Lost Race Found
Several times lately, some animal thought to be long-extinct is discovered in some far-off region of the world, doing just fine. This is a moment like that: Plato's Lost Race, the pre-human hermaphrodites, split in half by the gods in punishment for arrogance, each half condemned to wander the Earth in a seemingly endless search for completion. Here they are, she-he tends the roots and he-she the branches, on swampy, newly forming ground. The proud peacock watching carefully overhead. (Cats are just always necessary.)
a little experiment…
The pieces of people she meets (whom she reflects back to themselves with a twist), the parts of herself society has given her (image consumption, via catalogue cut-outs), and both the developed and under-developed parts of her self-image (bright ink versus sheer/ thin-skin paper) come together in a whirl (the subconscious, her soul, her tattoo) exhaled as the breath of the bird which directs the music staff/peace branch at her lips: her song.
acrylic, mirror, catalogue, ink, sheer paper on board 11×14
Agwe and Erzulie
St. Ulrich and St. Afra; Agwe and Erzulie
(St. Afra's feast day is Aug. 5)
(acrylic version; 16x20)
St. Afra (died 304) was a Cypriot woman, who was converted in Augsberg, Germany as she hid Bishop Narcissus of Girona from the Roman authorities. She was caught, of course, sheltering the bishop, and as a result burned to death (thus the wings of flame). There are conflicting stories about her, one stating that she was a prostitute in the Temple of Venus (thus she is partly formed of water, here), and the other that she died a virgin. The discrepancy in stories is one reason I chose her to represent Erzulie instead of the Virgin Mary (whom she is syncretized with in Voodoo); Erzulie is presented as innocent and virginal, but also as married to three other Loa, (one being Agwe) and having numerous lovers. For some reason, this is not a contradiction in her case. She is universally adored, all her husbands know about each other, they know of all her lovers, and they are not bitter, because they know that she has that much love. It is possible that Christianity also at one point mirrored this contradiction in Mary--why else a virgin mother, with the same name as the most beloved prostitute and the very first Christian evangelist?--but I felt that it was more succinct in the case of Afra. Also, she shares Church and crypt with St. Ulrich, who happens to be the saint syncretized with Agwe, who, as I mentioned, is one of the husbands of Erzulie. "Voudoun has given woman, in the figure of Erzulie, exclusive title to that which distinguishes humans from all other forms: their capacity to conceive beyond reality, to desire beyond adequacy, to create beyond need. In Erzulie, Voudoun salutes woman as the divinity of the dream, the Goddess of Love, the muse of beauty." 138The Divine Horsemen One of the most striking aspects of the traditions surrounding the devotions to Erzulie is that they always end with her weeping. Erzulie is lovely, beautiful, and she has the adoration of all men, yet she does not strike hateful jealousy in the women, because of her child-like innocence. She induces wonder and care, she is like a child. And, though she begins all celebrations in her honor filled with giddiness and pleasure at the excess of beautiful and expensive things that are always lavished on her parties, she slowly grows sad, accusing the people of not honoring her enough, not giving her enough, not loving her enough. In Maya Deren's book "The Divine Horsemen," she suggests that this is just another aspect of her child-like behavior (along with an "impatience with economies, with calculation, even with careful evaluation" 139), that you cannot give a child enough attention to satiate its need, and that those present at the devotions understand this and soothe her. I feel, however, that perhaps Erzulie is right. We do not devote enough of our attentions to child-like wonder, to endless and all-enveloping love--if we did, the world would be a much different place. "As any water deity does, Agwe symbolizes the intuitive knowledge held within, the deep connection to eternal movements and powerful forces." Source: Sosyete du Marche St. Ulrich (born 890; the first saint that the Vatican officially canonized) rebuilt St. Afra's church in Augsburg, Germany, which they are both now the patron saints of, and his sarcophagus is there along with hers in the crypt. He is often, thus, shown in icons alongside her. Because of his ability to change any meat given to him or that he is giving away into fish on Fridays, he is often depicted holding fish, which is why his icons became symbolic of Agwe, the Loa of the deep waters, of the emotional depths, of the chaos before creation. He was also a good choice because many of his icons show him riding his horse across waters so deep that his companions are all drowning behind him. As I didn't want to draw drowning men, I decided to make his horse's special abilities apparent in some other way.
(The frame is gold-leaf and shiny :)
This painting began as an exploration of a segment from Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings, in which he described a curse created by "The Yellow Emperor" which kept a whole other world confined inside the reflective surfaces of our own world, and how one day that curse would be broken. When I was making the drawing for it, I was thinking of humans, of us being the ones trapped inside the mirrors--trapped by perceptions of the world and its possibilities that we'd developed before we were even conscious of what we were doing, perceptions handed down to us by our parents, society, ill-managed emotions, fears, etc. I was thinking about it in the sense of our "true selves" being something completely foreign, even unrecognizable to this somnolent being that wanders through each day, making often meaningless, rote motions at dictated times (coffee, job, study, gym, drive, pick up the kids, whatever your life is, etc) in an effort to pass "correctly" or safely through yet another day. To make it. My thinking was that most of the time, our perception of what is possible is limited to what we've already seen done; thus, most of the time, we're merely mimicking--mirroring--what is already before us, unable to believe past what we can see and into the wild, chaotic space beyond it. So this moment of freedom from the curse would be that moment of passing through the mirror, becoming (once more) real, alive. Or, in quantum physics, it is said that all the possible outcomes of the choices that we're faced with at each moment are played out in some space and time, and each of those spaces and times are called parallel realities. Sometimes these realities are symbolized as bubbles jostling each other in endless space. The mirror, then, might be the thin skein of the bubble separating one reality from another. One choice from another. One me (one you) from another. After I made the drawing, but was still unsatisfied with my understanding of the passage, I stumbled upon the story of St. Rita, and I found in her the woman, the human part of the spirit here painted breaking out from her illusory prison and into a new world. This creature is St. Rita, leading us directly into the impossible. The Italian St. Rita, as is usually the case with the saints, greatly desired to join a convent as a young child, but was prevented. In obedience to her parents, at 12 years old she married, and bore her violent and otherwise criminally-inclined husband two sons. He beat her continually and otherwise brought her not much happiness, but she stayed with him, and towards the end of his life even managed to convert him to Catholicism and a new path. This was one of the first steps towards what she would become: the patron saint of impossible dreams and lost causes--and abused women. Shortly after his conversion, her husband was ambushed and killed, and Rita was forced to channel her energies towards protecting the souls of her sons, who wanted to avenge their father's death. She prayed that God not allow their souls to be sullied by such an act as murder, and they instead died within the year. At that point, she returned to her attempts to join a convent, but was refused, several times, because of her status as widow and mother (as opposed to virgin, the requirement for a bride of Christ). However, she persevered, and one morning, the good nuns awoke to find that she had been spirited into the locked convent in the middle of the night by her own patron saints. Feeling they could not ignore such a clear statement from God, they permitted her to stay. Later, on her death bed in the convent, she made another impertinent request. She asked that a visitor bring her a fig and a rose from a garden she had always loved. The problem, of course, was that it was the dead of winter, and there would be no figs and no roses. But, of course, there were. The visitor went to the garden she'd named, and found there just the fig and just the rose, and brought them to Rita. So here, instead of the olive branch, St. Rita holds out the fig branch: her offering of the impossible, made so by dreaming it was so.. The fig branch is the first object to pass through the mirror, her dreams and desires leading her out into a new reality. I had wanted a hybrid creature of some sort, as it would be one of "us" becoming something we had not before recognized as possible or real. Typically female (me first! :)), she is part fish because Borges said the first to escape the prison would be the fish: maybe because of the image of the fish growing legs and departing from the sea to begin the next stages of its evolution (towards humanity?), maybe because of the image of primordial chaos as a kind of sea that the first forms of organized life came out of, maybe because a fish first appears in your vision as a flash, a line of color, and only afterwards as a full being. And then I thought she would need land-legs, and powerful ones, made for galloping. And speaking of passing to the other side, or passing between worlds, according to Ursula Bielski, in her book Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City: "One All Souls Day, November 2, in the early 1960s, those 15, all faithful parishioners of St. Rita Church, were gathered for a prayer service there to benefit the souls of the dead. In the midst of their efforts, the organ began to play on its own, unleashing a chaotic string of shrill tones. The hands of the church clock began to spin wildly in opposite directions. As the organ churned out its ghastly offerings, the congregation beheld six monk-like figures, three draped in white and three in black, poised on either side of the instrument. Shocked but mobilized, the petitioners rushed to flee by the doors, which refused to open. They watched in horror as the figures began to glide down to the main floor, floating through pews above ground and towards the front of the church. In the organ's final shriek of discord, an unseen voice implored, 'Pray for us.' At that point the doors blew open, allowing the congregation to escape the dreadful scene."
Erzulie-Ewa and the Green Lion
The Big Picture II: St. RitaThere are many details that make the fig tree a good companion for a saint. First of all, that it will grow out of rock, like an orchid, only gigantic; that it could even grow out of the "ruins" of our civilization.
It is now believed that fig trees were the first plant species to be bred for food, some 11,000 years ago in the Middle East--several hundred years before wheat cultivation began. Because its wood is terribly difficult to chop down and provides nothing of interest to our markets, its existence in places like Queensland's national and state parks has saved those areas, and their other trees, from logging. The roses shown here are Alain Blanchard, from the species "Rosa gallica," which, according to Wikipedia, is one of the earliest cultivated species of roses.
As you might recall from my last post on St. Rita, one of her miraculous aspects was her ability to acquire a fig and a rose from a favorite garden in the dead of winter simply by wishing it so. Here, her presence has caused both to bloom from the same fig tree. After all, many things come from a fig tree: according to legend, underneath it, Buddha found enlightenment, and from between its roots sprung the Sarasvati* river; according to a NASA clean air study, the weeping fig also produces clean air, processing out our nasty pollutants--bringing us back full circle in this post and in the world, with new life forming from our ruins--by way of the fig tree.
You can see if you zoom in that as she sits in the curve of the tree trunk, it's as if she's pushing the bark outwards in waves--that is how I imagine it looks when reality "shifts" to allow an impossibility new space in the world. Being a saint, she lets the bird take the fig.
*note: The Sarasvati River was originally personified in the Hindu religion as Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, though through time, she developed into a separate entity. It is a very special river in ancient Hindu texts.
Erzulie-Ewa and the Green Lion
Some notes, cobbled from other versions of Erzulie and Ewa:
"Voudoun has given woman, in the figure of Erzulie, exclusive title to that which distinguishes humans from all other forms: their capacity to conceive beyond reality, to desire beyond adequacy, to create beyond need. In Erzulie, Voudoun salutes woman as the divinity of the dream, the Goddess of Love, the muse of beauty." 138The Divine Horsemen One of the most striking aspects of the traditions surrounding the devotions to Erzulie is that they always end with her weeping. Erzulie is lovely, beautiful, and she has the adoration of all men, yet she does not strike hateful jealousy in the women, because of her child-like innocence. She induces wonder and care, she is like a child. And, though she begins all celebrations in her honor filled with giddiness and pleasure at the excess of beautiful and expensive things that are always lavished on her parties, she slowly grows sad, accusing the people of not honoring her enough, not giving her enough, not loving her enough. In Maya Deren's book "The Divine Horsemen," she suggests that this is just another aspect of her child-like behavior (along with an "impatience with economies, with calculation, even with careful evaluation" 139), that you cannot give a child enough attention to satiate its need, and that those present at the devotions understand this and soothe her. I feel, however, that perhaps Erzulie is right. We do not devote enough of our attentions to child-like wonder, to endless and all-enveloping love--if we did, the world would be a much different place.
In Candomblé Ketu, Ewá represents the water element, and is the goddess of enchantment, beauty, and harmony. Like Erzulie, in the related Voodoo pantheon, she is universally loved and loving and "represents all that is fragile and sensitive." According to Morwyn, in Magic from Brazil, "Euá was so beautiful that men would fight to the death to possess her. In order to stop the carnage she changed herself into a puddle of water that evaporated to the sky, condensed into a cloud, and fell as rain. Thus she is known as the deity of transformation."
Here, I am fusing the two water divinities, hoping for a major transformation such as the one Erzulie begs for, one in which I no longer need to mess with stupidities like balancing my checkbook, for example... She is still paired with the Green Lion of alchemical transformation, and they rest beside Legba's tree, which opens the doors to the other worlds. If you look closely, you can see the first bird forming from the clouds billowing up from her scarf. More on Erzulie, Ewa, and Legba here and here.
Arrival of the Birds II
The Little Blue Ship
Since 2000 BC, people have hauled boats on carts through town for festivals led by questionable kings. The Ancient Greeks honored Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, the Romans called in the New Year with their version of the same god, Bacchus, and the Teutons honored their fertility goddess, Nerthus. During the times of slavery, it was a slave who headed the ship, worshipped as King for the day, in an act that turned the world upside down in much the same way revelers do now during the Mardi Gras parades. From as early as 1135, this ship became known as the Blauwe Schuit, the Blue Barge, and it became filled with marginally criminal refugees who had banded together as a Guild, normally the standard of ethical conduct and workmanship for a particular trade, and let loose in an otherwise unacceptably sinful and raucous celebration.
By the end of the Middle Ages, there was another use for such a ship.
In 1517 Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. He, like other protagonists of the Reformation, doubted the value of good deeds as a ticket to heaven. The insane, together with the cripples and beggars to whom one could also demonstrate one’s brotherly love, thus lost their religious worth. From being necessary, they now became undesirable. They began to be cast out. The number of prisons grew, and workhouses were introduced, where the mentally ill were shut up alongside thieves, beggars and those unwilling to work.--16th Century Paintings, by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen
Around this time, Hieronymous Bosch painted his famous Ship of Fools, and a mythology grew up surrounding it of ships like that one, floating down all the major rivers, carrying the mad, the impoverished, and the unwanted from shore to shore, always rejected and pushed back out to sea. Foucault used that image, and the records of a few incidents in the Germany of the 1400s which gave credence to that mythology, to explore the idea of the liquid form of madness, the mind adrift, the man outcast and lost in the “moving chaos” of the unknown territory beyond the established boundaries of civilization. And Foucault had, of course, his own understanding of what was to be called “mad--” in his writings, he often pointed out that what was crazy to one person, in his society, was old hat to another, in a society far, far away. For example, in the preface to his book The Order of Things, he writes:
"This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that."
Which leads us back again to the ancient practice of drawing a ship through town--on wheels--led by those who are usually not heard from, not listened to, even, often, not looked at. On that ship, on that day, they are kings and queens, and they may be happy, and wealthy, and wise. The custom is a reminder that all that we see as solid and normal is, in fact, fluid and changing, both in time and space. What we find ridiculous and hideous now, for example (slavery included), was not to be questioned once upon a time. And the burka tells us something about the role of space (the boundaries of a culture). And now modern physics tells us that solid matter itself is not solid at all, and that much of what we see, we have simply decided to see, our culture and upbringing have taught us to see--and it may not be there at all. I’ve written here before about the passing gorillas we miss when it’s been implied that their presence is unimportant. So, this one day of the year--couldn’t it be more?
During World War II, Hendrik Nicolaas Wekrman established the journal The Blue Barge with three other friends. They printed, among other things, tales from Martin Buber’s Legend of Baal-Shem, illustrated by Werkman, as a direct act of resistance and a source of inspiration to those suffering under the Nazi regime. For his efforts--his artistic efforts--Werkman was executed by firing squad April 10, 1945. The Legends of Baal-Shem includes an entire section entitled “Ecstasy,” in which it is said: “In ecstasy all that is past and that is future draws near to the present. Time shrinks, the line between the eternities disappears, only the moment lives, and the moment is eternity. In its undivided light appears all that was and all that will be, simple and composed. It is there as a heart-beat is there, and becomes perceptible like it.” Here, ecstasy is paradise, and those that insist on the renunciation of joys in this world also will not enjoy them in the next--is that not the renunciation of paradise? and so the mad who are lost in the fevers of ecstasy are closer to god than we are....
The Blue Ship, then, symbolizes all that we do not understand but which brings joy; unbridled passion, the creative instinct, the explosion of insight in a moment of thinking “outside the box.” It is also rebellion, revolution: it is hope where hope seems lost, and joy where joy has been forbidden. It is the creative act, opening a door where once there was a wall.
In this Blue Ship, Agwe stands at the helm, steering the wheeled ship through time. From somewhere underneath his collar, the stairs rise up to enter the castle of his hat, where a princess waits, and where we get the first hint that he might be facing the wrong way, as the ship’s masthead is holding her torch in the opposite direction. On the other side of the ship, Erzulie lovingly faces the direction her husband suggests, but her eyes slide to take note of the wise owl that pulls them via a ribbon of clouds, the other way.
Center stage is the Tree of Life, the Tree of Enlightenment, the Germanic Yggdrasil, which holds heaven and earth together. It is the crossroads between the living and the ancestors, between the devotee and the Voodoo Loa; it is the seat of Legba, who must be called on first before any other deity can be contacted.
Agwe’s boat is made, filled with treasures, and pulled on wheels through town and all the way to the water’s edge, where it is offered to him and his wife, Erzulie. I have talked about them here many times before, so I won’t repeat myself, but here I am remembering that Erzulie herself requires, on her sacred days, that we forget the logic of economics and the limits of poverty, sprinkling expensive perfume on the ground, cooking lavish meals, wearing and offering finery and jewels. She requires that we take the time to make ourselves beautiful, to make our offerings beautiful, to remember that each motion and act is an art, more of an art than the finished product, and that it matters to take the time to make something gorgeous.
Her generosity is so natural that one is caught up in her exuberant innocence, believing, with her, that all is good, is simple, is full-blown. It is in order to feel this that the serviteur indulges her extravagant demands, for if what is so difficult for him is so normal for her, that very fact confirms the existence of a world in which his difficulties do not occur... He conceives of Erzulie as fabulously rich, and he neither inquires into nor explains the sources of this limitless wealth, as if by such disinterest he becomes himself freed from concern with sources and means. He shares her impatience with economies, with calculation...Erzulie moves in an atmosphere of infinite luxury, a perfume of refinement, which, from the first moment of her arrival, pervades the very air of the peristyle, and becomes a general expansiveness in which all anxieties, all urgencies vanish. The tempo of movements becomes more leisurely, tensions dissolve and the voices soften, losing whatever aggressive or strident tones they may have had. One has the impression that a fresh, cooling breeze has sprung up somewhere and that the heat has become less intense, less oppressive. --Maya Deren Erzulie turns the world upside-down in this way: she brings ease and luxury and peace through the sheer, innocent expectation of them. And she rides away on this little blue ship, where we don’t internalize the order and logic of society, where we are not limited by time or space, and where we can go in many directions at once and never be lost.
(Of course, the carnival begins at night...)
“I do not think that 70 years is the time of a man or woman, nor that 70 millions of years is the time of man or woman, nor that years will ever stop the existence of me, or anyone else.”
Saint Lucy decided at an early age that she did not want to be with a man; she preferred to give her self completely to God, though she lived in a time when it was not permitted to follow Christian beliefs. To deflect the attentions of a suitor who was captivated by the beauty of her eyes, she carved them out and sent them to him. Miraculously, she was still able to see—whether with new eyes that God gave her, as in some stories, or by some higher sight, as in others. I have chosen something along the middle path here, giving her the many eyes of a peacock’s tail, which serves also as a sort of halo. Lucy also faithfully braved the dangers of guilt by association, regularly taking bread to the Christians that were already in hiding from the authorities. Eventually, she was denounced as a Christian by another spurned suitor, and after various failed attempts, the Roman soldiers succeeded at killing her.
The idea of sight coming from somewhere other than the eyes is one that can be found in many fables, tales, myths, and religions. There are those even in the current scientific community who spend their lives seeking out and testing those who claim to have some other sort of sight—into the silent thoughts of others, into the future, across great distances, or into other realms where ghosts, angels, and demons reside. It is suggested that the earliest mention of such abilities is found in the Odyssey, but second sight is very common to the lore of the Scottish Highlands and the Icelandic sagas, and precognition is widely accepted among the Native Americans as well as tribes across South Africa and New Zealand.
In The Holographic Universe, Michael Talbot tells the following story about an event concerning a hypnotist his father had hired to entertain at a party and a family friend, named Tom, who agreed to play guinea pig for the evening:
“Tom proved to be a very good subject, and within seconds the hypnotist had him in a deep trance. He then proceeded with the usual tricks performed by stage hypnotists. He convinced Tom there was a giraffe in the room and had Tom gaping in wonder. He told Tom that a potato was really an apple and had Tom eat it with gusto. But the highlight of the evening was when he told Tom that when he came out of trance, his teenage daughter, Laura, would be completely invisible to him. Then, after having Laura stand directly in front of the chair in which Tom was sitting, the hypnotist awakened him and asked him if he could see her.
Tom looked around the room and his gaze appeared to pass right through his giggling daughter. ‘No,’ he replied…Then the hypnotist went behind Laura so he was hidden from Tom’s view and pulled an object out of his pocket. He kept the object carefully concealed so that no one in the room could see it, and pressed it against the small of Laura’s back. He asked Tom to identify the object. Tom leaned forward as if staring directly through Laura’s stomach and said that it was a watch. The hypnotist nodded and asked if Tom could read the watch’s inscription. Tom squinted as if struggling to make out the writing and recited both the name of the watch’s owner (which happened to be a person unknown to any of us in the room) and the message. The hypnotist then revealed that the object was indeed a watch and passed it around the room so that everyone could see that Tom had read its inscription correctly.” (141)
So, what was Tom seeing the watch with, then? Was he really seeing through his daughter? Or was he seeing the watch by seeing the thoughts in the hypnotist’s head? What is that?
While working on this painting, I came across yet another story, this one about an autistic girl, who has of course been subjected to many recorded medical studies since her abilities were noticed. Blind from birth, this girl wanders around by herself without running into things by making little chirping noises which somehow act as a sonar, as in the case of bats. She also always knows what time it is, though she has never seen a clock…
In this icon of St. Lucy, I have chosen time as that which is being re-envisioned, or seen new. The various clock pieces come apart, reconfigure, and tumble about through space; some of them are organic, forming the labyrinths where the Christians Lucy must feed hide from the monsters, requiring her to find her way by following an inner radiance and sureness of step, that is, by faith and by transcending (thus the birds) her physical handicap.
(Two heavy influences on my thinking about this work: Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges, and How to Create a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later by Philip K. Dick).
Eve Reborn as the Phoenix
The cage of her body splits open, allowing the release of her soul into a purer form-- the first and second birds flower from her hair/branches; the third pushes through the now-vertical cage of her ribs. Though she is rooted, she is rooted in self, still free to transform. Remember, matter is neither created nor destroyed...it just changes form, it becomes so new, you don't even recognize it.
Poem by Vesna:
every single day
she does it her way
she is flying free
his beautiful lady
every single day
she comes out to play
she starts to bloom
looking for more room
every single day
constraints are in the way
but rather than feeling a rage
she leaves the birdcage
every single day
he teaches her to stay
to take the food from his hand
on his shoulder stand
every single day
they dance, swirl and sway
they rock and roll and swing
together they sing