Exotica? 

No, says Oakland fotog

9/18-10/18

Oakland native Elisabeth Sunday has spent the last twenty years traveling around the globe, photographing tribal spiritual leaders and botanical still lifes. Her exhibition, Transfigurations, at the Oakland Art Gallery features selected works from three of her series: the European Botanical Series (1983-85), the African Portfolios (1986-90), and the Mystics and Healers Series (ongoing). Sunday's approach is based on the enduring belief among indigenous peoples that the camera's penetrating gaze can see and capture the human soul -- these days perhaps an old-fashioned but nevertheless powerfully romantic idea. Working with fixed and flexible mirrors, she manipulates the reflected images of her subjects, bending, elongating, distorting, and then photographing them. The results are like something out of The Ring: Ordinary human forms are made to seem otherworldly and intangible, as if they have been "worked upon" by forces we can't quite understand. Some critics might raise an eyebrow at the way her work seems to exoticize these non-Western cultures. Her approach, which she applies equally to tribal leaders and jungle plants, has certainly inherited something from the tradition of the 19th-century explorer-naturalists. Sunday has going for her, however, a very contemporary sense of respect for the places and people she photographs. She considers herself an extremely spiritual person, but admits with genuine humility how difficult it is for a Western mind to fully come to grips with non-Western cultures. Her photographic techniques, partly documentary but ultimately conveying the ineffability of her subjects, reflect this duality. "I was always fascinated by surrealism and the reality of dreams," she says, "and when working with older techniques I was always looking for ways to break the impression of the reality of photography." In the African Portfolios, for instance, "[The] figures express both the strength and fragility, pride and anxiety I found in tribal Africa ... whether it is a swirling horizon woven into a streaked sky, or a lush forest whose forms mingle and mix with those of their human inhabitants."

Sunday has exhibited internationally, and a monograph of her work will be published this fall. She also directs the Sol Project, which preserves and collects histories and stories of indigenous peoples, particularly women, through film, video, photography, and oral interviews. Another project is the Kah-Monno Group, a component of the Sol Project dedicated to funding the grade-school educations of young girls in developing countries. Oakland Art Gallery, 199 Kahn's Alley, Oakland, through October 18, with an artist's talk October 16. 510-637-0395 or OaklandArtGallery.org -- Lindsey Westbrook

9/30-10/12

Lotusland

Chop suey in the boonies

Photographer-anthropologist Indigo Som had an idea: to photograph Chinese restaurants in Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, places where such restaurants -- and Chinese Americans -- are scarce. "I'm investigating the interaction between Chinese restaurants and American culture," Som says. "They're intrinsic in the American foodscape." Like Woo's Pagoda in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Chinese Restaurant Pictures runs though October 12 at Mills College Art Museum. For more info: Mills.edu/MCAM or 510-430-3250. -- Kelly Vance

SAT 9/27

Yoni'd to See This

Remember early last year, when John Ashcroft ordered the Justice Department to cover up the Spirit of Justice's single bare breast? Well, don't let him stroll down the 6500 block of Telegraph in Oakland, lest he gander through the window of number 6536, Change Makers Books, and glimpse Max Daschu's Sacra Vulva Slideshow. Starting at 7:30 p.m., the founder of the Suppressed Histories Archives presents and explains pictures of yonis, baubos, and sheela-na-gigs for your perusal and enlightenment. The cover is $15 and well worth it; you probably never saw these rock engravings, sculptures, and paintings in Art History 101, and how much did you pay for those three credit hours? 510-655-2405. -- Stefanie Kalem

WED 9/24

Ladies who Launch

Just don't call it the Old Girls Club: For Her Only is a private social club for -- you guessed it -- women only. President and founder Cassidy Bailey-Diamond wants to provide monthly and bimonthly forums for every woman, "from the Working Wonder to the Domestic Diva," to share opportunities, discuss business, and expand their social circle. Tonight's launch dinner at Club Sport (2805 Jones Rd., Walnut Creek) starts at 7 p.m. Tickets from 925-735-9990 or WomenOnlyClub.com -- Stefanie Kalem

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