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Lessons learned 

Peace Corp gig inspires life's calling

Travel changes everything, and it has certainly changed Roby Greenwald.

The Greenville, S.C., native had never ventured further afield than a two-week stay in Canada when he was 18.

But in 1995, after throwing up his hands at what he calls a "culture of greed," the slightly built, soft-spoken 31-year-old went to a place that seemed like the edge of the world -- an African village called Arbonga in Benin. Greenwald spent three-and-a-half years working with the Peace Corps, introducing Arbonga residents to beekeeping as an alternative to the invasive cotton farming they had been practicing.

Greenwald was sent to Benin to help the Africans there, but the education seemed to work as much in reverse. The desire to flee the Western consumer frenzy found its resting place in this isolated community where residents were contentedly unfamiliar with the complex world order of politics or social climbing. Instead, they concentrated on essential human endeavors like family, hospitality, kindness and survival. During his last six months in the village, Greenwald began to take photographs of the residents, and that work is currently featured in Arbonga at Moving Spirits Gallery in Inman Park.

Greenwald's photographs recall 19th-century daguerreotypes documenting exotic cultures, as well as the currently fashionable portraiture practiced by African photographers like Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso. Greenwald's subjects gaze directly into the camera, posed in family groups of proud parents and attendant brood or in regal individuality like the elderly man in "Baaba." Greenwald's images of his African odyssey are dominated by portraiture-style formality and have an engagingly antiqued-look.

That vintage quality is partly due to the timelessness of the culture (only briefly jolted when a Benetton or Guess Jeans T-shirt shows up on one of the villagers) and partly accidental. Mold growth and emulsion damage to the film negatives often show up as an intruding darkness or in splotches of white on the images. But Greenwald embraces such chemical caprice. In "Bani and Little Sani," a man toting a toddler on his bicycle poses against a daytime sky pocked with what look like stars but is in reality deterioration of the negative. The starry effect nevertheless emphasizes themes of universality and connection (since we all share the same canopy of stars).

Dubbed the "batureé" (white guy) by locals, Greenwald served as a cultural emissary of sorts for the white race, but at times he was uncomfortably reduced to "white." Coming from a culture where the color of his skin hadn't been an issue, he was put in the awkward, at times infuriating, position of suddenly being defined by his whiteness. But for the most part, the culture, which was an originating point for the American and European slave trade, gave Greenwald a welcome respite from the racial tensions between black and white in his native South.

And now Greenwald stumps, in some regard, for Africa, making photographs he hopes will encourage viewers to look at this part of the world with fresh vision.

"What I wanted to convey is, it is extremely important for us, especially at this point in time, to look past what separates us."

Greenwald is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, but says he will almost certainly pursue art as his life's calling.

Arbonga can be seen through Sept. 16 at Moving Spirits Gallery, 1025 Edgewood Ave. (

There is a healthy representation of Atlanta-area artists working in a mix of styles in the recent Southern edition of the bimonthly publication New American Paintings. Juror Ron Platt, curator of exhibitions at Greensboro's Weatherspoon Art Museum, culled 40 Southern painters from a group of 700 for the exhibition-in-a-book. The Atlanta artists are Susan Cofer, Annette Cone-Skelton, Woody Cornwell, Steve Frenkel, MaDora Frey, Tim Hunter, Kay Hwang, Charles Keiger, Pam Longobardi, Katherine Mitchell, Mario Petrirena, Alex White, and from Athens, Malissa Ryder, Cody VanderKaay and Troy Wingard. Artists should submit work by Dec. 31 to be included in the next edition.

For those who missed Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time when it passed through town, the much heralded documentary of earth artist Goldsworthy's ephemeral work crafted from natural materials like dirt, stones, leaves and snow, the film returns for a free screening at Emory's Michael C. Carlos Museum, Reception Hall, Sept. 18, 7 p.m.

On Sept. 5, Kiang Gallery will open in a new location at One Peachtree Pointe (1545 Peachtree St.), which owner Marilyn Kiang hopes will tap into Midtown's increasingly "vibrant urban environment." The inauguration of the new space, within walking distance to the High Museum and MOCA-GA, features new work by Annette Cone-Skelton, Jason Gubbiotti, Christine Hiebert, Gloria Ortiz-Hernandez, Imi Hwangbo, Laurie Reid and Jim Waters.

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