As was noted in a podcast by Artsy titled ‘Why Artists are turning to Mysticism’, there is a swelling presence of mysticism and shamanism in contemporary art. An example of this can be found at this year’s Venice Biennale which had a curated section called the Pavilion of Shamans. I will take a look at what mysticism is, how and why it has intersected with art as well as a South African artist working within this framework.
The re-visiting of mysticism in contemporary art comes within a reassessment of ideas once coupled with countercultural movements (1960s and 70s) as well as another look at the use of psychedelic drugs (Artsy 2017).
But what is considered to be mysticism? In an essay titled ‘Mysticism in African Traditional Religion and in the Bahá’í Faith: Classification of Concepts and Practices’ by Enoch N. Tanyi (unknown year) defines mysticism as:”a belief in or study of supernatural powers and the possibility of subjecting them to human control. His second definition relates to the word “‘occult’ – referring to supernatural agencies, their effects, and knowledge of them.”
Daniel Pinchbeck gives another definition in his book, ‘Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism’, defining it as “a technique used to explore non-ordinary states of consciousness in order to accomplish specific purposes such as healing and communication.” (in Artsy 2017). Mysticism has been associated with ritualistic practices and the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs (in Artsy 2017).
International female artists who are taking an interest in mysticism are artists like the Japanese born artist Saya Woolfalk, who is currently based in New York. Her practice is concerned with how ritualistic practices and identity traverse with physical and digital spaces. With a particular interest in Brazilian masquerade practices, she envisions items and iconography that transform into a fictional universe. This universe belongs to a hybrid female species called ‘The Emphatics’. Her hyper transcultural species has the ability to absorb cultures. Saya’s work has a sci-fi element to it but can still be considered as a form of mystical practice as her work is centered on future beings that are returning to traditional ritualistic practices.
Another example of an international femme artist taking an interest in mysticism is the performance artist Marina Abramović. In a documentary film directed by Marco Del Fiol titled ‘The Space In Between – Marina Abramović and Brazil’ the groundbreaking performance artist travels through the religious society of Vale do Amanhecer in Brasilia, the waterfalls of Chapada dos Veadeiros and the Abadianian vistas as a means to experience the area’s sacred rituals and to bare her creative process amidst the natural beauty that Brazil holds. Del Fiol’s documentary follows the artist through a reflective journey of pain, past experiences and memories that are shown to the viewer through her visits with sages, shamans,healers and sects as well as the intimate rituals and experiences of the artist within Brazil’s biological landscape.
The Artsy podcast, ‘Why Artists are turning to Mysticism’, came to some noteworthy conclusions about mysticism in art and as to why artists are taking a fresh look at mysticism. The editors in conversation in the podcast [Artsy Associate Editor Isaac Kaplan, Senior Editor Tess Thackara and Executive Editor Alexander Forbes] note firstly that most of these artists do not identify as shamans as they are not creating cathartic experiences themselves but instead they are drawn to express mysticism in their work as they are exploring the human desire to experience transcendence. They continue to say that mysticism is deeply accessible and caters to the need to perceive spiritual life. Mysticism is relatable and it has been documented that the use of drugs and shamanism through ritualistic practices has shown not only therapeutic effects on its believers but have health benefits as well. The Artsy podcast further notes that more people than ever are turning to mysticism.
In order to understand mysticism in the practice of South African femme artists I spoke to the young multidisciplinary artist, Anne-Marie Kalumbu. When asked what mysticism means to her, Anne-Marie responds, “Mysticism for me, is about self exploration and healing myself and the people around me.”
Anne-Marie, in contradiction with the international artists mentioned in Artsy’s conclusion, doesn’t just practice mysticism for art but in fact identifies as a witch. She explains that one of the aspects that she enjoys about mysticism is the freedom to choose which parts of it she wishes to practice and which she doesn’t.
Having summoned her not so dark forces that take shape in the human forms of Cassandra Heystek and Jemma Rose, Anne-Marie established a coven. Expressing that they have big plans for the future, I’ll be sure to keep a look out for witchcraft on my social media from these three.
“I found this book in my mum’s room about how to heighten your psychic abilities, and I was like ‘hell yeah, I want to be psychic’. I was about 12 at the time and I didn’t re-visit anything related to mysticism until I was 16. I started watching Teal Swan videos on Youtube and that’s what got me interested in it again. I think I got into mysticism because like most people on earth, I was looking for something that made sense to me, something that I could believe in. Mysticism just made sense to me. I believed it.” Anne-Marie’s last statement agrees with Artsy’s prognosis, that people seek transformative experiences and have a need to perceive spiritual life.
Anne-Marie believes that art and mysticism go hand in hand and explains this by saying that both are forms of expression. Agreeing that mysticism has benefits for its practitioners and believers she does warn that things can get “a little crazy” if used for the wrong reasons.
When told about mysticism’s re-appearance in art Anne-Marie expresses, “It’s funny that mystics and witches are no longer scary old ladies with tall black hats flying on broomsticks but just ordinary people like you and me. I think there has been a new wave of people who are open about being witches and that’s really exciting as it is kind of getting rid of that stigma of witches being wicked and evil monsters who spend their days hexing people. Just don’t cross us and you should be fine!”
Taking a look at how mysticism falls into Anne-Marie’s work she explains that her photography is the shadow that has followed her practice. She photographs subjects (animate or inanimate) that tie in to her personal definition of mysticism. Her imagery is often made up of the elements of fire or water, and she often photographs her loved ones that play a significant role in her life as a mystic.
The photographic series Anne-Marie shared with me is untitled and as mentioned before features some of her favourite subject matter fire, water and loved ones. Her image of a flame captured at the bottom of the image frame was taken before she did a productivity spell after a period of procrastination. Her image of the ocean was taken in Cape Town and holds significance to her work as a mystic as she believes that it possesses healing and cleansing properties. Other images from the series show people as a subject matter but as in the one case, the person’s jacket is drawn over their head and in another, the focus is not sharp and we are presented with more of a silhouette – the idea of something non-human is emphasized. These two subjects are granted what I would refer to as a type of spiritual aura due to their face-less nature and basically unidentifiable features, thus creating a sense of other-worldliness and emphasizing ideas of transcendence.
Anne-Marie’s print work showcase her love for intuitive mark making. Witchcraft often makes use of symbols and the act of intuitive mark making. Anne-Marie however, pushes it further by practicing intuitive writing that carries over in her conjuring of spells. Having studied Latin for two years has enabled her to have a better understanding of spells and to write her own ones.
Her print series titled “Pebbles In Aqua Profunda” was done during a time of personal crisis and was made with intuitive mark making accompanied by writing. Regarding the piece as highly personal she says that it confronts her own hardships in life. Used as a healing process, it has given her a means of expressing her personal concerns.
At first glance Anne-Marie’s work may seem quite ordinary in subject matter but when the context, motivation and symbolism is understood it takes on a deeper, spiritual meaning. Her untitled photographic series captured in black and white takes on a serious tone by just that stylistic choice alone. Her framing of subjects create interest and her context lends it a human and spiritual nature all at once.
“Pebbles In Aqua Profunda” is more directly linked to mysticism as it revolves around spells, intuitive writing and mark making (symbols). Anne-Marie takes on an intimate, personal journey for healing which is a core element of mysticism.
“I do spells all the time (only nice ones though). It’s a way to start manifesting something you really want to achieve in your life. Some spells work directly and others just serve as a push to get you to the place you need to be. Spells are amazing because if they’re used for the right reasons they can be a really good way to promote positivity, creativity, love, light and happiness in your life.”
Anne-Marie’s work makes use of intuitive mark making, the use of spells, shows identifiable mystic iconography such as the astrology elements of water and fire and has a keen focus on healing which is a significant aspect of mysticism (Tanyi year unknown: 159). Mysticism in art should not be regarded as a movement but instead as a means to express the human need to experience transcendence. Mysticism as a practice can be used for both good and bad and the benefits of the practice has been noted by its believers. Practicing mysticism in an art context does not necessarily mean that the artists consider themselves to be a mystic but in some cases, such as Anne-Marie the artist does identify as one.