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What were they smoking?


Ahmad Nateghi, Untitled 1

The moment I walked into the Fleming museum, located on the edge of the University of Vermont campus, I felt targeted.  They were selling my favorite local coffee, Speeder and Earls.  The next signal that I was being stereotyped was the free admission.  How did they know I love free things?  When I read the title of the current exhibit, “Up in Smoke” I knew, this couldn’t have been a random occurrence.  UVM students love to smoke and whoever ran the Fleming museum was taking advantage of this to purposefully draw in UVM students.  They knew students wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation of anything having to do with such an activity.

Up in Smoke” is a compilation of objects exploring the ephemeral airborne particles that we call smoke.  The curator describes it as exploring,  “The dual nature of fire and its attendant smoke – an entity that we command until it rages out of control”.  The curators got their inspiration from observing smokers from the hospital who would assemble right outside the museum, conveniently located directly next to the hospital.  The exhibit is a compilation of objects taken from the Fleming’s vast collection including many ancient pipes as well as various pictures displaying smoking scenes.

I gazed at a pipe handcrafted by a UVM student in 1908 and wondered how different this student was from students today?  I pictured a very cold Eskimo smoking from the long curved Inuit pipe from the late 19th century.  I stood with a blank look on my face as I attempted to conceptualize the age of additional pipes.  An Effigy pipe from Western Mexico manufactured in 300 BCE was 2312 years old (assuming I did my math correctly).  What were they even smoking back then?!  I know what they were smoking in China in the 19th century because of a huge wooden, engraved Opium pipe.

A cute vibrant painting caught my eye.  The caption below the art read,“Raja Smokes his Hookah”. I looked at the title and I knew for sure, the curator placed this exhibit on the Vermont campus for a reason. The hookah features watercolors from India painted in the early 1800’s.  If there’s one thing that UVM students can’t resist, it’s smoking Hookah and vivid colors.

My mind was racing, thinking about how the role of smoking has changed throughout history.  Why and what have people smoked throughout history?  Do we have an inherent need to have an altered sense of the world or is this activity more about a social ritual?  As I pondered the different topics brought up in the exhibit, I haphazardly meandered into the second exhibit at the Fleming museum.  Ah ha!  Everything made sense now, this was the reason the curator had used such devious tactics to hook innocent hookah loving students into visiting the educational museum.  It was to force them to experience an amazing Contemporary photography exhibit displaying some of Iran’s most famous photographers.  Persian Visions is unique because instead of seeing how the US depicts Iran as we often see in news media we are offered a look at how Iranians see Iran in their day-to-day life.  A quote on the wall confirmed my suspicion that this was a special exhibit, “The exhibit’s fortunate arrival in the US is most timely because of our growing interest in – and distance from – the breathtaking beauty of Islamic art.”-Gary Hallman.