Curator's Statement, Visions That The Plants Gave Us

Visions That The Plants Gave Us was curated by Dr. Luis Eduardo Luna, Senior Lecturer in Spanish at the Swedish School of Economics and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianópolis, Brazil. Born and raised in the Colombian Amazon region, Luna is a Guggenheim Fellow and Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, the author of Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon, and co-author with Pablo Amaringo of Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman. The exhibition is presented at St. Lawrence University in conjunction with the year-long study of "Healing Across Cultures," a four-year faculty and curriculum development project in intercultural studies funded by the Christian Johnson Endeavor Foundation. During the year 1998-99, several new and existing courses, a faculty reading group, and related cultural and educational programs are presented in which differing paradigms of health, healing, disease, and illness are examined and explored. Dr. Luna writes:

Visionary plants have been paramount in many cultures for millennia, often mediating the world of immediate experience and the infinite spiritual realms that are believed to permeate all existence. In many cases visionary plants are endowed with intelligence and are considered to be sources of deep and mysterious knowledge, instruments of the divine, fountains of beauty and inspiration, as well as a means to maintain cultural integrity. This is particularly so among many Amerindian cultures, such as the Huichol of Mexico, who have as their primary sacrament the humble peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), or as in the case of numerous indigenous groups of the upper Amazon, among which ayahuasca, a visionary vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), and various admixture plants (ex. Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana) are pivotal in their conception of the world. It is often by means of the ritual use of visionary plants that shamans undergo their training and acquire their skills. Visionary plants also generate myths and power songs that allow communication with that which is normally unseen and are instruments used to navigate the visionary realm. Among some Amerindian cultures, visionary plants are the source of inspiration of the rich iconographic motifs found in body painting and the decoration of material objects. Songs and visions, as well as visions and dreams, are realms intimately linked, being the manifestation of synthetic experiences simultaneously perceived at many levels. Beauty, manifested in the work of art, often reveals that the individual is in touch with the world or worlds of the spirits. The current exhibition is a journey into the work of contemporary artists who, either as members of indigenous Amerindian groups or because they have been in one way or another in close contact with them, have been influenced greatly by their experiences with visionary plants.

I have chosen examples of Huichol weaving and embroidery designs that reflect the colorful geometric patterns and latticework seen by women during peyote rituals in their pilgrimage to the sacred hill of Wirikuta, in San Luis de Potosí, central Mexico, as well as yarn paintings representing mythological motifs. I have also included a section of textiles and drawings created by the Cashinahua, an indigenous group living in the Brazilian/Peruvian Amazon, presented by anthropologist Els Lagrou. Ayahuasca plays an important role in the cultural and social life of this group.

The paintings of two artists from the United States are included in the exhibition. Boston-based environmentalist painter Rick Harlow presents abstract canvasses that evoke the spirit of the Amazon and its people. He draws from years of experience among the Macuna and other indigenous groups of the Colombian rainforest, where he participated in ceremonies that included the ingestion of power plants. For many years, Miami-based artist Donna Torres has been exploring ideas about shamanism and shamanic inebriants in her work. Her paintings are dense with detailed imagery in which she explores the role of plants in cultures of the past and the relationship of plants to her own culture.

The work of two self-taught Brazilian artists also forms part of the exhibition. Maria Isabela Hartz, born in Rio de Janeiro, voluntarily abandoned formal education at age fifteen and dedicated herself to creating art. In 1984 she came into contact with Santo Daime, a religious group and also one of the names by which the sacred brew ayahuasca is known in Brazil. In 1987 she moved to Mapia, a remote location in the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon, to follow the teachings of Padrinho Sebastião Mota, one of the religious leaders using ayahuasca as a sacrament, until his death in 1990, when she returned to Rio de Janeiro. She has illustrated over one hundred book covers dealing with shamanism, power plants, and various spiritual traditions. Edmilson Caetano de Sousa, from Rio Branco, state of Acre, is a member of the Barquinha, another religious organization using Santo Daime as a sacrament. Following traditional popular religious art, he paints the spirits of black slaves, Indians, children, princes and princesses incarnated in animals who, according to the beliefs of his church, incorporate themselves in the aparelhos or mediums during dances in the terreiro, a sacred space, and during other ceremonies.

Pablo Amaringo, renowned Peruvian painter and former shaman, presents a collection of "Ayahuasca Visions" in which he depicts the multiple worlds and spirits he visited in his ecstatic journeys. Nowadays, he is able to evoke and transport onto paper or canvas those visionary experiences with the sacred brew by singing icaros, power songs he learned during his shamanic practice.

Timoteo Cruz, an artist from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, presents replicas of snuff trays from the Tiwanaku culture preserved at the La Paige Archeological Museum of his hometown. These richly decorated artifacts were used for the ritual use of cebil (Anadenanthera colubrina), a visionary plant widely used in South America in pre-Columbian times and still used today by the Mataco Indians of northern Argentina.

The exhibition includes an astonishing collection of jungle photographs by Demetri Dimas Efthyvoulos from Cyprus. In the course of a ten-year period in the Peruvian Amazon from 1979 to 1989, he made the discovery that the spirits of nature are revealed in the symmetry produced by the reflection of the jungle on still water. Dimas demonstrates that a simple 90-degree turn of such photographs shows an anthropomorphic world of multiple readings subject to endless exploration.

As a whole, this exhibition demonstrates that power plants may be used as a valid source of inspiration, linking contemporary works of visionary art with ritual objects that have been in use for thousands of years. In spite of coming from various parts of the world, one has the distinct feeling that there is something in common in all of these works of art, not clearly discernible but present, whether a multiple focal point, a dynamic multi-dimensionality, or a plurality of reference. In any case, these works of art point towards a hidden, magical dimension all too often forgotten in our busy contemporary life, which is perhaps, as is implicit in Amazonian Indian thought, the reality that sustains the epiphenomenon of everyday temporality.

- Luis Eduardo Luna, curator

Return to Educational Programs

Return to Visions That The Plants Gave Us

top of page 

Exhibitions | Permanent Collection | Educational Programs 
Student Opportunities | Course-Related Projects
Contact Us! | Gallery Info | Gallery Home

© SLU, 2/3/98
Designed and maintained by:  Carole Mathey  
St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York  
Last updated:  Monday, May 14, 2001