Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Remembering Nubia Through Scent at Narrating Nubia (Thru Oct 27th)

"Remembering Nubia Through Scent" supports the work of
Dr. Yasmin Moll in the 
Narrating Nubia exhibition at the
Duderstadt Gallery at the University of Michigan. 

Scent references in literature connect us to emotions and memories embodied in ourselves and fellow human beings. We extract smells from text without realizing it, locating internal experiences in the brain and sense making the rest as we immerse ourselves in story. Familiar aromatic signifiers create a bond between reader and story throughout the act of reading, allowing for a more immersive experience. 

Perfumers tell stories in the air with volatile molecules arranged by rate of evaporation. A typical formula is constructed with top, middle and base notes in order of ascent. Base notes-the least volatile ingredients–sustain the longevity of a fragrance. Their function supports the narrative arc of a fragrance, leaving the wearer and the receiver open to the mystery of what transpires next.

Fragrances exhibited for "Remembering Nubia Through Scent" are inspired by aromatic passages in Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia by Haggag Hassan Oddoul. Each of the three scents created by Michelle Krell Kydd complement a specific excerpt of the text, and are mainly composed of base notes. 

Scent № 1: 
Long, long ago, south of the rapids, the nights exuded incense and oozed musk. They were watered by the celestial majesty of the Nile and nourished by the strip of life that lined its banks. Their sky was pure and their air invigorating. There was born generation after generation, dark, dark. We would say: “We are dark, dark, for our sun shines upon our faces.”
Key Notes: Bakhoor (vintage), Jasmine, Musk, Orris Butter, Rose, Saffron, Sudanese Frankincense (Boswellia papyrifera), Suede. 

Scent № 2: 
They had rubbed you all day with dulka oil from Halfa, with extracts of fragrant oils and herbs. Its sweet smell penetrated your pores and radiated from your body, as if dulka oil was in you, not on you. 
Key Notes: Dulka oil is made from a variety of aroma materials including smoked red acacia wood (Acacia seyal), operculum (flap that closes the mouth of the outer shell of a marine mollusk) and French perfumes mixed with oils/attars. The ingredients in dulka oil vary as it’s an artisanal creation bound to culture and tradition. This Egyptian dulka oil smells floral, woody, musky, and smokey with a hint of amber. It has a gentle uplifting quality associated with the use of citrusy aldehydes in French perfume formulas. 

Scent № 3 
All around our Nile is a translucent halo, and the tips of the waves are gentle like the steps of a tender young child. Its perfumed breeze diffuses throughout the universe, and I take in great drafts through my nose, my eyes, my pores…The long narrow strip of green breathes sweet-scented sighs and clusters of dates hang unseen in the twilight exuding a divine, intoxicating aroma. The branches are tipsy and sway softly in the roofs of the palm trees, where the primeval fragrances are blended and lovingly scattered to the four winds.  
Key Notes: Galbanum, Gamma Octalactone, Ivy, Musk, Sandalwood, Tulip Poplar Leaf. 

Photograph by Dr. Yasmin Moll

Working with an unlangued sense like smell doesn’t require proof of vision. It requires detachment from likes and dislikes, an evaluative mindset, and respect for the fact that memory and emotion precede language because humans are neurologically wired this way. Smell is memory’s sense and we cannot afford to forget this. 

The Duderstadt gallery is open from 12:00pm to 6:00pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Narrating Nubia runs thru October 27th. The Duderstadt Center is located at 2281 Bonisteel Boulevard Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109. 

Excerpts from Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia, by Haggag Hasan Oddoul are interpreted as bespoke scents in a gallery setting. Fragrances are housed in passive scent devices arranged on a raised table in a multisensory setting. Each device can be smelled by one person at a time. Attendees are encouraged to linger as long as they wish, moving from one scent experience to the next.  

Dr. Yasmin Moll, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, obtained an exquisite Nubian Dulka oil while conducting ethnographic research in Egypt. She directed Hanina, a short film that can be viewed at the Narrating Nubia exhibit. 

Rêve d’Or by L.T. Piver is an inexpensive French fragrance used in homemade perfumes, bakhoor (incense), body oils and scrubs made by women of Nubian heritage. It’s formulated at eau de cologne strength (2-4% fragrance concentrate to alcohol) and acts as a binding agent across fragrance formulas. 

The boosting effect of Rêve d’Or can be sensed in Scent №2. It supports the unique smoked acacia wood note in the artisan dulka oil formula. Key fragrance notes in Rêve d’Or are molecules found in: orange blossom, tea rose, rose geranium, heliotrope, vetiver, clove and sandalwood. It smells great by itself and when used as a fragrance layering agent. A 14.25 oz bottle of Rêve d’Or retails for less than $30.00. 

Michelle Krell Kydd’s next project at the University of Michigan is focused on AI, machine learning, and sensory evaluation. It’s funded by a New Initiatives/New Instruction (NiNi) grant from the University of Michigan. Kydd is collaborating with Dr. Ambuj Tewari on the NiNi-funded project.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Stink, Stank, Smellmatize (Eau Ferula)!

Wheel of aromatic ferula resins or secret stink device?

Teaching people how to evaluate the smell of an unknown material on a perfume blotter requires trust and a sense of adventure. This is true for novices and experienced attendees at Smell & Tell in Ann Arbor, which was highly evident at a recent AI-themed program.

The sense of apprehension that’s experienced before blind smelling an odorant is a reminder of the underlying purpose of smell, which is to protect us from danger (and encourage behaviors that lead to survival like eating, and sniffing out desirable qualities in a mate).

Hemulen, a character in Tove Jansson's Moomins series, gave up stamp collecting for botany. You can smell his tabula rasa mindset. 

Blind smelling requires a tabula rasa mindset, so you can sense the character of a thing. It's not about whether you love or hate a smell. The smell exists irrespective of your opinion of it. Your job, in real life and at Smell & Tell, is to interpret what your brain is interpreting through your nose. 

The tendency to seek visual proof for non-visual sense objects gets in the way of being fully present for an experience. Smells that are polarizing are challenging to evaluate, but it's important to give smells a chance because what you notice at first sniff changes as it evaporates—and some smells transform in fascinating ways.

Once in a while, I throw a polarizing nose surprise into a Smell & Tell lecture that pushes a contextually relevant button. It’s not done for the sake of theater (a mixed chorus of "icks" and expletives that are the inevitable result of encountering something less than pleasant). 

"Green Wheat Fields, Auvers" by Vincent Van Gogh

When attendees experience a shapeshifting smell from start to finish, they're more than surprised; they're elated. This reaches beyond the fact that the fragrance blotter no longer smells unpleasant. It's proof that patience is worth the time it takes to understand the essence of a thing—because you might learn something new. 

Case in point. A two-year old asafoetida tincture was smelled at Smell & Tell: AI, Machine Learning & Smells last month. The material, which was the sixth and final material in the scent flight, had a nose wrinkling reputation with a twist. Attendees were in for a surprise after class.

The smell in Asafoetida that reminds humans of sulfur, garlic, and onions changes over time. This particular tincture possessed more than the balsamic vanilla drydown noted by Steffen Arctander. It smelled sweet, citrusy, floral-rosy, musky, powdery, orris-like, and citrusy (lemon).

This, dear reader, explains the wheel of ferula resins that accompanies this post. They are part of a tincturing project that informs a future Smell & Tell lecture on the ferula family of scents. I was inspired by an email I received from author Alex Kourvo who attended last month's event. The subject line read “What is this magic?” and continued with:
Smell and Tell was sooooo fun on Wednesday! All the smells were interesting and as always, I felt like my brain grew two sizes. I was amazed that the blotter that had asafoetida on it smelled so much better the second day! I almost threw it away instead of taking it home because it smelled so awful at first. But on day two, it was almost like a perfume. And on day three, it's still pleasant. How. How. How?
Alex's question is an important one that resonates with comments from other attendees who've attended Smell & Tell at the Ann Arbor District Library since it’s inception in 2012. Humans generally don't expect something beautiful from something that smells unpleasant, but it's possible. That's an experience worth holding onto.

Asafoetida was used at Smell & Tell to make a point about avoiding cow pies regarding Artificial Intelligence (AI), human olfaction and neurology. The term “AI" is frequently substituted for "machine learning" by startups on the AI bandwagon. Don't believe the hype

Smelling tinctured resins comprises half of the method I use to evaluate scents (the way I was trained a la perfumery). I use a thermostatically controlled incense heater to experience smells that resins release into the air over time as this enjoins perfumery's predecessors; medicine and incense. 

Image of Die Wachauer Nase By Schurdl (CC). The sculpture, one of a series of nose sculptures in Austria, was organized by the Gelitin art collective.