by Constance Villalvazo, VPAM Student Tutor
In 1352, a young writer named Giovanni Boccaccio finished a collection of stories called The Decameron. It was inspired by the One Thousand and One Nights, coined as the Arabian Nights, and told the story of ten nobles quarantining themselves in the countryside during the Black Death. In order to distract themselves from fear, each of the nobles tells one story a day after a chosen theme. It remains a classic of Italian literature, partly because it is one of the few primary accounts of the Black Death from a person who had just survived it.
The stories range in subject matter. Some are funny, sexy, or romantic. Most are fairy tales with knights and ladies. At least one is a horror story. But they all had similarities: The average man, if he is clever, wins against nobility. Ladies outsmart mean husbands. Equality and justice are praised.
In Umar Rashid’s (Frohawk Two Feathers) latest exhibition, we see a series of ink-based prints, dipped in tea, entitled The Decam’ron 1793. This title is a play on words, as it references both the collection of stories, as well as the rapper Cam’ron. The pieces in this series are roughly the size of notebook paper, yet contain stories and illustrations in miniature, never more than a paragraph long. In this version, wealthy Dominicans tell stories in a fort on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, as they await a battle against neighboring Haitians.* As in the original, the stories are humorous and blend local myth with mundane settings and characters.
Some of Rashid’s stories are tragic, however, such as the fifth story in the series, wherein a widow helps fund a resistance movement, only to be sold out to the authorities by her faithless lover. The theme echoes a story in the original Decameron, where a girl keeps the head of her murdered lover in a flower pot to use as proof against her brothers who murdered him. Both stories show a world in which women’s lives can be easily destroyed and controlled by the men around them. They also both lend themselves to elaboration. Keats, for example, famously expanded the story from The Decameron in his poem “Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil.”
Though set outside the U.S., the Los Angeles based artist, originally from Chicago, has chosen themes that speak directly to the American experience. Cultural identity and the effects of slavery are discussed in a colonial Caribbean setting where pirates might just be waiting offshore. These works highlight feminism with tales of powerful sorceresses, the harmful effects of conquest, and the power of inclusivity in a story about Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribbeans.
Like the battle for Hispaniola, today’s quarantine is plagued by its own challenges. However, for people of all ages, it might be helpful, or at least distracting, to create your own stories. Like Rashid, all you need is notebook paper and a pen. A simple ten-minute drawing or journaling exercise can work to relieve tension, because, while both versions of the Decameron take place during a dark time in their nation’s history, both narratives deal in human perseverance in the face of adversity, and ultimately hope.
The world of these stories can be dark, and the characters in these stories are often subject to the whims of nature, but the humor and the absurdity are never far away.
As Umar Rashid says, it’s “a funny, strange and tragic tale…”
*Hispaniola is a Caribbean island, and is currently divided into two sovereign nations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Learn more about Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers): The World You Know is a Fiction. You Know We Had To Do a Remix, Right? Vignettes of the Frenglish Empire in North America (1780-1795) here.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Signet Classic, 2002.
Keats, John. “38. Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil.” Great Books Online, www.bartleby.com/126/38.html.
“The Plague.” Decameron Web, www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/plague/.