garden shaman

Visual Arts | The Garden Shaman

The Garden Shaman is a visually stunning video installation with a difference. Here, artists Eli Acheson-Elmassry explains the inspiration behind the film ahead of its preview at TAPE in Colwyn Bay. 

The Garden Shaman is a gardening performance film in a big sculptured cloak. Dangling casts in black latex ‘skins’ of rakes and saws, spades, hoes, trowels and hammers surround a central painting of delicate primroses on black cloth. And it was these tiny primroses that formed the starting point for a piece about death and re-birth, the visible and invisible realms and our sense of spirit.

I paint flowers a lot, and this film started off as a painting of my garden primroses on a small piece of black satin. As I worked on it I began to recall staring at a floral tapestry cloth that lay over the altar of the church that I sat quite close to during church services as a child. I was bored a lot in church but I loved to lose myself in that gorgeous embroidered garden. And I always preferred to be out in nature than inside these dark and heavy buildings.

garden shamanI began to think about the black clothes in my life and there seemed to be a lot of them. My father was a priest and as such was usually dressed in black robes that denoted his religious position. I remembered being cast as a witch in black robes in a school play in kindergarten, running between my classmates waving a magic wand on them. And later on, for six years in the middle east, I had to wear a black cloak and veil in public places and was surrounded by women dressed the same – this time the dress coming out of another culture, the Islamic and Bedouin traditions. Wind forward a few more years and my son would be playing with various super-heroes such as Batman or Red Skull with metaphysical or superhuman powers, with the suggestions of astral projection and telepathy. In all cases, this similar black outfit suggested or defined our links with a human concept that is beyond the merely physical and emotional, which acknowledges a spiritual realm, though differently expressed across cultures, and which has been embodied across the world’s history in the activities of the Shaman.

With concepts mixing in my mind I began to develop the small painting into the large cloak, feeling pulled towards a performance as an artist for the first time. The cloak was exhibited as part of the solo show at Oriel Theatr Clwyd in September 2018, ‘Home and Garden by the Jellyfish Sea’.

garden shamanI asked videographer and artist Michelle Wright to do the filming on ‘The Garden Shaman’ and we started shooting in the November and again in January. My idea was to very simply work through a series of the garden chores all gardeners annually undertake at that time of year, wearing the cloak, anonymous and archetypal. It was all filmed in my garden on Anglesey.  The film shows the acts of going through these short routines of picking out the last beetroot, digging over soil, clearing the dead leaves and vegetation, picking apples, pruning and planting bulbs. Yet each activity, through a range of rich and textured manipulations, dwells on, amplifies, deepens and empowers each activity out of the mundane and into the magical. Wearing the heavy and embellished cloak to do these acts made me move differently, and as my first performance piece as an artist who usually makes sculptural objects, it felt like every movement gained a different level of significance.

Once we had the material, like paint on a palette or a lump of wax, I wanted to work the video footage extensively, in a plastic painterly way. We did a lot to invert and twist and colorise the images that were there, and to texturise the existing sound, and part of the thinking behind that was to generate a sense of being in tune with the earth and bring an awareness of living on a planet, an active organism. We’re not aware of when we’re literally upside down as the earth rotates or that we’re on a world that is constantly going around. And we don’t usually feel we’re in motion at all yet we’re always moving through space. Its also very much about bringing my awareness of what may not be visible to us and what becomes increasingly a realm of exploration in terms of quantum physics, which I can’t claim to know much about, but in terms of my own instincts and intuitions, even I’d go so far as to say psychic awarenesses that I intuit a great deal that is unseen, as many of us do. And it was a way to enter that exploration artistically.

garden shamanSpiritual connections may be hidden from us, or visible and audible in certain states of focus, and it seemed to me a nice metaphor to work with gardening. After all, all over the world but particularly in Britain, even if we don’t make paintings or play music, we garden, there’s a kind of creative elemental need to do that. To consider to what extent any of us has the potential for shamanic abilities to enter and enable altered states and perceive parallel realities, and to explore the ways in which there is an actual invisible connectivity between us all as living organisms, not as isolated as we may sometimes imagine, is a question I wanted to probe.

So this is a way of exploring that multi-dimensionality. Having said that, I kept on my down-to-earth mundane wellies and referenced some of the humour of the early black and white films like Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, as the subject matter may be reverent and comic simultaneously, serious and spooky, earthy and spiritual, but we’re also madcap at times, sometimes chasing our tales, maybe it would be a delight to look deeply into the void and find out perhaps that it isn’t a void at all….


The Garden Shaman

Length 20 minutes. 2019.

Imagined, Directed and Performed by Eli Acheson-Elmassry

Filming and Video Production by Michelle Wright.

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