the thing , even from the the very first time we had a show at , at Lux , we were really amazed at like how it affected people. Like we didn't , you know , people were writing us letters saying like how this brought back wonderful memories. And , you know , I'm not saying we have tons of fans , but we definitely have some real hardcore fans out there for us. And people have come out and like , you know , we needed things done for this show and they're like , we're going to do it for you. So like , I feel like this has this goes beyond just the two of us in this concept. And it has to do with with people wanting that , not just nostalgia , but just kind of that positive memory coming back.

S1: That was the artist duo Brian and Ryan , talking about their kitsch Miss Pageant event Friday at the Athenaeum Arts Center in Logan Heights. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , and I'm talking about weekend arts events with Kpbs arts producer Julia Dixon Evans. So , Julia , let's talk about dance.

S2: And this is a contemporary dance company. This weekend's production is just three shows. It's just this weekend , and it's called Pieces of Us. There are four choreographers , including the retired founder of San Diego Dance Theater. Jeanne Isaacs , and these dance works are intended to explore unity and beauty , especially in the face of division and differences. So that's definitely one of those now more than ever things. And these performances are at their Lightbox Theater. It's in Liberty Station and it is this really lovely , but also kind of low key space to see some dance. And their choreography also always seems to be really approachable and diverse , while also still being beautiful and artful. So for first time , contemporary dance people are also longtime fans. It's a really great place to start. The shows are Friday and Saturday nights at seven , and then a matinee at 2:00 on Sunday. Wow.

S1: Wow. In theater , there's another sort of alternative holiday classic , this time by a local playwright. Tell us about Star of Ocotillo.

S2: Yeah , this is being billed as a new nativity play. It's by Herbert Sequenza , who wrote it for On Stage Playhouse in Chula Vista. And it starts with a wealthy couple and all of their wealthy friends who've built this , this lavish home , this lavish lifestyle in the desert near the border. And we also have a young undocumented girl who is hiding out in the desert nearby. And the play kind of follows what happens when those worlds collide. And a cool thing about this production is that on Stage Playhouse has a donation based ticketing system. It's part of their push to broaden their audience beyond the traditional theatregoers. So they're trying to remove whatever barriers are keeping people from coming to see plays. So donations start at $15 a ticket online , and it opens on Friday and runs through the 23rd of the month.

S1: And from theater to music , now there's a soul , rock and R&B show at the Casbah tonight.

S2: And this is their latest single. It's called Sun Kissed Afro.

UU: Curly hair. I know you love my curly hair. You could never stop and stare. I know that we got something here. Oh , curly. I know you love his curly hair. You wanna run your fingers through it while we breathing in the ocean air. Oh , sundress I soft skin out of your riptide. Can't you swim ? And maybe the sun says on the west side. But I got a question. I. Let me show you. Cal. Love. I know you like my Sunkist Afro. Loved the beach right now.

S2: And we , the commies have put out a handful of singles already this year , so I'm hopeful that means an album is on the horizon. And for tonight's show , The Casbah , they're opening for Ohe Dead , which is a soul and rock band from D.C. they're known for their incredible live shows. So I think this is going to be great , especially in the Casbah space. I'll leave you with their recent single. It's called Lightning Drunk.

UU: Oh , you got me and my feels now. I can't even tell what is real now. Oh , you got me on a hill. The don't hit my. On the road down. Stop me baby get me in the mood. Let you keep me with your attitude. Crazy thunder , shake my windowpane A storm is coming big. And you like me. You like I let you love. Can I get the blues ? Good. And I'm like Angel , but I can't get up the silly tree , love.

S1: You can find details on these and more arts events , and sign up for Julia's weekly newsletter at pbs.org. Smarts. I've been speaking with Kpbs Arts producer Julia Dixon Evans. Julia , thanks.

S2: Thank you. Jade.

S1: Coming up , a local professor shares her story of cultural exchange in a new memoir.

S5:

S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , a San Diego professor , is out with her debut memoir. The book saying inshallah with chutzpah , follows one unlikely scenario a Jewish woman working for a muslim government after setting a wedding date to her then fiance. Jessica Keith accepts an offer to work for the Consulate of Kuwait in Los Angeles. There , she helps students with their scholarships and adjustment to American college life. But what starts out as a new job during an economic crisis becomes an opportunity to navigate two different cultures and grow new relationships along the way. Jessica Keith joins me now to talk about the book. And Professor Keith , welcome.

S5: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: So glad you're joining us. So the title reflects a key theme in your book and also this bridge between Muslim and Jewish cultures.

S5: So the title , inshallah is an Arabic word which means if God wills it. And chutzpah means with courage or takes risks of fearless. So if someone tells you you have hotspur , it means they admire the fact that you're not afraid to do or say something that shocks or surprises people. So the idea of saying inshallah with chutzpah is this idea of understanding or looking into saying an Arabic word from a Jewish perspective , from a Jewish voice.

S1: And you had a really unique experience working in the Kuwait government.

S5: And I had been applying for jobs , and after a year , I got a call to interview at what was listed as a cultural office , and I wasn't sure exactly what that was , but I figured it had to be better than wrapping presents. And my background was in international education. So I went to the interview and I was introduced to a woman with the name Carla , and I was like , oh , Carla , like like the Jewish bread. And there was a lot of yelling in the interview , but yelling with excitement. And I was used to that from my Jewish family. And how we speak with excitement. So when I was in the room , I didn't understand the words that the director was using. He would yell , Marhaba la la la ! And then hamdullah shukran. And I did not know any Arabic and I was not familiar with Kuwait. I don't even think I could have found it on a map , but he was so enthusiastic and excited , and this led me to the job.

S1: That it's excellent.

S5: And this is a narrative we don't hear. We don't hear enough , but we really don't hear this beautiful and funny journey of a Jewish woman. And mainly having developing this lovely relationship with her boss , who was the cultural attache for Kuwait and I want there to be stories that people can carry that show another side.

S1: And , you know , you really wanted to focus on Jewish stories about joy.

S5: That is part of our culture , which is not uncommon to to many cultures , but as as Jews. We carry that. And it's really important to me that , especially as it's a coming of age story , that a younger generation of Jews , as they're hearing about the war right now , even that that they know that that's not the only narrative. Narrative that we have , that we carry , that we don't have to just shoulder the burden of our history , but that we can also lift up the positive voices and hear our positive stories and let saying inshallah , with chutzpah , be a reminder of the positive stories we carry. Right.

S1: And it's really important for young people , right , to experience these stories and really see this joyful kind of representation.

S5: Yes , yes. It's not a story we hear enough and through the book saying inshallah with chutzpah. It's a coming of age story. You know , it's it's relatable in the sense of it's myself as a young woman without a job temping and what it what it looks like to kind of go out in the work working force and not knowing what's right and just being in in Lost in Translation and in unfamiliar waters.

S1: And this book is also really funny. You write with this sort of sardonic voice that really captures the experience of navigating both cultures.

S5: So my boss said to me , marrying one woman is like eating chicken for the rest of your life , which now when you hear that it might sound demeaning and it might sound degrading , and you might make a lot of assumptions from hearing that. But at the time , what it said to me was that the cultural attache from Kuwait felt comfortable with me as an American woman , enough to make a joke about marrying multiple women. And now when I speak to young students about it and they challenge me on it , I spoke to them about the history of it. Like , why is it that men historically have been able to take on more than one wife ? And the students assume that that was just in Muslim culture , but that also historically was also in Jewish culture. So when we hear that remark , I think some people might make assumptions about it , but it's important to pause and think about what that actually meant historically. And the assumptions that we make say more about ourselves than it does about the statement.

S1: And you , even you took a cake to an office party , right ? Yes.

S5: It was an office birthday , which we all know. Office birthdays can be awkward , and I had assumed that everyone had forgotten my coworkers birthday , so I stopped and got a tiramisu. When I arrived at the office , it turned out everyone had bought a cake or made a cake , assuming that everyone else had forgotten as well. When it got time to serve my cake , it was served to one of my coworkers , Abdul Batten , and all of the sudden I see a woman charging like a bull across the office , smacking the cake off his plate and looking at me , mouthing , you idiot ! And I thought , okay , no , it has coffee in it. But I had seen him at Starbucks and I thought , I know he can drink coffee. And then I thought , oh , it's the ladyfingers , but there's alcohol in tiramisu. Oh.

S1: You know , I didn't know that.

S5: Yes , yes , there's alcohol in it. And this was a it was a learning opportunity but also speaks to my naivete , you know , in trying to do all of the right things , I often misstep. Yeah.

S6: Yeah.

S1: But you know what ? There's a blessing in all the missteps for sure , in opportunities to learn. You know , you write about some of the challenges you faced at work. Also , how the people in your life responded when you took the job. Tell me more about that.

S5: I have a debilitating anxiety disorder , and I was afraid that if I didn't move away and see that I could survive on my own , that I had this fear that if Tyrone died , I wouldn't be able to survive.

S1:

S5: And this is this is when I go to speak about the book. It does delve into what it looks like to have an anxiety disorder. And a lot of people say , well , that must mean you don't have it anymore , right ? I mean , you wrote this book , you teach , you speak to large audiences about the book so you don't have it anymore , right ? And part of what I try to show in the book is what it looks like to have an anxiety disorder. And in speaking with people now about it , I try to explain the duality that exists , that you can have a debilitating anxiety disorder and still present to hundreds of people on the book. I could work for this government and do what I considered , you know , outstanding work. But every day and every time I took the elevator to ride to the 18th floor of the Century City Twin Tower , I believed I was going to die.

S1: So it's definitely something that you live with , learn to live with and cope with.

S5: So a lot of passages in the book are my internal voice. So outwardly you'll see me. I'm in maybe in a suit or nice pants and a nice jacket with makeup on , but inside , the thoughts in my head take over repeating , you're going to die and there's nothing you can do about it. And as my logic self , I know , like right now , when I'm not in a state of panic , I can say to you , I know I'm not going to die. I know that riding the elevator , it's not going to kill me. But the second I step into the elevator , that logical self is not part of my body. It leaves my body and the panic takes over. Wow.

S1: Wow.

S5: I have three young children. I have a full time job. There was a pandemic. There was no in-person school for an entire year. And , you know , in between all of the things , it was a project of passion that I just kept with. Yeah.

S7: Yeah.

S1: And you also teach cross-cultural communication at Sdsu.

S5: It's what it does. Also is it helps students understand that I have I have when I speak with international students studying in the US , I try to describe being in a similar situation , understanding what it feels like to be a fish out of water. I want them to understand that I'm not just speaking to that or lecturing on it , but I have been vulnerable enough to share the insides , the intimate details of what that looked like for me.

S1:

S5: But the story is a reminder of breaking assumptions , acknowledging the assumptions that we have versus understanding the realities. And sometimes it's easier for us to decide that our assumptions are accurate. And my hope is through the book and through teaching and through my life , that I have people consider another side to that.

S1: I've been speaking with Jessica Keith , author of the memoir , saying inshallah with chutzpah. The book is out now. Professor Keith , thank you so much for joining us.

S5: Thank you so much for having me. And for people in San Diego. They can find the book at their local bookstore , the Book Catapult in South Park in La Jolla , at Warwicks in Los Angeles at Romans , or on Amazon.

A "Kitschmas" display by artist duo Brian & Ryan is shown in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Brian & Ryan
A "Kitschmas" display by artist duo Brian & Ryan is shown in an undated photo.

Midday Edition is back with another arts and culture show. KPBS/arts producer Julia Dixon Evans shares her picks for the weekend in dance, theater and music. Plus, she sat down with artist duo Brian & Ryan to talk about Kitschmas, their festive and artistic holiday-themed installation.

Finally, a San Diego State University lecturer writes about her unique experience as a Jewish woman working for the Consulate of Kuwait in her memoir, “Saying Inshallah with Chutzpah.”

Guests: