Modern art and shamanism
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Modern Art and Shamanism. Thomas Sakoulas Associate Professor State University of new York, College at Oneonta. The Shaman is.

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Modern Art and Shamanism

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Modern art and shamanism

Modern Art and Shamanism

  • Thomas Sakoulas

  • Associate Professor

  • State University of new York, College at Oneonta

The shaman is

The Shaman is

  • "...savant of the sacred, keeper of the traditions, healer of physical and physics ills, master of the spirit helpers, and technician of the ecstatic trance". (Furst, 54)

  • "The Shaman [..] is the true guardian of the physical and metaphysical equilibrium of his society". (Furst, 57)

  • The shaman is also an artist who externalizes his visions through speech, music, dance, and visual arts.

The calling

The Calling

  • The shaman is chosen by society for distinguishing marks that separate him/herfrom the rest.

    • Feels bound by the urge to communicate with the spiritual universe

  • The calling to shamanism can be compared with the call of the Artist.

    • Feels bound by the urge to produce art

  • The calling often comes as a near-deathexperience

  • Frida Kahlo is one artist who has just thiskind of “calling”

Shamans artists and society

Shamans, Artists, and Society

  • Many modern artists of the western world produced work that eludes to shamanic practices. Their methodology is directly related to shamanism but their formal expression is derived from their own contemporary social and spiritual universe.

  • While shamans are accepted and are part of their tribe, modern artist are often alienated and work at the fringes of their society.

  • While many times critics and authors attribute shamanic traits to some artists, the artists themselves are not often cognizant of the similarities.

Concerning the supernatural

Concerning the Supernatural

Gustav Klimt, “Death and Life”, oil on canvas. 1916

Kathe Kollwitz, “Death and a woman”



  • Some Modern Artists use a variety of methods in order to arrive at a primordial reality

  • The Dada movement consciously aimed to destroy the dominance of the "rational” as it pertained to western thought and art

Marcel Duchamp

Rotary Demisphere (1925)

Modern art and shamanism


  • "Dada aimed to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man and recover the natural and unreasonable order." (Levy, 55)

  • Dada artists use logic and rationality in order to discredit rational beliefs.

  • What is art? What is the artist’s function in the world?

The surrealists

The Surrealists

  • Other artists such as the Surrealists depict the different levels of the universe not as external, but as an internal reality.

  • They attempt to connect with a universe that exists beyond what the world recognizes as an objective visual reality.

Joan miro birth of the world 1925

Joan Miro: “Birth of the World”, 1925

Miro employed "automatism" as a means to reach the unspoiled universe of the unconscious.

Modern art and shamanism

Salvador Dali: “Persistance de la mémoire (ou Montres molles)”, 1937 (left)“Soft Construction with Boiled Beans - Premonition of Civil War, 1936 (right)

Salvador Dali used familiar realistic forms in order to bestow credibility to the world of the subconscious as it manifests itself throughdreams and hallucinations

The shaman as an artist

The shaman as an artist

  • The shaman possesses many skills that aid him in his spiritual quest and his function in his tribe.

  • The ability to communicate with this, and other worlds through images, music, songs, dances, stories, and costumes is pivotal in his/her role as shaman

  • "Not the least of these are special talents of communication, of which artistic expression can be considered the highest level. In contemporary settings the shaman is also often the artist. This certainly applies to the Tukano, whose shamans communicate with the Master of Animals on one level by painting on the steep rock faces of the Vaupés. Often such chosen individuals excel at more than one form of creative endeavor: music and dance, painting, carving, storytelling, etc." (Furst, 45).

Pablo amaringo ayahuasca visions

Pablo AmaringoAyahuasca Visions

Vincent van gogh the starry night 1889

Vincent van GoghThe Starry Night, 1889

Yves klein

Yves Klein

  • Yves Klein was an unconventional artist mainly because he saw the traditional means of visual communication as limiting.

  • Instead of traditional art (painting, or sculpture)he used performance as his medium, and his paintings were themselves the result of live actions.

  • He craved a "spiritual pictorial space, and it was this that led him eventually to live actions." (Golberg, 144)

    The image on the top-left is a handprint cave painting c. 15000-13000 BCE, Peche Merle, Dordogne, France

    The image on the top right is a painting by Yves Klein from his “Anthropometry” series. Yves Klein applies paint to the model on the bottom-right image. The model then is placed on the canvas to create the painting.

Yves klein s spiritual quest and flight

Yves Klein's Spiritual Quest and Flight

  • Yves Klein, "The Painter of Space Hurls Himself into the Void!", 1960 (right)

  • Klein was obsessed with "levitation" and "vanishing".

  • He was very influenced by Max Heindel's book "Cosmogenie”

  • Flight as the means to transcend ones self has been a common theme in many cultures. Stories and mythologies of humans who are able to ascent to another world by leaving the physical body behind abound, and are a common theme of shamanic practices.

  • Yves Klein's desire to fly "was motivated by authentic spiritual concerns--in Eliade's words, 'an expression of both the soul's desire for autonomy and ecstasy.' But it was also motivated by Klein's desire to draw attention to himself as a superior human being with magical powers." (Levy, 57)

Failures and differences

Failures and Differences

  • Even though he practiced for ten years he was unable achieve the spiritual flight he wished for.

  • Klein's showmanship is more in tune with western society where the powers of the individual are to be displayed and admired. In contrast, the shaman never wants to draw attention to him, and uses his powers for the well being of his/her tribe.

  • Klein's attempts at spiritual transcendence failed mainly because he focused his efforts on the flight of the physical body. In shamanic practice, it is the spiritual self that ascents to the heavens, leaving the material self behind

Shamanic flight

Shamanic flight

  • The flight of the shaman is an essential means of traveling between the different world and it is universally experienced by shamans around the world.

  • " The shaman's spirit ascends, breaking the plane of death, soaring to a timeless place." (Halifax, 16)

  • The bird-shaman is a common entity in many tribes from Siberia to Rapa Nui and from the depths of Paleolithic time

Bird man an enduring image through paleolithic time

Bird-Man: an Enduring Image through Paleolithic Time

  • This image from he Lascaux Cave in France (15000-17000 BCE) depicts a human that "wears a bird mask, his hands are claws, and his erect penis points towards the wounded bull. To the prostrate man's right is a staff surmounted by a bird. The human figure is undoubtedly that of a shaman, and entranced wizard whose spirit is in mystical flight. This we can surmise not only by the fact that his penis is erect, a condition that is not infrequent during dreams or trance states, but also by the bird mask adorning his face, his claws, and the bird staff, similar to shaman's staffs the world over and denoting the flight of the spirit." (Halifax, 17)

Joseph beuys

Joseph Beuys

  • The Calling Trauma

  • He became an artist after his near-death experience during WWII

  • Joseph Beuys was very aware of his role as a shaman in western society

  • He treated art as a therapeutic process for western world. As a way to heal the ills of society.

“When I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances.” (Flaherty, 521).

Methodology costume

Methodology | Costume

  • Beuys performed in fisherman’s vest,boots, and a wide brim hat

  • The shamanic costume is one of themost important tools a shaman employsduring his journeys.

  • The shamanic suit cannot be worn by anyone who cannot control the spirits contained in it. It is worn only by the shaman and only during ceremonies

  • The shaman only wears his costume during official ceremonies and not during training or practice

  • By the mere fact of donning it--or by manipulating the objects that deputize it--the shaman transcends profane space and prepares to enter into contact with the spirit world. Usually this preparation is almost a concrete introduction into that world; for the costume is donned after many preliminaries and just on the eve of shamanic trance.” (Levy, 58)

  • The hat is the most important part of a shamans costume

  • “According to these [Siberian] shamans, then, a great part of their power is hidden in these caps.” (Levy, 58)

Methodology tools

Methodology | Tools

  • Shamans traditionally utilize a variety of tools for their rituals

    • Rattles, flutes, bows, staffs, bells, feathers, mirrors, etc.

  • Each instrument has specific powers.

    • Blowing through a flute made of the leg bone of a bird, the shaman creates an energy that will transform him into a bird.

    • Metal belts rattle and symbolize the shaman’s bones

    • Ribbons represent the shaman’s spine

  • The various tools and garments contain spirits within that aid the shaman along his journey

  • Joseph Beuys uses a host of powerful materials in his early sculptures and performances.

    • Lard

    • Felt

    • Flashlight

    • Sled

    • Wax

  • Beuys used felt for its isolating and protective abilities, and lard for its nurturing powers.

Methodology sound

Methodology | Sound

  • Most of Beuy’s performances involved long rituals and sounds that induced a trance state for him and his audience.

  • In “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” in 1975, Beuys, with his head covered in honey and gold leaf, walked around the gallery with a dead hare in his arms. He walked quietly and let the paws of the dead animal touch his drawings that were hanging on the wall, before he sat on a stool and explained the meaning of the work to the hare.

  • As he performed his actions, he tapped the iron sole of his shoe rhythmically, producing a sonic trance that accompanied this three-hour long explanation to the dead animal.

  • It is usual for shamans to converse with animals, and for animals to communicate with shamans.

The importance of sound

The Importance of Sound

  • Shaman's Song to Call Back Magical Darts (Musical Bow Solo) Jívaro shaman Shuar Instrument(s) - Bow Duration: 2:48 (FW04386_108)

  • Didjeridu. Didjeridu puller with rhythm sticks Duration: 3:10Album: Tribal Music of AustraliaPlace and Date of Recording: Arnhem Land region,Northern Territory,Australia (FW04439_107)

The sound as a vehicle

The Sound as a Vehicle

  • “The Yakut says, ‘The drum is our horse.’ The pulse of the drum frequently caries the| shaman from the underworld, through the roots of the World Tree, up the body of the tree that transcends the middle world or earthly plane, and finally, to the glorious summit of theSacred Tree whose crown embraces this shining heavens.” (Halifax, 15)

  • “Concerning to the movement I confirm according to that I have seen, it is because the central or nuclear part of the movement is the sound, because it can not be movement without sound, neither sound without movement” (Amaringo)

Shamanic relationship with the animals

Shamanic Relationship with the Animals

  • Traditional shamans acquire the power of animals they encounter during their journey

  • The special abilities of the various animals (which are not always powerful) help the shaman overcomeobstacles along the journey between the various levels of the world.

  • Often the shaman is attacked by various animals along the way

  • The shaman is able to communicate with the animals, and to acquire their wisdom

Joseph beuys i like america and america likes me 1974

Joseph Beuys: “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974)

  • Performance of Beuys in New York

  • Beuys was confound for one week in a small gallery room in the company of a coyote

  • He went straight from the airport to the gallery in an ambulance

  • During the week, Beuys conversedwith the coyote, and introduced itto various human artifacts: a walkingstick, a flashlight, and the Wall StreetJournal.

  • Beuys the Wall StreetJournal delivered daily. It was used by the coyote to urinateon it and scratch it with its claws



  • Furst, Peter T. The Roots and Continuities of Shamanism. artscanada, nos. 184-187 (December 1973/January 1974): 33-60.

  • Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Art, from Futurism to the Present, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc,. Publishers, 1988.

  • Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979.

  • Levy, Mark. "The Shaman is a Gifted Artist" High Performance #43 (1988/Fall): 54-61.

  • Gloria Flaherty. MLN, Vol. 103, No. 3, German Issue. (Apr., 1988), pp. 519-539.

  • Amaringo Pablo, Artist's Comments

  • Torres, Manuel Constantino. "Primitive Art." Florida International University, Art History Course. Miami, FL. 1991.

  • Torres, Manuel Constantino. "Hallucinogens and Culture." Florida International University, Art History Course. Miami, FL. 1991.

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Modern art and shamanism

Appendix: Pablo Amringo Ayahuasca Visions

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