Some Thoughts on DMT Art
A number of artists have attempted to render the striking visual experiences that occur after ingesting ayahuasca or DMT. In the Upper Amazon, there are both indigenous artists, whose traditional work consists largely of abstract patterns, such as those found on the now well-known pottery, clothing, and other household goods of the Shipibo; and visionary artists, mostly mestizo, whose work is characterized by detailed representations of spirits, trees, animals, objects, and participants in ayahuasca healing ceremonies. These latter works fall almost paradigmatically within what has now come to be called outsider art, sometimes naïve art, and sometimes visionary art — direct, intense, content-laden, narrative, enormously detailed, personal, idiosyncratic, two-dimensional, and brightly colored. While indigenous artists work for the most part in anonymity, their work stigmatized as craft rather than art, the work of mestizo visionary artists has become much better known, largely through the publication, fully annotated and sumptuously reproduced, of the visionary paintings of former shaman Pablo César Amaringo.
Outside the Amazon, artists not born into or raised in indigenous or mestizo ayahuasca-using cultures, including such well-known visionary artists as Alex Grey, Robert Venosa, and Martina Hoffmann, have also rendered visual experiences attributed to the ingestion of ayahuasca or DMT. For want of a better term, I will call this body of work DMT art.
There are some remarkable convergences between DMT art and the abstract representations of the ayahuasca experience in indigenous Amazonian art. The indigenous work on the left, below, by Cashinahua artist Arlindo Daureano Estevão, represents the different worlds of the ayahuasca vision as houses with doors to be entered and paths linking the different contained spaces. This type of design is called nawan kene pua, or stranger’s design, since it is a map that keeps one from getting lost in the ayahuasca world. This abstract representation is strikingly reflected in the work on the right, below, entitled DMT, by photographer Peter Kosinski. It is difficult to say whether such convergences are due to acquaintance with indigenous art or to similarities in the visionary experience.
|Arlindo Daureano Estevão, Nawan Kene Pua||Peter Kosinski, DMT|
Similarly, on the left below is a traditional Shipibo woven cloth, whose design represents a sacred pattern derived from a cosmic anaconda whose skin embodies all possible designs. Shipibo shamans employ these patterns to reorder the bodies of persons who are sick. Certain diseases are thought to be caused by harmful, messy designs on the wsick body, which the shaman must magically unravel and replace with orderly designs. After drinking ayahuasca, the Shipibo shaman sees a luminous design in the air. When this design floats down and touches the shaman’s lips it becomes transformed into a song the shaman sings. Different elements of the song relate to different elements of the design; for example, the end of each verse is associated with the end-curl of a design motif. When the patient is cured, the design has become clear, neat, and complete. Again, this abstract representation is strikingly reflected in Vibrata Chromodoris’s Emergence, below on the right.
|Anonymous, Shipibo Woven Cloth||Vibrata Chromodoris, Emergence|
However, most DMT art is representational rather than abstract, and taps into the work of mestizo Amazon visionary artists. The first painting below is by mestizo artist Pablo Amaringo; the remaining pieces are DMT art by artists from outside the Amazon, all working with content recognizably similar to that of Amaringo, although not necessarily in the same naïve outsider style.
|Pablo Amaringo, Ayahuasca and Chacruna (Detail)||Robert Venosa, Ayahuasca Dream (Detail)|
|Cyril Lanier, Ayahuasca Vision of the Blue Perfume||Michael Jacobs, Ayahuasca Dream|
But even more striking, I think, are two motifs that appear with some frequency in DMT art but not in the indigenous or mestizo artistic traditions. The first of these I will call The Face — that is, a recognizably humanoid face with eyes, a nose, and a mouth, often filling the entire frame, and often constructed from smaller units, either geometric figures or dots. These figures are often described as a being, an entity, or a visitation. For example, Robert Essig says of his painting DMT Entity, below on the right, “This image was inspired from my first unnatural encounter with the spirit molecule. An Entity that seemed extremely real and intelligent appeared before me with terrific precision and speed. It dissipated as soon as I imposed my will upon it.”
|Alex Grey, Ayahuasca Visitation||Robert Essig, DMT Entity|
Indeed, The Face often appears in works that are not conceptually about The Face. In Luke Brown’s Pineal Feline, for example, below on the right, the titular face is that of a cat, at the bottom center of the painting; what then makes up The Face are floral arabesques and ornamentation of the cat’s face, almost entirely buried within — indeed, reduced almost to a decorative adornment of — The Face. Similarly, in Martina Hoffman’s La Chacruna, below on the left, The Face decomposes, upon closer inspection, into arabesques, including snakes and elephant heads, elaborated upon the relatively small face of the goddess, in the upper middle of the painting.
|Martina Hoffmann, La Chacruna||Luke Brown, Pineal Feline|
Sometimes The Face is deconstructed to simpler, rather than more complex, elements. At that point, we can begin to see the basic patterns from which complex Faces are constructed.
|Dennis Konstantin, DMT Entity||Nisvan, Ayahuasca Vision (Detail)|
What is interesting here is that underlying The Face is a relatively simple symmetric pattern, not unlike the abstract patterns of indigenous Amazonian ayahuasca art, but here cognitively assembled into a recognizable human face. Perhaps that is why Essig’s Face dissipated as soon as he imposed his will upon it; attempting to control the image distracted the perceiver from its imposed structural coherence.
Another recurring motif we can call the wingspread. This is a pattern very similar to the wings of a moth or dragonfly. Below, for example, is a more or less typical moth — actually, the tobacco hornworm moth (Maduca sexta):
We can see this wingspread motif reproduced with increasing elaboration in the following pictures:
Strikingly, this wingspread pattern is often hidden rather than explicit, providing a formal structure rather than any content; look, for example, at the wingspread position of the hands in Alex Grey’s Light Weaver, especially in conjunction with, say, Robert Venosa’s Yagé Guide, above. The wingspread pattern underlies the purely formal similarity between Mariela de la Paz’s Ayahuaska at the Gates of San Pedro and Alejandre Segrégio’s Presente Divino. Indeed, sometimes this structure is so deeply embedded as to be difficult to discern, until the pattern suddenly emerges, as with the darker rock formation in Olga Spiegel’s Rendezvous.