Lust for Leaf As the children's book The Giving Tree makes clear, trees are more than just landmarks on the horizon; they're shelter, shade, fuel, and food sources, too. Trees have roots in art history as well; the exhibit "Trees of Life: Symbols of Fertility and Regeneration" traces their representation as fertility symbols from the ancient Middle East to Spain via the Moors to the Americas, where the Spanish emphasis on Trees of Life as emblems of the Garden of Eden met with indigenous traditions. Trees of Life became familiar motifs at weddings and funerals, and eventually a Tree of Death evolved and became part of the Day of the Dead ceremonies. Mexican folk traditions vary among regions, but most Trees of Life are made of clay and tend to be decorated with paradisiacal elements like angels, birds, blossoms, and serpents. The exhibit opens at noon at the Mexican Museum, Building D, Fort Mason, S.F. Admission is free-$3; call 441-0404.
Monk Crossing The long cultural history of an embattled nation shines through folk-, temple-, and palace-style performances by the Song and Dance Ensemble of Tibet. Monks from the Gyutoe Monastery, traveling the States for the first time under the auspices of the Dalai Lama, have crafted a program of mystical and sacred music, chanting, song, and dance done with traditional instruments and costuming. This year has already seen a number of Tibetan performances, but these particular monks are known for their ability to produce the lowest human vocal sounds possible; that, combined with long trumpets, acrobatic dances and ritual ceremonies, and jokes and stories, makes for intriguing possibilities. The performance begins at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Admission is $14-26; call (510) 642-9988.
Continental Divide If the situation in Rwanda and Zaire seems hopelessly confusing, the Annual African Studies Conference, with Africanist scholars and leaders and an expected international crowd of 1,500 people, may shed some light. A series of panel discussions will focus on this year's theme, "The Challenges of Renewal in Africa"; events especially geared to the public include film screenings, an art exhibit of work by Mbuti women, readings, a social dance reception, and a staging of Death and the King's Horseman, by Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, slated for 7:30 p.m. (also Friday and Saturday) at the Black Box Theater, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Admission is $2; call (510) 642-1677. The conference is held Saturday at 1 p.m. (also on Sunday through Tuesday at 8:45 a.m.) at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, 5 Embarcadero Center, S.F. Admission is $50-110; call (510) 642-8338.
See 'Em Like Survival Research Laboratories, the Seemen specialize in ingenious mechanical contraptions and fiery spectacle. The collective's new work, "A House of Oddities," offers a chaotic, side-show-inspired interactive performance/exhibit, where Klansmen and Jesus are the moving targets in a shooting gallery equipped with air guns, and viewers can feed Cerebus the three-headed dog. Like any carnival worth its admission charge, this one has peep-show booths, in this case involving hermaphrodites and a head-punching machine; robotics, paintings, film projection, and homemade instruments are what separates "Oddities" from the average traveling show. It all begins at 10 p.m. (also Friday and Saturday) at the LAB, 2948 16th St., S.F. Admission is $7-10; call 864-8855.
Why Stay Still? The black-and-white and full-color films of Robert Mapplethorpe, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, and other artists famous mostly for their still photographs find a home at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The series is organized into seven programs ranging thematically from "Surrealistic Tendencies" to "Photojournalism," and the films, which illustrate links between still and moving pictures, run from less than a minute to feature length. Screenings are held at 1 and 3 p.m. Fridays and Sundays (through Dec. 15) at the SFMOMA, 151 Third St., S.F. Admission is free-$7; call 357-4000.
Far-Ranging Flicks They may not be as well-known around here as their more commercially successful counterpart Like Water for Chocolate, but the nine entries in Classics of Latin America: The 1996 Latin American Film Festival are recognized in their countries of origin for speaking to particular cultural experiences. Among these are Erendira, a tale of eroticism and evil based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez screenplay, and Tangos, the Exile of Gardel, a musical tragicomedy about Argentine exiles in Paris. The festival begins with a reception and dance performance by Tango/Argentina Folk Ballet at 6:30 p.m.; a screening of Frida, a fictionalized account of painter Frida Kahlo's life, at 8 p.m.; and a post-show party at the Palace of Fine Arts, Bay & Lyon, S.F. Admission is $10-20. The fest continues at noon Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday at the McKenna Theater, Creative Arts Building, 1600 Holloway, SFSU campus. Admission is $5-10; call 338-2467.
They Ain't Heavy It's payback time for the women who've lent their strength and support to HIV/AIDS and gay civil rights battles. The Brothers for Sisters Bash, organized by area men's groups, raises funds for Lyon Martin Women's Health Center, which provides health care services and education surrounding issues of particular concern to lesbian and bisexual women, breast cancer and parenting among them. The event will also honor the efforts of documentary filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen, creators of the film It's Elementary, and Dr. Sandra Hernandez, director of San Francisco's Department of Public Health. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. at the City Club, 155 Sansome, 10th Floor, S.F. Admission is $75; call 565-7672, ext. 355.
Get Lit It doesn't cost spectators anything and may momentarily undo some of the mental damage that commercial outlets seem determined to inflict during the holiday season: The 11th annual Holiday Lights Celebration will illuminate the waterfront with over 17,000 twinkling bulbs. The lighting is followed by 1998 Winter Olympics inaugural ceremonies and a tree-lighting in the Hyatt's atrium. You could shop afterward. Better yet, you could just go home and string some lights of your own. The celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. in Justin Herman Plaza, Market & Steuart, S.F. Admission is free; call (800) 733-6318.
Just Deal An artwork that sells for $75 will probably pay for itself eventually, whether through daily viewer appreciation or yearly financial appreciation. Either way, Visual Aid's third annual art sale and raffle, Big Deal, is a big deal, so much so that priority numbers are handed out at the door upon arrival and great buys are on a first-come, first-served basis. Over 500 paintings, drawings, and photographs have been donated by artists including J. John Priola and Enrique Chagoya for Big Deal, which benefits a fund for artists living with AIDS and opens at 4 p.m. at SOMAR Gallery, 934 Brannan, S.F. Admission is $10; call 777-8242.
Beats Per Pound Berkeley resounds with the thrilling sounds of taiko at the International Taiko Festival, which celebrates the powerhouse style of Japanese drumming. Seiichi Tanaka, leader of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo and the man credited with introducing the form in the United States, presents the largest taiko drum known to the Western hemisphere and brings together groups from L.A., Mexico, and Japan at the event, which begins at 8 p.m. (also Sunday at 3 p.m.) at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Admission is $17-25; call 928-2456.
Babes, Bands, BBQ, Beer! The girls show the boys how it's done at a female-dominated band blitz and all-you-can-eat barbecue this weekend. The Bobby Teens, featuring former members of the Trashwomen, leave the garage behind in favor of '50s rock laced with '70s bubble gum. And the Donnas have good reason to sing "I Don't Wanna Go to School," a revved-up, anthemic number that would make the Ramones proud and wistful: Word has it that the players in this four-piece are still students at Palo Alto High. Loli & the Chones and the Retardos join in at 5:30 p.m. at the Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., S.F. Admission is $3; call 621-4455.
Feeding Frenzies and Phobias First comes the gluttony of office parties and family dinners, followed by the grim specter of New Year's dieting resolutions, all the while accompanied by a spate of magazine articles on evasive eating tactics and careful calorie-counting. It's little wonder, then, that people start to get food crazy around the holidays. But where does one draw the line between seasonal and serious obsessions with body image? Networks Family Counseling Center screens people for eating disorders throughout November and December at its office, 1122 Clement, S.F. Screenings are free; call 668-2218.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Robert Coffman makes his fifth annual holiday trek to Theater Rhino for a solo reading of Truman Capote's A Thanksgiving Visitor, the one-act story of young Buddy, his special friend, and the guest who almost scotches things between them. Coffman, a local actor who has appeared in Rhino productions including The Enclave and Poppies, will also read Capote's A Christmas Memory in a solo show Dec. 16. Tonight's performance, a benefit for the space, is held at 7 p.m. and is followed by a reception with Coffman at Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., S.F. Admission is $8; call 861-5079.
The Fame Game Even chickens get their 15 minutes in the "Hall of Fame Hall of Fame," an exhibit culled from 58 halls of fame throughout the United States. Art and artifacts from obvious achievement venues like the Rock and Roll and Television Halls of Fame are shown alongside entries from lesser-known outlets like the Poultry, Trapshooting, Hot Dog, and National High School Band Directors Halls of Fame. The stories and images from our collective pop-culture consciousness reflect our fascination with the biggest, fastest, newest, and best. The exhibit opens at 11 a.m. (and continues through Feb. 23) at Yerba Buena Gardens Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, S.F. Admission is free-$4; call 978-ARTS.
Screen Saviors The world unfolds before our eyes and all we have to do is sit back and relax when documentarian Les Blank and the One-Minute World Festival arrive. The festival, an international competition of one-minute-long animated and live videos -- this year themed "Autobiographies, Biographies, and Characters" -- makes its only California appearance at 4 and 5 p.m. at Stern Hall, Room 100, Mills College campus, 5000 McArthur, Oakland. Admission is free; call (510) 654-2298. Blank, meanwhile, offers a peek at his world, a series of richly diverse American folk cultures celebrated in a filmography spanning The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins to J'ai ete au bal. He will screen and discuss his films Gap-Toothed Women and The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, in an evening beginning with a reception at 6 p.m. and followed by a screening at 6:30 p.m. in the Arts and Industry Building, Room 101, 1600 Holloway, SFSU campus. Admission is free; call 338-1629.