Yesterday, I was reading an article in The New Yorker by Morgan Meis about the discovery of the world’s oldest cave painting. It was a fascinating story of how an archeological team in Indonesia’s island of Sulawesi was exploring a remote valley. There were no roads into the valley, and there was nothing on their maps to suggest a way through the bush and mountain peaks. It sounded like a real archeological adventure into the unknown. Their maps show few signs of habitation in the valley. The team asked for directions anytime they encountered anyone, and they felt as if they were continually lost. Eventually they were able to find a path through a cave that led into this hidden valley, which the archeologists continue to call the “secret valley”—a term they use to protect the caves, which they don’t want to be easily found. The Lascaux cave found in Montignac, France was closed to the public in 1963, because their condition was deteriorating due to the exhalations of the 1,200 visitors per day, the presence of light, and changes in air circulation creating problems that threatened the preservation of the cave. Keeping the Indonesian valley secret is the only way at this time to preserve what the archeological team found.
The area of the secret valley was inhabited by an especially isolated group of Bugis people, an ethnic group of southern Sulawesi who I found to be a very interesting people because they recognize five separate genders. These Bugis claimed never to have seen a single Westerner in their valley. Something I will get back to in a minute. The archeological team began to explore the caves in the area and, a few days later, one of the archeologists entered one of them alone. There he found a spectacular painting of a Sulawesi warty pig, a medium-sized, hairy boar with small pointy ears and short legs. Near the rear of the pig was painted silhouettes of two human hands. The archeologist recognized that the artwork was very old, but just how old, he did not know. Technology was rough in to test the age of the painting using uranium-series dating. The answer was astonishing: the painting of the warty pig was at least 45,500 years old. This makes it the oldest known example of figurative cave art in the world. The cave paintings at Lascaux are estimated at around 17,000 years. The famous animal paintings in the Chauvet cave, of France, previously thought to be the oldest, are dated at around thirty-five thousand years old; the Sulawesi warty pig outdoes them by roughly ten thousand years.
All of this was fascinating, but what struck me about the article was one sentence: “The area was inhabited by an especially isolated group of Bugis people, an ethnic group of southern Sulawesi who recognizes five separate genders.” While the cave paintings are fascinating and add to the history of early humans, I find the concept of societies that accept more than two genders to be interesting, and I knew I had to do more research on this.
The Bugis people are the most numerous of the three major ethnic groups of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, with about 3 million people. Most Bugis are Muslim, but many pre-Islamic rites continue to be honored in their culture, including the view that gender exists on a spectrum. In contrast to the idea of only two genders (male and female), Bugis society recognizes five genders: makkunrai, oroané, bissu, calabai, and calalai. The concept of five genders has been a key part of their culture for at least six centuries. Oroané are comparable to cisgender men, makkunrai to cisgender women, calalai to transgender men, and calabai to transgender women, while bissu are androgynous or intersex and revered shamans or community priests.
Native American societies often recognized three genders: male, female, and two spirit similar to the Bugis concept of bissu. For one to be considered bissu, all aspects of gender must be combined to form a whole. It is believed that you are born with the propensity to become a bissu, revealed in a baby whose genitalia are ambiguous. These ambiguous genitalia need not be visible; a normative male who becomes a bissu is believed to be female on the inside. This combination of sexes enables a ‘meta-gender’ identity to emerge. However, ambiguous genitalia alone do not confer the state of being a bissu. The person must also learn the language, songs and incantations, and have a gift for bestowing blessings in order to become bissu. They must remain celibate and wear conservative clothes.
Bugis society has a cultural belief that all five genders must coexist harmoniously; but by 2019 the numbers of bissu had declined dramatically, after years of increasing persecution and the tradition of revering bissu as traditional community priests. Bissu have mostly survived by participating in weddings as maids of honor and working as farmers as well as performing their cultural roles as priests. Hardline Islamic groups, police, and politicians have all played their part in Indonesia’s increased harassment and discrimination of nonheterosexuals. After independence in 1949, the ancient Bugis kingdoms were incorporated into the new republic and bissus’ roles became increasingly sidelined. A regional Islamic rebellion in South Sulawesi led to further persecution. As the atmosphere became increasingly hostile to nonheterosexuals, fewer people were willing to take on the role of bissu.
According to the Bugis gender system, calabai are generally assigned male at birth but take on the role of heterosexual females. Their fashions and gender expression are distinctly feminine but do not match that of “typical” heterosexual women. Calabai embrace their femininity and live as women, but do not think of themselves as female, nor wish to be female or feel trapped in a male’s body, and they are respected by society. They are supported by family, and men accept them as males, living in feminine embodiment. The calalai are assigned female at birth but take on the roles of heterosexual males. They dress and present themselves as men, hold masculine jobs and typically live with female partners to adopt children.
The concept of five genders is not as fluid as a full spectrum of gender. The Bugis concept is more rigid than many who reject the idea of a gender binary. Along with cisgender males and cisgender females are transgender men and transgender women, nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer, and agender individuals, among many other possible definitions. Some experts suggest that there may be 100 genders or more and different cultures may use different identifications for one gender or another. The key, advocates suggest, is not pinning down a definitive list of gender possibilities but to be accepting of everyone’s declared gender.
I’m attending a virtual conference this week, and it is just as boring as you can imagine. The conference is one I have to attend for work, but few of the sessions even remotely interest me. So, yesterday I was preparing to listen to one of the sessions when they began to introduce it and say that it would begin with breakout sessions to discuss how we deal with this particular topic at our museum. I’d tuned in hoping to hear about how we could implement what they were supposed to be discussing, and they wanted me to talk about how I did something that I was there to learn how to do. I was not in the mood. I had no desire to be part of a group discussion when I knew very little about the topic, and I was in no mood to be interactive with anyone. So, I logged out of the session and decided to read some articles I’d planned on reading. One in particular I found fascinating and wanted to share it in my blog post today.
I began to write my post intending to finish it and email it to myself. I did finish writing the post, but then I got distracted and forgot to send it to myself. I’ll post it tomorrow. It’s on my office computer and I did not have access to it from home to post today. In other words, stay tuned.
A week or so ago, it snowed for the first time this season, but it was barely a dusting of snow. The night before last we got about an inch of snow and it snowed all day yesterday, although none of it stuck and most of the overnight snow had melted by mid-morning. This seems like one of the latest first snow fall we’ve had since I moved to Vermont. Most years, we’ve gotten snow in mid- to late-October and if we didn’t get any snow before Halloween, it has snowed the first week of November. Whenever it snows, I always hear the above song in my head, especially now that I live in Vermont.
It won’t be long before we’ll all be there with snow
I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow
I long to clear a path and lift a spade of snow
Oh, to see a great big man entirely made of snow
Once the snow starts, it’s here until May. And so it begins…
The sci-fi geek in me had to include this small clip from the show Babylon 5 because I always hear in my head the phrase “And so it begins,” in Kosh’s voice.
In honor of one of the nations biggest Batman aficionados announcing his retirement, I give you this picture of a Batman tattoo. The aficionado, Senator Patrick Leahy, has been in five Batman movies, helped write a Batman graphic novel, and voiced a character in the Batman animated series. Because he began his love of Batman at Montpelier, Vermont’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library where he first discovered Batman comic books at age 4, he has donated all of the money he’s made from his movie appearances to the library, which has financed the Patrick Leahy Wing that houses a new Children’s Library.
I am not exactly celebrating his retirement because it leaves his Senate seat up for grabs with the possibility of our popular Republican governor Phil Scott as a possible candidate, although Leahy on Monday seemed to already be endorsing Vermont Congressman Peter Welch for the job. However, that’s all I’m going to say, because this is a Pic of the Day, not a political post.
Before we get to the poem, I wanted to update you on the job search outcome. My boss did take my suggestion and hire the candidate I had advocated for during the process. Now onto the poem.
By Frank O’Hara
So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping
our mouths shut? as if we’d been pierced by a glance!
The song of an old cow is not more full of judgment
than the vapors which escape one’s soul when one is sick;
so I pull the shadows around me like a puff
and crinkle my eyes as if at the most exquisite moment
of a very long opera, and then we are off!
without reproach and without hope that our delicate feet
will touch the earth again, let alone “very soon.”
It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate.
I start like ice, my finger to my ear, my ear
to my heart, that proud cur at the garbage can
in the rain. It’s wonderful to admire oneself
with complete candor, tallying up the merits of each
of the latrines. 14th Street is drunken and credulous,
53 rd tries to tremble but is too at rest. The good
love a park and the inept a railway station,
and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up
and down the lengthening shadow of an Abyssinian head
in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air
crying to confuse the brave “It’s a summer day,
and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”
About the Poet
On March 27, 1926, Frank (Francis Russell) O’Hara was born in Maryland. He grew up in Massachusetts, and later studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944. O’Hara then served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II.
Following the war, O’Hara studied at Harvard College, where he majored in music and worked on compositions and was deeply influenced by contemporary music, his first love, as well as visual art. He also wrote poetry at that time. While at Harvard, O’Hara met John Ashbery and soon began publishing poems in the Harvard Advocate. Despite his love for music, O’Hara changed his major and left Harvard in 1950 with a degree in English. He then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and received his MA in 1951. That autumn, O’Hara moved into an apartment in New York. He was soon employed at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art and continued to write seriously.
O’Hara’s early work was considered both provocative and provoking. In 1952, his first volume of poetry, A City Winter, and Other Poems, attracted favorable attention; his essays on painting and sculpture and his reviews for ArtNews were considered brilliant. O’Hara became one of the most distinguished members of the New York School of poets, which also included Ashbery. O’Hara’s association with painters Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns, also leaders of the New York School, became a source of inspiration for his highly original poetry. He attempted to produce with words the effects these artists had created on canvas. In certain instances, he collaborated with the painters to make “poem-paintings,” paintings with word texts.
O’Hara’s most original volumes of verse, Meditations in an Emergency (1956) and Lunch Poems (1964), are impromptu lyrics, a jumble of witty talk, journalistic parodies, and surrealist imagery.
O’Hara continued working at the Museum of Modern Art throughout his life, curating exhibitions and writing introductions and catalogs for exhibits and tours. On July 25, 1966, while vacationing on Fire Island, Frank O’Hara was killed in a sand buggy accident. He was forty years old.