Art and Artifacts

Art and Artifacts
   Art is a contested term, but the production of visual culture is consistent across shamanisms. Examples might include the impressive visual display of Siberian shamans’ costumes and maps of spirit realms on Saami shamans’ drums collected by early ethnographers for display in museum collections. Art in the West tends to be understood as paintings “in the frame” and sculptures “on the plinth” in galleries and museums. Although such a view is Eurocentric, perhaps more fitting to this view of art are the kaleidoscopic paintings of visionary experiences by Amazonian ayahuasceros and vegetalistas.
   Many indigenous peoples consider the objects and sometimes their decoration to be other-than-human persons in their own right. While never forgetting the constructed nature of artifacts (e.g., drums, masks, medicine bundles, and sucking tubes) with which they work, they perceive another more active and personal dimension to them. Greg Sarris’s writing about the Pomo basket weaver and doctor Mabel McKay provides some excellent examples of ways in which “object-persons” may be treated respectfully. From prehistory, artistic traditions associated with shamans include a number of rock art traditions that have been linked to the visions and other trance experiences of shamans, from cave art of the European Paleolithic period and Southern African rock art to the megalithic art of Northern Europe. In indigenous contexts, some of the most celebrated of shamanic art includes the brightly colored yarn paintings of the Huichol (Wixáritari) Indians in Mexico and the splitrepresentation perspective art of North America’s Pacific Northwest coast. Such indigenous shamanic art traditions have been appropriated into the Western dealer-critic system, with Huichol yarn paintings and Pacific Northwest wood carvings, for example, fetching high prices on the “primitive” art market.
   A number of modern artists have associated themselves with shamanism or have been labeled shamans by others. The most famous example is Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), who depicted shamans in many of his works and made altered states of consciousness an integral part of some of his performance pieces. Less well known, though no less significant, are occultist and artist Austin Osman Spare (1887–1956) and contemporary artist Marcus Coates. Marc Chagall (1887–1985) and Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) have also been labeled shamans, usually based on the influences of occultism, mysticism, and folklore on their work (as discussed in work by Michael Tucker and Mark Levy), but such sweeping interpretations tend to pay little or no attention to the diversity and contexts of shamanisms, preferring monolithic characterizations.

Historical dictionary of shamanism. . 2007.

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