“Cockfighters” by Douglas Vuncannon: Fully-legal billion dollar industry

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– Gameness til the End

Documents of an ancient, but troubling, pastime

Blue Greenberg | Feb 28, 2017 | The Herald Sun


Submitted/Copyright Douglas Vuncannon via Through This Lens
‘Jun with Manok’ is one of Douglas Vuncannon’s photographs on view at Through This Lens gallery.

Documents of an ancient, but troubling, pastime

“Douglas Vuncannon: ‘Sabungeros’ (Cockfighters),” Through This Lens Gallery, 303 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, through Mar. 11.

“Aisha Sanders: Specimen: A collection of Plant Artistry,” Scrap Exchange, 2050 Chapel Hill Road, Durham, through Mar. 11.

“Douglas Vuncannon: ‘Sabungeros’ (Cockfighters)”

Douglas Vuncannon visited the Philippines as a vacation spot between December 2014 and December 2016 when he was teaching in Japan.  During those visits a national tourist attraction became a series on cockfighting and the men who handle the birds. Using a Hasselblad 500 C/M, a Hasselblad Xpan and a Nikon N90, Vuncannon has created a photographic document on the 6,000-year-old sport, which in the Philippines has been transformed into a fully-legal billion dollar industry. There are 2,500 dedicated stadiums across the country and an estimated 30 million roosters are killed each year.

There are also many illegal cockpits, some within walled-in private places; others are open every day with the protection of the local police. The illegal sites are run by mafia-type authority, with its attendant strangle-hold on the poorest segments of the population. Gambling is the order of the day in this duel to the death; the winning bird’s wounds are tended to in the hopes it will recover to fight another day.

In his series Vuncannon focuses on the handlers and skirts the bloody battles. We see young men and older ones cradling their charges before the fight. In his portraits of these men, we see a group who look the viewer in the eye; they are proud of what they do. There are also adolescent boys in his pictures. They are too young to go into the cockpit, but it is obvious they love the excitement and cannot wait until they are old enough to become handlers. There are pictures showing the handlers attaching large razor-sharp spurs to the birds and, in another image, the artist closes in on hands operating on a victorious bird that is badly wounded in the hopes it will live to fight another day.

The text adds that a great deal of money is invested in the training of the “manok” (the bird) and so they are often injected with steroids and clotting agents to improve their performance. The dead birds are cooked and sold but are not really sought after because people are afraid of all the chemicals added to the birds’ bodies.

One photograph shows the crowd in a circle, the two birds being held until they are let loose to fight. In another picture, the artist looks down on the cockpit from the vantage point of an overhanging tree; it is the instant of the kill. The text tells us “the raucous bet-taking has suddenly shifted to near-silence at the critical moment.”

Accompanying the show is a small self-published catalogue of Vuncannon’s photographs and his comments with each image. In the short introduction he writes about the thriving scene of gambling and corruption that surrounds the fights, whether sanctioned or illegal. He adds, “critics decry ‘sabong’s’ (cockfighting) destructive effects on impoverished communities.”

Cockfighting has been a number one crowd draw for years. In fact, in an 1887 article, cockfighting was declared more popular than opium smoking by the Chinese. In France the great artist Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) entered the 1847 Salon, his first time to enter the Salon, with “Young Greeks Attending A Cock Fight” and it was so successful, it made his career. Today cockfighting in the Philippines is as popular as international football.

Cockfighting  is part of a list of illegal animal fights (bull fighting still has its position of legal superiority) and yet as late as 2014, in spite of it being illegal in all 50 states, a huge corridor from Kentucky and Ohio to Alabama and Mississippi, including Virginia and North Carolina, were known for regular cockfights.

Vuncannon’s pictures are documents; he is the impartial observer, although in many places the spectator is legally as guilty of animal cruelty as the promoter.  He does, however, write that his series offers a glimpse into a unique spectacle while advancing aesthetic and ethical questions, especially the questions of animal rights viewed across cultures.

The Cameron Gallery, embedded in the Scrap Exchange, constantly shows exceptional work by artists who are dedicated to creative reuse of materials. The gallery is not the wheel that runs the store, but it has added another dimension to the entire philosophy of reuse. Reuse as a rule of thumb is environmentally preferable to recycling because the extra processing requires energy.

“Aisha Sanders: Specimen: A collection of Plant Artistry”

The new show is one of living things, plants, attached to and part of old wood,  embroidery hoops, and small what-not shelves. Aisha Sanders is a master gardener and a painter and the show is one of exotic plants and framed ones on the wall. Her gardening seems to be self-taught; she is an expert at terrariums and gives workshops to teach others how to make self-contained gardens. The gallery has recently been painted a pristine white and the Tillandsia, Stag Fern, Crypanthus, and the Kokedma moss balls, which Sanders has placed, sprouting from found wood or swinging through the air like trapeze artists, makes this a beautiful exhibition and provides a quiet oasis amidst the busyness surrounding it.

The Scrap Exchange has added Diana Shark to its staff and she brings professional experience of creative reuse. She comes from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and will be in charge of marketing, special events and the gallery. She reminded me the Scrap Exchange is on the brink of big new things and the Cameron Gallery will probably relocate to a new spot within the store. One of the big changes will be to move appropriate merchandise to the thrift store which will be a separate space next to the Exchange. In their place they will create a “maker space,” small studio spaces for artists who are reuse specialists, with a market place to sell their art. The Lakewood area is going to become a go-to place for all those interested in new ideas about environmental concerns, with special emphasis on how the visual arts can feed into that.




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