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Art Through Time: A Global View

Converging Cultures

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converging cultures

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: (also in subtitles) Mexico es California. Argelia es Paris.

Barbara Mundy: I often think of artists as the creative, imaginary force in society that offers us new ways of seeing things.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: (also in subtitles) Cambodia es San Francisco

Jay Levenson: It’s clear that there are certain very interesting convergences of culture that lead to the creation of hybrid works of art, that under other circumstances never would have been produced.

Alan Chong: These forms of hybrid art actually create something new and powerful that belongs to two cultures, and sometimes taps in even to a greater cultural ambiance.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: (also in subtitles) Your house is also mine.

Barbara Mundy: I see artists as being agents of change, agents of absorption in these situations of cultural contact.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: (also in subtitles) Your language mine as well.

Alan Chong: Now whether that’s called export porcelain or fused style…

Melissa Chiu: We have a new sensibility of global cultures, of interconnections between cultures. But I think that we must also remember that there were many different moments where the ancient world, or traditional world, was interconnected.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: (also in subtitles) Thank you.

Segment Title: The Silk Road

Chao-Hui Jenny Liu: The Silk Road was basically the superhighway of Asia. And it ran from the Roman Empire to China, and then on to Japan.

Ladan Akbarnia: There is contact that’s known between these regions as far back as the first century before the Common Era.

Chao-Hui Jenny Liu: And it was a road for the trading of goods, not only silk. Silk was very popular in the Roman Empire. Nobody else knew how to make it, except the Chinese, and it was a closely guarded secret. But what was basically transported on this superhighway were luxury goods and religion.

Ladan Akbarnia: The Mongol period, which happened after the advent of Islam, was the largest contiguous empire in history. This is when you see a heightened amount of exchange along the Silk Road.

Chao-Hui Jenny Liu: It was not a trade for common, everyday things because it was a terribly dangerous and expensive route to travel.

Ladan Akbarnia: There were often cases in which you would have artists—Muslims and Chinese craftsmen—all brought together in one place. And then new types of art could develop as a result of it.

Alan Chong: People have copied not only objects, but the way they were made, from the beginning of time. Now the most famous example of this is porcelain. It was a closely guarded secret in China.

And for centuries Western ceramicists tried to make porcelain. And they really can’t do it until the eighteenth century. It takes hundreds of years, even though they are busy copying the forms and shapes.

Ladan Akbarnia: We have examples of ceramics that were made in what’s known as Iraq today that attempt this type of aesthetic where you have the white background with the blue paint over it.

This coffer is interesting because it contains many elements that are associated with China. But the actual composition of the lid panel and side panels are very similar to the types of compositions that we find in Islamic book bindings. So, it shows a real combination of two different cultures.

You also have certain motifs that are adapted from Chinese motifs, such as dragons or lotuses or flowers.

The dragons that you see in Iran after this contact with China start to take on certain Chinese qualities. So you see them develop within a new context, which is Iranian.

And then later it moves on into the Ottoman world.

Segment Title: Venice and the East

Alan Chong: In the fifteenth century, as Venice began to expand its trading empire, it came into conflict with the Ottomans. And in 1452, Mehmet the Second, who’s the Ottoman sultan, conquers Istanbul and overruns the eastern part of the Mediterranean. This is, of course, extremely alarming to Venice. They see the possibility that the Islamic world will flood Europe, and Venice is the frontier state. It would be the first to fall. This launches a huge war.

And what’s remarkable about the peace treaty is that Mehmet II asks for Venetian artists to come to his court to work.

Can you imagine the pressure? The Venetians make sure that they select their most famous painter, a man named Gentile Bellini. They select a sculptor to go with him. And they set sail for Istanbul.

One of the most important tasks that Gentile Bellini had in Istanbul was to paint the sultan’s portrait in the Venetian style. And I think it’s a fascinating example of mixing cultural traditions. Because here is the sultan, in his turban, but the arch that surrounds him is a typical Venetian arch.

And on the parapet in front is this Ottoman textile that was produced at the sultan’s own court. Now the crowns, they are typical European crowns. And I think this is an example of a hybrid form.

The east is everywhere in Venice. And immediately after glass was imported, it starts being copied by the glassmakers in Murano. And the same is true of metalwork and carpets.

And so, artists were keen to use these exotic Islamic and Mediterranean elements. And what’s nice is that they often appear in paintings.

So the Madonna and child or a group of saints might be seen around a contemporary carpet produced perhaps in the Islamic world. And in many historical and religious paintings we see people in turbans.

People were so interested in what was happening in other places around the world.

Think of this also as the age of exploration. The Portuguese were heading down the coast of Africa looking for a convenient route to India. Christopher Columbus is about to set off to find something, and he eventually discovers America.

Segment Title: Spanish Conquest

Barbara Mundy: In Spanish America, perhaps the greatest initial tragedy happened in the Caribbean, where the indigenous Taíno were quickly decimated by disease and sold into slavery. As a result there aren’t very many Taíno objects from the colonial period.

This object probably held the bones or the ashes of a revered Taíno ancestor. But the earrings are made out of Venetian glass, and the face is probably made of carved African rhinoceros horn.

If you look at the art of the Colonial Period, a new hybrid art was created that drew to some degree on European imagery. And so it bears some resemblance to Spanish art, but much of its rootedness is in the pre-Columbian past.

In Mexico, paintings were created called, that we call casta paintings. And they are a very distinct and unusual kind of painting, because they show in different scenes, or vignettes, the different kinds of racial admixtures that were going on in the New World. A Spaniard marries an Indian. Or a Spaniard marries a black woman. And then, they trace the different kind of offsprings that occur from these mixed-race unions.

What’s very interesting is that when a Spaniard marries an Indian, and that child marries a Spaniard, and the child marries a Spaniard, by the fourth generation the blood is Spanish again. And the message is that Indian blood could be made pure through mixing with Spaniards.

Some of the casta paintings give us a sense of different trades that people were involved in. They give us a sense of landscape. They are full of anecdotal information that other paintings simply don’t have.

In Peru, workshops called obraje were established to create textiles—often by native artisans who were using age-old techniques. We also see this kind of hybridity of motifs here: we have the rampant lion that’s probably drawn from Spanish heraldic emblems. But we also see the use of this distinctive checkerboard motif called tocapu to show elite status in Inca period times.

Part of Spain’s great empire included the Philippines. And that was their foothold into the Asia trade. And every year they would send a fleet, called the Manila Galleon, that would dock in Manila, fill themselves up with Asian goods, and then they would make their way back to the port of Acapulco.

In the city of Puebla, in Mexico, potters there developed a very distinct blue and white style of pottery. And it was a mimicry of blue and white Ming dynasty porcelain that was coming over in the Manila Galleon.

Segment Title: Portuguese Trade

Jay Levenson: When the Portuguese reached Africa in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they came in contact with different cultures, some of whom had highly developed artistic traditions. And what happened was that the Portuguese traders began to, as far as we can tell, commission works of art for export to Europe—often works in ivory.

The objects are for the most part containers that appear to be saltcellars, hunting horns, and spoons; occasionally forks. A few of the most interesting saltcellars are really complete hybrids.

There is a saltcellar from Sierra Leone that has the Portuguese royal symbol, an armillary sphere, a type of scientific instrument. There are also saltcellars from Benin that are decorated with figures of Portuguese soldiers. One has a Virgin and Child sitting on top of the saltcellar.

There is also a mask from the kingdom of Benin. It’s an image of a queen, but in her headdress you can see figures of mudfish. That was an important symbol of power, but interspersed with very stylized heads that clearly are meant to be the heads of Portuguese.

In the area that then was the kingdom of Congo, there are some ivory carvings in an abstract geometrical decoration. But we also find Christian objects: crucifixes in metal with figures of Christ that very clearly have African features.

And so they created mixed, hybrid works of art that to us today seem fascinating.

The Portuguese would send a trading ship every year from Goa in India. It would stop in Macao first to take on Chinese merchandise, and then it would go to Nagasaki.

At some point early in this trade, the Japanese began to create images of the Portuguese on screens.

The Japanese clearly found the Europeans very humorous looking. And so they are usually characterized as large-nosed people, and they always appear with these very big baggy trousers.

There are other types of Japanese objects that have survived that are Christian religious objects.

The Jesuits actually established a painting academy in Nagasaki where they could teach the Japanese Christians how to create religious images. But eventually the Japanese military leaders became convinced that the priests were, in fact, the advance guard of a European invasion. So the Shoguns, the military leaders, issued a series of proclamations forbidding the practice of Christianity in Japan. And the Portuguese were forbidden from entering Japan. And after a certain date only the Dutch traders were allowed in.

Segment Title: Japan and the West

Karen Sherry: The key event for the prolific dissemination of Japanese art through the West really began when Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy negotiated treaties with Japan. And this was after Japan had existed almost in complete isolation for almost two centuries since 1638.

Japonisme is a term that applies to a phenomenon that occurred in the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century in Europe and America. And it describes Western artists’ fascination with the artwork of Japan.

Silk textiles, lacquerware, folding screens circulated very widely in the West in this period, as well a ukiyo-e prints. That term, ukiyo-e, translates to, literally, “pictures of the floating world.” It refers to a pictorial tradition in Japan by which artists were depicting modern, contemporary leisure pursuits as well as well-known landmarks.

James McNeill Whistler was one of the most famous advocates of Japonisme. And an example of Whistler’s art is his etching, which shows a scene on the Thames of the Putney Bridge. He arranged the bridge with a very high horizon line, as is often seen in ukiyo-e prints of Tokyo bridges.

Japanese artists were also looking to Western art and incorporating lessons they learned from Western art into their own traditions as well.

Julie Nelson Davis: Over the course of the late nineteenth century, the Japanese begin to learn to paint using Western materials, particularly oil painting.

One of these, Kuroda Seiki, masters these techniques. He was selected by the government to represent Japan at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900.

And I think he wanted to show the world that he was as skilled as any French artist, showing three nude figures.

The nude figure had never been a topic in Japanese painting. And the contour lines are described in red, in a manner that refers back to a kind of Buddhist painting practice. He then creates the background for these figures using gold paint to suggest something like the background of a traditional gold screen.

So now we have three elements effectively brought in, hybridizing all three elements of the past.

Karen Sherry: Impressionism was one of these reformist impulses that was occurring in the art world in the late nineteenth century, that was also influenced by Japanese art.

Julie Nelson Davis: It’s well known that the Impressionists really appreciated Japanese prints. And some of them even included them in their paintings themselves. For example in Manet’s painting of Émile Zola, we have a print of a Japanese sumo wrestler.

Karen Sherry: Another manifestation of Japonisme in French Impressionism is Claude Monet, and his interest in capturing the effects of light and atmosphere.

Julie Nelson Davis: In other cases we have Impressionists who are deliberately imitating the visual constructs we see in a Japanese print. For example Van Gogh imitated a print that he owned by Hiroshige. We have the same composition.

Karen Sherry: Mary Cassatt was another American artist who embraced Japanese art. One of the most innovative series of prints she did was a series of ten color etchings, very much in the tradition of Japanese ukiyo-e.

And in The Fitting, Cassatt has flattened out the human figure into planal elements that are set off against the different patterns in the wallpaper and the carpet. So she is creating a very all over decorative composition, which is something she would have seen in the artwork of Japan.

Julie Nelson Davis: And in late nineteenth-century-Japan, we also see a new group of people who are concerned about protecting or preserving traditional painting style. And they develop a painting style they call Nihonga or Japanese painting, where they use traditional techniques and materials, and often subject matter. But they’ve kind of updated it to make it seem more modern.

Melissa Chiu: Takashi Murakami is something of a superstar in the art world and even beyond. He is able to bridge both Japanese art and international art, meaning Japanese and the West together. And his training in Nihonga gave him an idea of how one should develop an engagement with the West.

One of the very first avatars, or characters, that he created in the early 1990s was Mr. DOBMr. DOB is a wonderful kind of pseudo Mickey Mouse character. You can see that the ears “d” and “b” and the “o” is formed from the character’s face. And this was, I think, the first example of a more pop sensibility in his work.

Miss ko2 is a life-size sculpture of a curvaceous blond woman. And I think, if anything, Takashi Murakami is really drawing on his affinity with anime and mangaAnime and manga is really a kind of cartoon phenomenon, I think is the best way of describing it. And the characters have big eyes, they often have blond hair, long hair. They all look very Western.

So he’s kind of adopted pop art strategies, and encompass a very Japanese approach.

With this newly globalized culture, the most successful artists are able to appeal to a global or universal audience. But there is still another layer that can only be understood if one understands the local context from which the work is made.

Segment Title: Latin Connections

Deborah Cullen: Miguel Luciano is a really interesting artist for us. And one of the very important series he did was the Manga-Mancha series, where he took manga, you know, Japanese anime sort of style drawing, and created a superhero whose hair was created out of the image of the plátano.

Miguel Luciano: La mancha del plátano literally translates to the stain of the plantain. When Puerto Ricans get to the States, they were made fun of, their la mancha del plátano, saying, “You’re so green, you just arrived, you can still see the stain of the plantain on your skin.”

Deborah Cullen: He also did another really wonderful series, where he did jewelry like bling bling, with actual plátanos covered in platinum.

Miguel Luciano: Inside there is literally this rotting plantain. So within this series there’s also this contrast between the decadence of the platinum and the actual plantain, which is such a staple food crop that connects to our roots.

Deborah Cullen: Miguel has also done Exterminio de Nuestros Indios. He’s speaking about a historical fact: the extermination of the Taíno, the indigenous culture that was in Puerto Rico upon the arrival of Columbus. But again, he’s replacing the conqueror with the conquest of Puerto Rico by American popular cultural brands and products.

Miguel Luciano: A lot of my work, it’s often about the way these cultures collide with one another, and about how within that collision we sort of try to find a space of resolve for ourselves.

Deborah Cullen: The painting Pelea de Gallos is fight of the roosters. And he pits the symbol of the major chicken brand in Puerto Rico against the rooster we know very well here in the United States from the Corn Flakes® cereal brand. And they are having this sort of death match with guns.

Miguel Luciano: All of this is happening with the blessings of the patron saint of these roosters who’s commemorated at the bottom of the painting, which is Saint Colonel Sanders, who’s feeding his chicken to the chickens below.

Deborah Cullen: La Mano Poderosa Racetrack is the all-powerful hand of God. And Miguel is here referring again to the high importation and consumption of Hot Wheels® that broke all records in Puerto Rico.

Miguel Luciano: Competitors will race from the Stigmata Starting Gate all the way down this track of blinking lights, to the Sacred Heart Finish Line. And so the first to arrive at the Sacred Heart Finish Line wins. But it’s also this real critique of consumer culture in general. It’s saints that are now consumer characters; this race towards salvation that’s based on you buying this Hot Wheels® car to participate with. And, you know, the price being the Golden Plátano-Mobile trophy.

One of the core issues in the work that I’m interested in investigating is the relationship between colonialism and consumerism, and how one system of dependency is exacerbated by another.

[Guillermo Gómez-Peña speaks fake native language].

Deborah Cullen: Guillermo Gómez-Peña is a Mexican-born, California-based artist, cultural critic. He’s a MacArthur award-winning poet, and a very important voice in Latino art in the United States.

He’s worked a lot on the idea of border culture by mixing English, Spanish, Spanglish, indigenous dialects, made-up languages, to address topics over important world situations.

Guillermo has many characters that he inhabits and uses, and they are able to speak about the different aspects of his work. And he does projects not just interested in Latino and Latin American situations, but interested in cultures living within other cultures all over the world. Guillermo Gómez-Peña calls our attention to stereotypes, and how ridiculous they are.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: To be an American is a complicated matter. You are in relation to the multiplicity of looks you are able to display. I gesticulate, therefore I am Latino. My art is indescribable, therefore I am a performance artist. I talk, therefore I am. Period.

Melissa Chiu: There is a kind of much greater ebb and flow between different art worlds than there ever has been.

Jay Levenson: Cultural convergence is very important in world art today. We’re becoming now much more aware of art that’s produced in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa. So I think we are really reaching another period where artistic connections between distant parts of the world are becoming important, very interesting, and very widespread.

Melissa Chiu: So it’s like a balance. It’s creating a universal language, but based on local cultures and histories.

Throughout history, economic needs, material desires, and political ambitions have brought people from different cultures and communities into contact, sometimes across great distances. Whether clashes or cooperative endeavors, these convergences have brought about the exchange of knowledge and ideas. In the visual arts, they have led to creative juxtapositions, hybrid styles, innovative forms, and the reinterpretation of traditional signs and symbols.

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Expert Biographies

1 / converging cultures

Ladan Akbarnia, Ph.D., is the Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, where she has coordinated several installations of the arts of the Islamic world. Most recently, Akbarnia completed a reinstallation of the Brooklyn Museum’s Islamic art galleries and an exhibition on Sufism in Islamic art. She earned a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Akbarnia specializes in art from Iran and Central Asia and has taught at Wheaton College and Smith College in Massachusetts. She also serves as a consultant to the Aga Khan Museum Collection in Geneva and the Iran Heritage Foundation in London.


Melissa Chiu, Ph.D., is museum director and vice president for global art programs at the Asia Society in New York. An expert on Asian contemporary art, Chiu is responsible for establishing the museum’s contemporary art collection along with curating path-breaking exhibitions. She is a frequent media commentator on arts and culture and has lectured at universities including Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. Prior to joining the Asia Society Museum, Chiu founded the Asia-Australia Arts Centre in Sydney, Australia. Chiu has also authored many articles and books, most recently, Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China. Chiu holds a Ph.D. in Art History and an M.A. in Arts Administration.


Alan Chong, Ph.D., is the curator of the collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In this capacity, he curates exhibitions, produces publications, organizes conferences, and works to preserve the museum’s collections. Exhibitions he has developed include “Gentile Bellini and the East” and “Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Her Circle in Venice.” He earned his Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and has written numerous essays and catalogues, including a study of Vermeer’s View of Delft.


Deborah Cullen is the director of curatorial programs for El Museo del Barrio, the premier museum of Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American art and culture in New York. Among the shows that she has curated for the museum are “Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis,” which examined artists working in the city from 1900–1942, “Arte no es Vida: Actions by Artists from the Americas, 1960–2000,” a survey of Latin American action and performance-based art, and the first four editions of the museum’s bienal of contemporary art, “The (S) Files/The Selected Files.” She has also authored and contributed to a number of exhibition catalogues.


Jay Levenson, J.D., is the director of the International Program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Levenson served as guest curator of “Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th centuries,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in collaboration with the National Museum of African Art. Prior to joining MOMA, Levenson was deputy director for program administration at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where he coordinated shows including “Africa: The Art of a Continent” and “China: 5000 Years.” Prior to working at the Guggenheim, Levenson served as managing curator of “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,” an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta that ran in conjunction with the 1996 Summer Olympics. At the National Gallery of Art, Levenson was managing curator of “Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration,” as well as “The Age of the Baroque in Portugal,” “Giambologna’s Cesarini Venus” and “Dürer in America: His Graphic Work.”


Chao-Hui Jenny Liu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Chinese art and faculty fellow of art history at New York University. Liu has published essays and entries associated with international exhibitions in New York and Florence on recently excavated art from China and is the author of Ritual Concepts and Political Factors in the Making of Tang Princess Tombs (642–706 CE). She has worked as a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution. Liu has also been a visiting scholar at the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing as well as the Academia Sinica in Taipei. In addition to a Ph.D. in Chinese Art and Archaeology from the University of London, Liu holds an M.Phil. in East Asian Archaeology from the University of Cambridge and a B.A. from UC Berkeley.


Miguel Luciano is an artist whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at institutions that include the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; La Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris; the Ljubljana Biennial, Slovenia; and the Zverev Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow. He is a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Award Grant, a New York Foundation for the Arts award for painting, and two Artist and Communities grants from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Luciano received an M.F.A. from the University of Florida. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.


Barbara E. Mundy, Ph.D., is an associate professor of art history at Fordham University. She specializes in colonial Latin American art and has taught courses in Pre-Columbian, Latin American, Aztec, and Native American art. Mundy has authored several works including The Mapping of New Spain, which received the Nebenzahl Prize in the History of Cartography, and “Mesoamerican Cartography” in The History of Cartography (Volume 2, Book 3), winner of the American Historical Association’s James Henry Breasted Prize. Mundy is the co-creator of Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520–1820, an educational project consisting of a Web site ( and interactive DVD.


Julie Nelson Davis, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches a range courses on East Asian art, including Early Modern Japanese Art and the City of Edo, Japanese Painting, The Arts of Japan, and Postwar Japanese Cinema. Her research concerns the arts of the Tokugawa period (1615–1868), particularly ukiyo-e, the “images of the floating world.” Davis is the author of Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty and has contributed essays to The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock PrintsDesigned for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680–1860, and other publications. She has held the posts of assistant professor of art and East Asian studies at Oberlin College and lecturer of Japanese art history at the University of Washington. Davis earned her B.A. in art history from Reed College, studied at Gakushûin University in Tokyo, and holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Davis has also received numerous fellowships and grants, including the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellowship at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures and several U.S. National Resource Center Faculty Research Grants from the University of Pennsylvania.


Romita Ray, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of art history at Syracuse University, where she teaches courses in European art and architecture (1700–1950), post-colonial theory, and South Asian art and architecture, among other subjects. Some primary areas of interest for Ray are the art and architecture of the British Raj, the Picturesque in imperial India, and the visual history of tea consumption in Britain and the colonies. Prior to her position at Syracuse, Ray taught at Colby College and at the University of Georgia. She served as Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Georgia Museum of Art and helped curate an exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery in London entitled, “Between Worlds: Voyagers to Britain 1700–1850.” Ray received her B.A. from Smith College and her Ph.D. from Yale University.


Karen Sherry is assistant curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, where she has organized several special exhibitions, including “Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880–1920,” “Under the Open Sky: Landscape Sketches by Nineteenth-Century American Artists,” and “Picturing Place: Francis Guy’s Brooklyn, 1820.” Sherry previously worked as a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brandywine River Museum. She has taught art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the University of Delaware, and Pratt Institute as well. Sherry is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Delaware and has received fellowships from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winterthur Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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