by Max Sparber in ,

Once, there was a stamp. It was diamond-shaped, and on it was a picture of a camel racing a locomotive. It came into the hands of a young boy named Richard Feynman, and his name may be familiar to you, because he later grew up to the win the Nobel prize in physics in 1965.

As a boy, Richard collected stamps, and the one with the camel joined others in his collection, all from someplace in the world called Tuva. At night, he dreamed of Tuva.

It was then inaccessible, and very little was known about it. There were field recordings of Tuvans singing, their voices somehow producing two tones at once, one deep and guttural, one high and flutelike. Richard spent his life obsessed with Tuva, and, at the end of his days, sick with cancer, he tried to go to the country that made the stamp. It took him a decade to make arrangements, and he died just before his visa arrived.

This is the power of an image. Sometimes it seems like the world is not so very big a place, but then we see something that reminds us that there is still so much of it we haven’t seen and do not know. We’re all a bit like that boy in Far Rockaway, Richard Feynman, looking at a stamp of a camel racing a train and wondering at it.

The gallery space at KANEKO is just now filled with images like these. It’s an exhibit created for the Annenberg Space for Photography, called “No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in a Modern World,” and it was organized by a man named Wade Davis, who knows a thing or two about how big the world is. He has a remarkable title – he is the Explorer in Residence at National Geographic. His career has mostly been focused on ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology, fields that look at how indigenous cultures use plants for ritual purposes and for medicine.

Davis also authored a book many years ago called “The Serpent and the Rainbow” that recounted his experiences in Haiti trying to track down the origins of stories about zombies, which he credited to blowfish poison, which can simulate death. The book was made into a horror film of the same title in 1988, in which Bill Pullman, as Davis, is buried alive and must dig his way out of a coffin, and how many ethnopharmocologists can claim that? There can’t be more than five or six, probably.

Davis takes photos on his adventures, and he’s not alone. This exhibit is made up of a handful of photographers’ work, spanning the globe and investigating the intersection between culture, history, and the world. The text of the exhibit alternates between alarming – we are in a period of mass language extinction, as an example – and a bit woo, in that there is a tendency to describe these cultures as somehow being mystically in touch with the ebb and flow of nature in a way modern man has forgotten. And perhaps they are – I haven’t met them, and all I really know about nature is that I am sure it would kill me if it had a chance.

But it is the photos that do the most work. Or, rather, I should say that they have the potential to inspire the most work, in that the images raise questions that demand to be answered, and the viewer needs to take responsibility for finding those answers. There are images of African tribal rituals and of Buddhist training (including an image from the Shaolin Temple that provides more evidence for a pet theory of mine: everything is improved by kung fu.) There is a startling image of fowl hunters emerging from the Indus River in Pakistan with birds attached to their heads like masks, effectively making the hunters into living decoys. There is a photo of a Pashupatinath yogi engaged in “penis yoga,” hoisting bricks with his member while staring at the camera with an expression that is not easy to discern, although it is not the expression I would have picked were I in the same circumstance.

The images seem to belie the title – these are images of strangeness. Indeed, the show highlights the moments that distinguish their subjects from their viewers – few Omahans, as an example, will participate in teenage circumcision or scarification rituals. Although, in fairness, the world may be big, but people travel a lot in it, and so there may be a few Omahans who will experience these things. I won’t be doing penis yoga anytime soon, but there are those of you who might, and I’ve seen more surprising things become popular. Perhaps Omaha will find itself at the forefront of a penis yoga fad, for those who are finding hot yoga a bit dated and are looking for something a tittle more outré.

I am sure there will be those who respond to the Pashupatinath yogi, in the way that the diamond stamp of the camel struck young Richard Feynman. There were photos that struck me, and, in fact, they are no too far removed from Feynman’s beloved Tuva. They are photos by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a Harvard-trained scholar and photographer with a fascination for outer Mongolia. And who wouldn’t be fascinated?

Sardar-Afkhami’s photographs look into Mongolia, especially the “Dark Havens,” a no-man’s-land regularly targeted by Tuvan bandits, where reindeer herders have gunfights with rustlers, and where men on horseback hunt with eagles. The images are extremely striking, especially to me – I imagine it’s very much as Feynman felt as a boy, seeing the Tuvan stamps. The photos demand investigation. Who are these people? How is it that there is a place in the world where horses rear back with fur clad riders atop, and there, at the end of one arm, wings rising for flight, is a golden eagle?

And perhaps this is why the show is called “No Strangers.” These Mongolians are strangers now, but I have already done some reading. I have already started to learn about them, to satisfy the curiosity that the photos engendered. They were stranger a few weeks ago, when I first saw the images. And a week before that, they were unknown to me.

I don’t know if these eagle hunters will stay with me the way the Tuvans did Feynman; if, at some moment, I will decide I must travel to the Dark Havens to see the bandits, the reindeer herders, and the eagle hunters. But I might. I surely might. One day, these people may not be strangers to me at all. One day, I might be on ponyback, in furs, and eagle on my arm.

In my dreams, I already am.

"No Strangers:  Ancient Wisdom in a Modern World" appears at KANEKO through April 19.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at

1 comment:

  1. This looks fantastic, Max. Glad you covered it - and I'll try to get there next week when we're back in town.