Saturday, January 12, 2013

light and shadow

I think it is often useful to get back to the basics of technology and technique in photography.  I took these with the Ansco Panda on my way home from Fine Arts Library at UNM the other day.  I just finished the book I got there about paleolithic art by David Lewis-Williams, the South African anthropologist.  He revived an interest in the study of incised and painted rock art by bringing ideas from neuropsychology and ethnography to the discussion.  His work along with that of David Whitley in this country provides a credible hypothesis of the origins of art and answers interesting questions about rock art that were previously inaccessible.

For instance, a particularly interesting aspect in the study of ancient rock art is the similarities one sees between the rock art which is found in areas separated by great gulfs of time and space.  Lewis-Williams convincingly demonstrates that the likeness is not the result of cultural/geographic diffusion, but rather the outcome of shared sensory structures and processes common to all modern humans and manifested in the exploration of levels of consciousness.  The mechanisms for exploring consciousness used universally were dreams, sensory deprivation and overload, and hallucinogenic drugs.  The art which was produced on rock surfaces - often deep  in caves - was the product of shamans and vision questers.

Not all anthropologists are comfortable with the theoretical constructs proposed by Lewis-Wilson.  I think he oversteps his data in some instances.  His allegation that Neanderthals could not remember their dreams or understand the spiritual abstractions of their Homo sapien peers seems a step too far to me.  Of course, my brief discussion of this here is of no consequence and I have to recommend an actual reading of Lewis-Wilson and Whitley for real understanding of the issues.

While I can't claim any personal authority in regard to ideas about the origins of art, I do have a long interest in the subject and some direct involvement with the topic.  I spent many years wandering around in the desert of southern New Mexico searching out examples of rock art.  Most of my finds were recorded in photographs on a web site which I maintained for a long time.  I removed the link to that site from my current web site recently because I no longer have a close relationship with the subject, but I may have to restore it and revisit my ideas on the matter.

Earlier in my life I was privileged to spend some time with tribal people of the Northwest Amazon who were both highly accomplished artists as well as explorers of the levels of consciousness using a great variety of vision-inducing substances.  While there is quite a lot of rock art along the upper reaches of the Amazon, I believe none of it is connected to the living populations.  However, the people I visited express themselves artistically in every aspect of their lives through music, decorative arts and story telling.  I saw a lot of that come together in ritual dance celebrations by elaborately costumed performers.  The mind altering substances used in conjunction with the dances included coca which was chewed, finely ground tobacco blown into the nose through bone tubes and chontaduro beer made by chewing the fruit and spitting it into bowls where it quickly ferments.

People of the Mirití-Paraná  -  Photo by Richard Evans Schultes

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