Millions of Cosmic Cannibals discovered in Space

This week saw two incredible discoveries that further challenge our idea of the universe.

A space telescope called Wise has just discovered millions and millions of huge black holes. These holes, formed when super massive stars explode and collapse in on themselves, have gravity so strong those not even light escapes from them. The true dilemma is that most galaxies have black holes at their centers: these black holes ‘suck’ matter and gas from nearby stars and other objects in the galaxy, literally ‘devouring’ them. It’s as if there’s a greedy cannibal at the heart of each galaxy.

The other shocking discovery made yesterday was that of sugar molecules in space for the first time in history. These molecules were discovered close to a star similar to our sun, with planets forming around it. Because the star is similar to our sun, the finding “shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this (solar) system at the time of planet formation,” said the European Southern Observatory. The creation vs. evolution debate goes on.

Carl Sagan already said it decades ago: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars (…). We are made of star-stuff.”

Naji Al-Ali: Art as an act of Defiance

If you’re wondering how art can serve a political cause, Naji al-Ali is your man.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of this Palestinian cartoonist who dedicated his life and his art for struggling against the Israeli occupation of his land and for exposing the atrocities of the Israeli regime in Sabra and Shatila and other sites. Al-Ali also harshly criticized the Arab impotence and division, which earned him the wrath of many Arab regimes. A freedom fighter in every sense of the word, his loyalty was only to the Palestinian cause.

He was posthumously awarded the annual Golden Pen of Freedom award of the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers (FIEJ) in 1988, an award given to recognize outstanding actions in favor of freedom of expression.

Al-Ali is best remembered for his cartoon character, Hanzala, now a symbol of Palestinian resistance. Hanzala is a 10-year old boy (Al-Ali’s age when he was forced to leave Palestine as a child). He is featured as a poor and innocent barefoot witness of the war crimes committed by the Israeli Army.

Naji Al-Ali, just like the Chinese Ai Weiwei, the Syrian Ali Farzat and many other artists-activists, is a name you should know and never forget. He lived for a cause and was killed for it, but his ‘Hanzala’ lives on.

Celebrities of the Golden Age in the Streets of Islamic Cairo – 4: Ibn Maimoun

Ibn Maimoun (Maimonides) is a rare example of a man representing a bridge between the Jewish and the Islamic cultures. Born in al-Andalus (Spain under the Islamic rule), he studied in Cordoba and, later, in the Mosque of Qarawiyyin in Fes, before finally moving to the Middle East, eventually becoming the private physician of Saladin’s family in Cairo.

Physician, philosopher, Torah scholar and rabbi, Maimonides was a polymath whose writings showed a clear Islamic influence. A contemporary –and admirer- of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), his synagogue still stands in Islamic Cairo’s Jewish Quarter. Here is my article about Maimonides, published yesterday in Ahram Online:

Mistreating Michelangelo’s Masterpieces

The Popes pushed on him, commissioned him to laborious projects in the Sistine Chapel among other places. It took him so many years and consumed him to the extent that he told his brother: “I have no friends and I want none”

His masterpiece, “David”, was welcomed with stones thrown at it by the public, and was repeatedly targeted by any rioters in Florence, which broke its arms in 3 pieces!

After Michelangelo died, his friend and student, Daniele da Volterra, was commissioned by the Pope to “cover the genitals of all the figures painted by Michelangelo” in the Sistine Chapel because the Church saw that it was “improper” to have naked saints and prophets in a church.

Later on, Caravaggio (Italian Baroque Painter) openly declared his hate and disrespect for Michelangelo among others, accusing him of “spoiling art with his divine rendering of saints and prophets”.

Like the case with Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was severely affected by the herds of tourists and the layers of soot and smoke formed by candles and dust. A restoration of the ceiling shocked viewers with bright colors that were concealed by a stupid application of varnish by earlier restorers.

So how did Michelangelo handle the pressure in his lifetime?
Well, as he said: “Genius, is eternal patience!”

The Last Supper: the World’s most abused Masterpiece

“The Last Supper is perhaps the world’s most abused masterpiece.” – The Superintendent of Fine Arts in Milan.

Other famous quotes about the deteriorated state of the Last Supper:
“The Last Supper is the most important dying thing in the world…”
“It is a living fossil of an artistic masterpiece…”

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece; was painted on the wall of a dining room in Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan), commissioned by Duke Sforza as a gift for the friars. It was finished in 1498.
It portrays the last supper that Jesus Christ had with his disciples, and captures their reaction right after Jesus informed them that one of them will betray him. The process of restoration for The Last Supper turned into a process of excavation! That involved cleaning and scraping away 500 years of dirt, glues, mould, as well as many layers of over-painting by a succession of previous restorers…but that is not all.

The experimental painting technique used by Da Vinci proved unstable, and much of the original pigment is now lost. In 1566, Giorgio Vasari wrote that it was already a mess and in 1587, the painting was deemed “half-ruined.”
In 1652, the friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie enlarged a door in the wall where the Last Supper is painted, thus cutting off Christ’s feet (in the painting). Later on, the friars put a curtain to cover the painting, which scratched the pigment continuously, and trapped much humidity, furthering the damage.

In 1762, a painter was hired to restore the painting. He did a very poor job, and another painter was brought to remove the over-painting using a scalpel!
Six major restorations took place since 1762, doing more harm than good, darkening the painting and using dirt-collecting glue and wax that obscured and ruined Leonardo’s pigments. The face of Jesus in the painting has become a mere mask. We do not know for sure what features Leonardo conceived for Jesus before restorations. In 1796, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Milan, they used the room where the Last Supper is painted as an armory and a stable. The soldiers did much damage to the painting, and some claim that Napoleon tried to send the wall with the painting on it back to France.

In 1943, an allied bomb landed next to the wall, but as one of the historians mentioned, “the bomb was more intelligent than humans,” and no damage was done.
The porous wall allows humidity, and the already-polluted air of Milan only added to the deterioration of the painting. A successful restoration that ended in 1999 revealed that what we see today is only 20% of the original painting.

Published: The Fate of Timbuktu’s Andalusi Manuscripts

“The last city of al-Andalus is neither Malaga nor Algeciras, it is Timbuktu” –Ismael Diadie Kati, Malian library owner of Andalusi origin.

This is the story of one of history’s most interesting (and least known) odysseys: that of the Kati Family Manuscripts. From al-Andalus (medieval Spain) to the Niger River Basin, few manuscripts in history have a story as interesting as these ones.
Threatened by the political upheaval in Mali, the fate of these manuscripts remains to be a question mark.

What is the story of these manuscripts? How did the story start in Toledo and end in Timbuktu? How did they survive the Inquisition in Spain and successive wars and cultural holocausts in Western Africa? Why are they important and where are they now? Here is the full story in my latest article, published today by Ahram Online:

30 Self-Portraits: From Van Eyck to Warhol

This is a collection of around 30 self-portraits by some of the most famous painters in history.
Portrait painting has always been one of my favorite genres, but it becomes even more interesting when it comes to self-portraits because the message becomes personalized and more intense: the artist tells us exactly what he/she wants us to know about him/her through the painting.

Rembrandt was possibly the one painter that produced the largest number of self-portraits ever, a man ‘obsessed with his own image’ as some historians once put it (in fact, I think it was more of a visual diary than an obsession). Nevertheless, long before Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer had already set a trend through a multitude of self-portraits, and his Christ-like self-portrait remains to be one of the most famous in history.

From the intensity of Jan van Eyck’s portrait with a red turban to the casual look of Kirchner and his model, this is a short journey in time to meet some of the most celebrated figures of art history.

Featured artists:
Andy Warhol (Pop Art),
Albrecht Dürer (Northern Renaissance),
Beckmann (Expressionism),
Botticelli (Quattrocento, Renaissance),
Caravaggio (Baroque),
Cezanne (Post-Impressionism),
Chagall (Modernism, Surrealism),
Courbet (Realism),
Da Vinci (High Renaissance),
Dalí (Surrealism),
Delacroix (Romanticism),
Edvard Munch (Expressionism),
Egon Schiele (Expressionism),
El Greco (Mannerism),
Fragonard (Rococo),
Francis Bacon,
Frida Kalho (Surrealism),
Goya (Realism / Neoclassical),
Gustave Moreau (Symbolism),
Henri Matisse (Fauvism),
Jacques-Louis David (Neoclassical),
Jan van Eyck (Northern Renaissance),
Joan Miró (Surrealism),
Kirchner (Expressionism),
Lautrec (Post-Impressionism),
Lucian Freud,
Manet (Impressionism),
Pablo Picasso (Cubism),
Paul Gauguin (Post-Impressionism),
Peter Paul Rubens (Baroque),
Raphael (High Renaissance),
Rembrandt (Baroque),
Titian (Venetian School, Renaissance),
Van Gogh (Post-Impressionism),
Velázquez (Baroque).