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Review: Ancient mystic portals to other worlds, in Carlos Museum’s “For I Am the Black Jaguar”

Seated Male Meditating Shaman Photo by Bruce White Central America, Atlantic Watershed, Costa Rica. Period VI, 1000-1520 AD. (Photo by Bruce White)

” ‘For I Am the Black Jaguar’: Shamanic Visionary Experience in Ancient American Art,” at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum through January 5, 2013, is the outgrowth of a quarter-century of research by Carlos curator Rebecca Rollins Stone into the shamanistic sources of ancient art in the Americas.

The 116 objects in the exhibition, most of them from the museum’s permanent collection, illustrate the many aspects of shamanism, including the chemical makeup of the sacred plants that are among the methods for achieving shamanic visions.

A pear-shaped tripod vessel with jaguar features, from Costa Rica/Nicaragua, A.D. 1000-1350. (Photos by Bruce White)

The exhibition begins by upending popular gender stereotypes about shamanic cultures, presenting sculptures of female shamans in postures of meditation. (Stone regards the hands-on-knees posture of so many of the figures in the exhibition as an illustration of a standard meditation technique, found in mystical practices from shamanism in the Americas to Buddhism and other meditational religions across Asia.)

The labels that describe the adjacent figures of blind or deformed individuals, whose anomalous physical status marks them as likely candidates for shamanic initiation, are indicative of the level of research Stone and her students have undertaken: the particular diseases or birth defects that the sculptures depict are identified in exact detail.

What South American shamans do and why and how they do it might seem like an unwieldy subject, but the exhibition organizes it in terms of a few easily comprehended categories, each illustrated by a range of works.

Surprisingly, the many individual characteristics of shamanic activity appear in specific detail in a succession of pieces. The common motif of spiritual transformation into animals, for example, is illustrated by a wide variety of works in which humans have the eyes of jaguars and jaguars and other animals have human characteristics. This inner identification with animals and their specific powers includes a wide variety of species from across South America and beyond; witness, to cite two coastal examples, a pelican textile from Peru and a ceramic “Female Whale Shark Shaman.” As with all the animal transformations cited in this exhibition, both objects are accompanied by zoological data about the characteristics of the creatures with which the shamans identify, or meld. 

A seated male meditating shaman from Costa Rica, A.D. 1000-1520.

The qualities of inner vision can become much more abstract. The shaman’s journey into a condition described as “pure consciousness” that is neither life nor death is represented by a paradoxical pair of mask-like pieces that are neither skull nor face. The exhibition asserts that the lack of duality is also grounded in the belief that everything is alive, art objects included, so the perception is shaped through culture . . . which itself is based on experience. Maybe a better way to put it is that the shamanic experience unsettles everyday expectations, but those everyday expectations are based on cultural beliefs.

As a wall text has it, “Shamanism embarrasses the categories of Western scientific and artistic culture because it is at once psychological, medical, musical, social, economic and more.” These intertwined aspects aren’t represented equally in the art on display (although even social and economic status appears), but shamanism’s confrontations with paradox and anomaly are spectacularly evident. The art’s reversals and inversions represent, as Stone put it in a curator’s talk, “the mirror world that lies under our feet” — the other dimension into which the shaman travels to bring about healing from illness, insight into practical problems or other benefits for ordinary humans.

Any viewer’s skepticism as to whether present-day shamanism can be used to interpret ancient art is diminished by the longstanding cross-cultural nature of the methods by which shamanic trance is achieved, as illustrated by the works in the concluding part of the exhibition. For thousands of years from one end of the planet to the other, fasting, sleep deprivation, meditation, music, dance and ritual recitations have played a role in attaining visionary states without the consumption of chemicals that change consciousness. Psychotropic substances, however, have become much better known these days as shortcuts to shamanic ecstasy, and Stone’s research has identified an ever-expanding list of representations in ancient American art of plants and animal substances, such as toad venom, that have been used to achieve altered states. Two other example are the seeds of the fernlike anadenanthera and the bodies of the lizards that eat the seeds. Either can induce visions, and both are depicted on a Moche vessel from the Central Andes.

Though the information is presented in a user-friendly form thoroughly accessible to general audiences, the interdisciplinary scholarship of this final part represents a contribution to a debate about the concept of shamanism itself: whether such a thing as “shamanism” even exists, or whether visionary healers and “archaic techniques of ecstasy” (to borrow the subtitle of Mircea Eliade’s famous but flawed book on the subject) are too dissimilar from one culture to another to constitute a single category.

The discussion is migrating from anthropology into the neurosciences at the moment, because the answer to the question has a great deal to do with whether bodily experience trumps cultural difference. For the purposes of this introductory exhibition, it’s enough for Stone to show that shamanic visions have overlapping features across art and cultures on just one continent, features that are substantial enough to explain the structural similarities in artworks that appear to be based on parallel visionary experiences, not on arbitrary cultural symbols.

In other words, this art isn’t just communicating what this or that bygone society thought abstractly about itself; it translates vivid, fluid inner experience into the motionless sculptural or pictorial form that was the best visual language available to ancient cultures, in centuries before film, video and digital special effects gave us new ways to render the invisible world visible. (I’d like to be able to take credit for this comparison, but it is Stone’s.)

A globular vessel with incised and modeled jaguar motifs, from Costa Rica, A.D. 800-1350.

We’re fortunate that Stone was allowed to pursue her hypothesis across as many academic disciplines as were required to make her case; institutions with less of a history of interdisciplinary studies might have frowned on an agenda so far beyond the traditional scope of art history. Some of the many strands of ongoing research will be amplified by visiting lecturers in a series that will continue over the course of the exhibition.

The show is intensely condensed, and meant to be very slightly disorienting. If these objects can’t induce shamanic visions themselves, they can be situated so as to help you feel what it might be like to lose your way in this world in order to enter another one. This aspect is fairly modest; mostly, a curved wall unexpectedly obscuring part of the exhibition, and, whether by accident or design, an intimidatingly dark corridor leading to the locked doors of the farthest back gallery, which was not needed for this show.

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