Author Archives: Kenn Orphan

About Kenn Orphan

Kenn Orphan is a social worker, artist, and human and environmental rights advocate.

The Work of Marie-Denise Villers and the Impact of Misogyny on Western Art

Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers (1774 – 1821) French.

This painting was originally thought to have been done by one of several famous male artists of the time. When it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1922 for $200,000 it was erroneously attributed to the great artist Jacques-Louis David. It was not until 1951 that it was revealed to be a painting by Villers, and not until 1977 that the name was changed at the museum to reflect this.

When this painting was attributed to David it was widely praised as a masterpiece. But after it was revealed to have been painted by a woman it received mostly negative and even scathing criticism, much of it coming from the same male critics that had previously praised it.

The subject of this powerful portrait was Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, a woman of privilege and status who had once aspired to be an artist herself. She subsequently gave up this ambition upon getting married.

In the painting, one can see the young woman drawing in a room now known to be in the Louvre in Paris. It was common for women of means to take art courses there at the time. In the background through a cracked window we can see two figures, a man and a woman standing on a parapet in a romantic pose.

My interpretation of this piece is that Marie-Denise Villers was actually painting herself. She came from a family of artists. In fact, her two sisters were also accomplished in their work. To Villers, painting was far superior to giving up ones ambition and passion for the comfort and stability of a conventional marriage like Charlotte du Val d’Ognes did, especially in the age in which she lived where women were often treated as chattel.

Overall this is a superb work of art. And it is supremely sad that it was treated so differently by male critics once it was revealed that it was done by a woman. But it illustrates the strong undercurrent of misogyny in art and culture in Western society, much of which has endured to this day.

Kenn Orphan May 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Pain and Mortality: a Meditation on What it Means to Possess a Body

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis

I’ve been dealing with dull and acute pain for over a week. Primarily back pain, from a pinched nerve I suspect, but it migrates to my head and down my arms too. I have had it before and it is usually from unwisely lifting something heavy and with poor posture. Now I am not writing any of this to illicit sympathy, but more as a meditation for myself on the phenomenon.

Pain is something our society does not deal with well. It is to be medicated, numbed out of existence, or “pushed through.” Pain is to be seen as a means to gaining strength or some other kind of reward. Many of us know the cliched catch phrases: “no pain, no gain” or “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” No time is to be spent contemplating it except as a stepping stone to power or in its eradication.

Pain’s association with pleasure, of which there is a myriad of evidence to support, is also routinely denied, made a joke of, or looked at with disdain. It is seen as merely a kink or a fetish. A so-called “deviant behavior,” and not a fundamental and wondrous contradiction of the human experience itself. And to talk about pain inevitably invites tons of unsolicited advice as to how to deal with it and eliminate it. It is a language designed to obscure one of the most basic and universal conditions that define possessing a corporeal body.

To be clear, I am not saying anyone should ever have to endure pain. I am also not suggesting one ignore it. After all, pain is the body’s best way of alerting us to something wrong, misaligned or disordered in its systemic processes and function. Psychic and spiritual pain are messengers too, and are all too often ignored, suppressed or explained away in our cultures’ penchant for intellectualized detachment. But pain, as well as ecstasy, are two of the most powerful ways to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. To have a body and a mind. And to know on some visceral, as well as transcendent level, that that body, and even that mind, will fail us. And, at some point, it will cease to function and eventually break down.

There is a renewed push today to pursue immortality, not in a spiritual sense, but in a desperation to stave off aging forever. Mass media, as well as the fitness and fashion industries, have long honed their skills of playing on our existential anxieties, albeit in the most base of ways. But science, in the thrall of profit, is on board too. One quick internet search and you will find recent articles saying scientists are closer than ever in achieving it thanks to genetic research and other related fields. Hubris aside, this obsession is really nothing new.

Consider the ancient Egyptians. Immortality was associated with more than the concept of a spirit. It was entwined with the body itself. And yet for all their elaborate rituals their bodies merely became empty shells, bathed and well preserved in exotic oils and herbs, but forever devoid of the spirit that once animated them. Now they festoon great museum halls like garishly bedecked, slowly putrefying ghouls. And so when I look at this obsession with staying alive and young, I am compelled to grapple with the obsession humans have with this fragile fleshy, watery, boney vehicle that temporarily houses our spirit.

When I worked with terminally ill people in hospice I encountered human pain and suffering every day. We understood that death could not be medically prevented and that the only compassionate course of action was for palliative care. The mantra, one which I wholeheartedly support, is that no one should have to die alone or in pain. I encountered many who wanted to be sedated or medicated, but there were others who decided to endure as much of the pain that they could so that they could be present until the very last breath.

Now I want to be clear that I think of neither way as being superior, and I would likely choose pain killers over facing death without them. But it caused me to consider that if we ignore the lessons that pain gives us we may risk shortchanging a keen insight into what it means to be alive in the first place. Death is widely seen in many religious and philosophical traditions as a portal to something else and a release from earthly pain, and I sense this is true, although I don’t possess the language to describe it. But do we really want to be released from pains’ grip without contemplating its meaning?

To be sure, I don’t know the answer to that last question. I know there are fates worse than death, and I want nothing of this to sound trite. After all, I don’t want anyone to suffer from unnecessary pain, and I want to be out of my own pain. I am taking the necessary analgesics, anodynes and therapeutic measures to help with this process. It is still there even as I type this essay, waxing and waning. Perhaps it is a warning sign of something more grave, and I don’t intend to ignore it if it is. But I will have to wait to find out given the state of the pandemic.

In the meantime I must sit uncomfortably with my pain, like an unbidden companion who selfishly demands all of my attention. I must also face the fact that this is only the beginning of my body betraying my wishes more frequently as it sees fit. But maybe I will experience a deeper sense of connection to all those who suffer or have suffered, both human and non. And maybe, if I am lucky, I will have gained some humility and grace from the unwanted conversation it has compelled me to have with myself and my mortality.

Kenn Orphan May 2021

“𝐼 𝑑𝑟𝑎𝑛𝑘 𝑡𝑜 𝑑𝑟𝑜𝑤𝑛 𝑚𝑦 𝑠𝑜𝑟𝑟𝑜𝑤𝑠, 𝑏𝑢𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑑𝑎𝑚𝑛𝑒𝑑 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑛𝑔𝑠 𝑙𝑒𝑎𝑟𝑛𝑒𝑑 ℎ𝑜𝑤 𝑡𝑜 𝑠𝑤𝑖𝑚.” – 𝐹𝑟𝑖𝑑𝑎 𝐾𝑎ℎ𝑙𝑜

*Title art piece is “Sin Esperanza” by Frida Kahlo, 1945

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

On Derrick Chauvin’s Verdict

It should go without saying that am beyond pleased to hear the guilty verdict for Derrick Chauvin. But let’s not forget that George Floyd is still dead. He didn’t need to die. Neither did Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland or Daniel Shaver or Breonna Taylor or Elijah McClain or Adam Toledo. The list is too long.

There are countless more George Floyds out there, black, latinx, indigenous, white, and the vast majority of them are poor or of the working and middle classes with little to no representation. And their cases receive far less press coverage or none at all.

In 2019 there were 999 fatal shootings. In 2020, there were 1,021 fatal police shootings. And in just the first 3 months of 2021, 213 civilians have been shot by police. In addition to this, “the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 35 fatal shootings per million of the population as of March 2021,” according to Statista.

The fact is that there will be no real justice here as long as money goes to more policing instead of social and economic infrastructure and this cruel system of state sanctioned violence remains intact.

Kenn Orphan April 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

The Great Pivot: From Afghanistan to China

There are adults today who were born on and after the 12th of September 2001, who are fighting, killing and dying in a war started due to an attack they had never even witnessed. This is the war in Afghanistan, a war that has claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians and over 2000 US and coalition soldiers. Recently, President Biden pledged to withdraw US and Nato troops by September 11, 2021, the run up to the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001.

This is welcome news, but we shouldn’t be naïve about the machinations of empire. Covert operations and drone surveillance/bombings by the Pentagon are bound to continue. After all, the American Empire has never voluntarily left any of its conquered lands. And that this “withdrawal” comes at a time of increased belligerence toward China is unlikely to be mere coincidence. In fact, this announcement came at the same time the Pentagon requested $27 billion dollars for a massive military build up in Asia.

Although it is still far from close to the US in terms of wealth, military power and influence, China is a rapidly rising world power. It has posed virtually no military threat to the US thus far, but American politicians have been busy reframing the narrative in terms of war. Just last month US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, channeling his predecessor Pompeo, sanctimoniously condemned the “abuses” of China and North Korea as he met with other Asian countries of the so-called “Quad.” His rhetoric, steeped in the racism of American “exceptionalism” was designed to create a framework to justify potential “humanitarian interventions” by the US and its allies, the usual cloak the US uses to cover its own imperialistic abuses and violence.

This isn’t to imply that China and North Korea have not committed human rights abuses or do not have oppressive policies, but to suggest that the US is in any position of moral authority is ludicrous given its long as well as recent history, its abysmal response to the pandemic, sadistic abuses against refugees from Central America, and rampant police violence against communities of color and the poor among them.

This bellicose position also comes at a time of rising hate crimes against Asian Americans. Donald Trump stoked this hatred by continually referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus,” as well as using other racial slurs. But Blinken’s rhetoric adds to a Sinophobia that has always been an undercurrent in American society. The draw down of the troops in Afghanistan provides a convenient distraction from all of this. It presents Biden, the same man who cheered on the war against Iraq and Libya, as a dove.

But the US has always used violence to maintain its hegemonic control abroad. Today, the violence has shifted slightly, and at least temporarily, to the form of economic sanctions. But it will not be long before the wraiths of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, and Raytheon will be drooling for another bloodbath and more killing fields where they can test their latest weapons of mass destruction.

The economic and social stability of the US is fraying. The pandemic has left its anemic social welfare system in shambles. But despite this, its oligarchic ruling class only becomes more depraved by the day. Unable to grapple with the hubris of throwing trillions of dollars into a bloated military sector while denying basic material needs to its citizens, like universal healthcare or a living wage, it seeks to otherize its problems by projecting it onto external enemies. China, at least in their minds, represents the biggest threat to its economic tyranny for the long haul.

So as Biden prepares to bring the troops home from Afghanistan we should be happy, but we should also not expect any kind of draw down in American militarism. Quite the contrary, if the war hawks and profiteers in the US get their way, the next “forever war” will make the one in Afghanistan look like a grade school fist fight.

Kenn Orphan April 2021

*Title illustration: Calvin Shen

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Being an Ally of the Next Generation

I feel so honoured and flattered to have been interviewed by a small group of 5th graders in Japan about the crisis of ecological destruction and climate change this evening. My nephew Nate is a mentor to these wonderful young people and recommended me as a source for their project.

I know there are some people who may think this is trite and I suspect these are the same people who were put down or ridiculed when they were young. In many ways, we have all had that experience, especially in Western society. When we were children many of us were told to be quiet, that we were ignorant, or that we would change. Here is the thing, I did change, but not in the cynical way I was told I would. Instead, I made the conscious effort to jettison those ideas and expand my curiosity, imagination and empathy.

Our culture has designed an artificial barrier between generations, one that sadly works very well at keeping people divided for exploitation and consumer purposes. This only spawns rancor and alienation. But even though it may sound cliché, young people are the future. They deserve a world that is far better than the one we are leaving them. I hope I can be an ally to them for that world.

Kenn Orphan April 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Remembering LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard

“Standing Rock was a seed of knowledge about how we can live on the Earth again. This means understanding how to live with respect, how to listen to our mother.” – LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard

I am saddened to hear of the passing of LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, water and land defender, historian, founder of the Sacred Stone Camp and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She inspired a generation to join the struggle against ecocide and the destruction of our home and take a stand for what is sacred, our water, our land, our mother. May her journey to the ancestors be blessed.

Kenn Orphan April 2021

How the Pandemic Laid Bare the Cruelty of Capitalism

One thing this pandemic has demonstrated in stark terms is class struggle. Those people deemed essential, though often applauded in public, have been treated as expendable. In truth, they were always treated this way. But this last year has made this struggle visible for anyone paying attention.

The medical staff, grocery clerks, janitors, sanitation workers, transportation services, delivery people, all of them have been the ones on the front lines, not only of potential exposure to a lethal pathogen, but to abuse from privileged customers, clients or patients who feel their rights have somehow been violated for being asked to simply wear a mask. I can’t count how many videos I have seen of people (mostly white and middle to upper middle class) berating workers. And this often takes on a racist tone.

Over the past year we have witnessed people throwing groceries at workers, spitting at them, calling them names. In various states, from California to Texas to Florida, there have been mobs that invaded stores like Target or Home Depot without masks and carrying anti-masker and “Covid is Hoax” signs, even physically attacking other customers and workers. And in one recent instance in British Columbia an older white male customer was asked to wear a mask in a pizza restaurant. He answered angrily: “are you f**king Middle Easter or where are you from?” Concluding with “I’m worth $50 million, you’re worth zero.” He and his companion then went on to assault a teenage customer outside tearing his mask from his face.

How disconnected from reality could one be to think that being asked to wear a mask in a store is a violation of ones’ rights? And how privileged does one have to be to think dressing down a worker is somehow a noble expression of those supposed rights? And this gets to the crux of the problem: capitalism.

Capitalism is about class and status. The man who said he was worth $50 million and clerk worth $0 really believes it. And it is a system that posits the supposed “rights” of the individual over the well being of the community. But many of these rights are merely privilege and have little to nothing to do with liberating oppressed or marginalized members of society or protecting the most vulnerable or persecuted. It is the very opposite of cooperation and mutual respect. And it is an arrangement which always favors the wealthy and upper classes disproportionately over the poor and working class. This is because the list of “rights” seldom, if ever, include basics like housing, food, healthcare, education or meaningful work.

This is playing out most obviously in the ongoing strikes against corporations like Amazon and the fast food industry. But in the US, as well as some other western nations, liberals have found themselves alienated from these struggles thanks to years of political pandering to corporations. We should ask ourselves why these workers aren’t even asking for a good wage, they are only asking for a livable wage. “Livable.” And yet they work 80 or more hours a week yet cannot “live” on the pittance they get. All while there are people like Bezos and Musk who pay little to no taxes and make thousands of dollars a minute while they sleep.

The pandemic has laid bare how the systemic inequities of capitalism manifest in real abuse and contempt for low wage workers. Often this is compounded by racism and xenophobia. But it isn’t simply the tirades of entitled anti-maskers against people behind the counter making minimum wage. It is warehouses and other places of business that have put low wage workers at risk by exposing them to Covid-19, while providing them no paid sick leave or a “livable” wage. It is about a government that provides subsidies to corporations and the military industrial sector, while denying the public basic healthcare, good housing, free education and opportunities for growth.

But outrage at individual instances of worker abuse captured on TikTok or Youtube is not enough. The entire system is designed to inflict cruelty on the most vulnerable in society. And if we cannot see the machine behind this all, we will lack the most effective tools to dismantle it.

Kenn Orphan April 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

Humans, Nature and the Illusion of Separateness

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the biggest lies that people in the global north were sold and have largely internalized is that we are separate from the biosphere from which we evolved and on which we depend upon for our very survival. Even as we stand on the precipice of ecological collapse, human supremacy over nature has been the unchallenged narrative. As a result, those who have taken up the struggle to protect this fragile arrangement of existence are often otherized. Their “cause” is treated as just one of many. The “treehugger?” The “environmentalist?” The person who “cares about the earth?” How noble. How non-threatening. It becomes just another cause in a myriad of causes.

The message here is that we ought not think of this in terms of human survival. In existential terms. That would be too hyperbolic. Too woo-woo. The corporations that derive every bit of their wealth from the true “commonwealth” of all species on this planet want nothing less than for us to think we are either above it all or separate from it all. If more make the connection that we need to stop the decimation of the natural world it will ultimately put a dent in their profit margin. If we are honest, that is what the current economic and political order cares about the most.

To be fair, capitalism cannot do anything but accumulate more and more capital. And capital is virtually everything that exists, from the raw minerals and petrol deep in the earth’s crust, to the fish in the sea and trees in the boreal range, to governments and politicians, to our own personal information and preferences. It has created a global arrangement of power that must use obfuscation as well as violence, or its threat, as a way of keeping the engine running.

But if we see this as truly existential we begin to realize that things like plugging in our single person vehicles, or replacing plastic straws with bamboo ones, or recycling our plastic water bottles are mostly window dressing for an unfolding catastrophe. They are intended to obscure one of the biggest crimes in human history, the wholescale destruction of life on earth for the profit of the corporate class.

None of this is meant to encourage conspiratorial thinking. It is not to imply that there is a group of evil villains meeting in a secret boardroom plotting the destruction of the earth’s biosphere somewhere either. But it does involve a sort of conspiracy at work. Just a few years ago we learned that the tobacco industry hired physicians to lie about the harmful affects of smoking even though they knew very well that it caused potentially fatal conditions like heart disease, emphysema and lung cancer. Plastic companies have been greenwashing the massive production of their products by promoting programs like recycling, which barely put a dent in the growing problem of plastic pollution. And we learned relatively recently that the fossil fuel industry did something similar regarding the danger of endless burning of fossil fuels and its acceleration of climate change. Corporate entities are simply incapable of grappling with the destructive affects of their mode of operation if it interferes with the endless growth and increased profit paradigm.

The danger we now face could not be more dire. World renowned political dissident and author Noam Chomsky has warned that “the future of organized human life” is imperiled by climate change. A recent piece from 17 scientists in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science warned of “ghastly” consequences from ecological degradation if radical steps are not taken. And Australian scientists released a sobering report this year about diverse ecosystems in the region that are in a state of collapse, from the tropics to coral reefs to the desert and Antarctica.

Whether or not one believes these reports, there is ample evidence of massive ecological destruction throughout the global south which is a direct result of extractive and exploitative industries in the global north. Clear cutting forests, from Brazil to Indonesia, has exploded exponentially. Sub-standard mining practices have defiled waterways. Pollution from fossil fuel extraction continues to be a scourge, from noxious benzene plumes and effluent in the Niger Delta to open oil pits in the Ecuadorian Amazon to massive spills on coral reefs off Mauritius. Rubbish from the global north is routinely dumped in regions in the global south that are not regulated or policed. And the new “green” technology is threatening to destroy even more habitats with lithium mines and solar farms. This is what the corporate policy of “externalized costs” really looks like. It is also how the lie of separateness is made manifest. Corporations move from one sacrifice zone to the next, but on a finite world this Faustian bargain was doomed from the start.

We have been warned that there is a need for radical change. Unsurprisingly, the corporations that run the world’s affairs have incorporated much of this language into their mission statements and ethos. But we should understand that this is nothing more than another subterfuge. A way to maximize their profit from a dying world all while giving it a greenwashed face. They must maintain the current rate of extraction and growth in order to do this. But now they have been forced to change the language they use. To be sure, no real sacrifices will be asked from us in the global north who have largely benefitted from this untenable and unfair way of life. As George H.W. Bush famously declared: “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” And by this he meant the American model of endless accumulation of capital and consumption for a few at the expense of the many and the living earth.  

Humanity is facing its nemesis. The thin layer of air and water that embraces the crust of this planet, and on which we are fully dependent, is imperiled like no other time in human history. And there is a clear cause for this. Corporations, with the help of the military and political sectors, are rapidly unraveling the fragile net that holds us. And they get away with it because most of us still think we are somehow separate from nature. Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote at the top of this essay might be taken as strictly spiritual in its implications by some. But I think it also has a very tangible application to where we are as a species. For too long we have allowed the narrative to be dictated by the myth of our separateness and dominance over the earth and all that lives here. And that narrative has led us to the brink of utter catastrophe. Dispelling this toxic illusion is imperative, therefore, for our very survival.

Kenn Orphan April 2021

Title painting is Ecocide by Carlita Shaw

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

9 minutes, 29 seconds

9 minutes, 29 seconds.

9 minutes, 29 seconds was how long Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

9 minutes, 29 seconds he ignored his desperate pleas for mercy.

9 minutes, 29 seconds he ignored the cries of outrage and despair of those watching it all.

9 minutes, 29 seconds he stayed where he was even as George lay lifeless, even as they checked for a pulse and did not find one.

9 minutes, 29 seconds.

Kenn Orphan April 2021

#JusticeforGeorgeFloyd #BlackLivesMatter

An Easter Meditation

A meditation on this holy week for Christians: Jesus was not killed by sex workers, or the houseless, or LGBTQ people, or by menial laborers, or immigrants, or women. He was ordered to be crucified by a political leader at the behest of an organized and powerful group of religious clerics. A public execution that was then carried out by soldiers and armed guards of the ruling court in a fashion that was designed to humiliate both the accused and those who loved the accused. All of them were powerful men of prestige and authority. This is an important reminder today because, sadly, when it comes to justice, little has changed in 2000 years.

Kenn Orphan March 2021

𝑃𝑎𝑖𝑛𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑖𝑠 “𝐽𝑒𝑠𝑢𝑠 𝑏𝑒𝑓𝑜𝑟𝑒 𝑃𝑖𝑙𝑎𝑡𝑒” 𝑏𝑦 𝐻𝑢𝑛𝑔𝑎𝑟𝑖𝑎𝑛 𝑎𝑟𝑡𝑖𝑠𝑡 𝑀𝑖ℎ𝑎𝑙𝑦 𝑀𝑢𝑛𝑘𝑎𝑐𝑠𝑦 (1844-1900).