Art, Spirit, and Wonder: Finding the Sacred Through Art​

Art History tells the story of humanity. Here we'll look at how Paganism has been viewed in art through the ages; into the ancient past, the Renaissance and other eras, and how artists are exploring Paganism today.

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Art, Social Justice, and Some Ranty-ness

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

It has been far too long since I published a blog here, and although my original intent was to post mostly about Paganism and Art History, I felt I’d better write about SOMETHING else I lose my train of thought all together or be forgotten. (Sniff). What kept me away from my blog, and a great many other things that bring me happiness are general bureaucratic pains occurring in my job. As I’ve mentioned here, I am a professor of art history at a state university, and this semester – although I have been through this here several times – I have really felt that the arts are under attack, and have been hard at work defending both our arts program, and the need for arts in society in general.  I won’t get into the bitter details of this ongoing fight, except to say I thank those who have been by my side in this fight, and the hope that in the end, we will of course win.


Meanwhile, I have still found time to keep making paintings, and of late, my paintings have turned to thoughts and themes of social justice and justice for those who can not speak for themselves. Since I have not had a great deal of time for research, but I have managed to keep painting (albeit sometimes just to relieve my stress), I am going to focus this blog writing on what I’ve been working on and thinking about in my art.


Over the summer, the national mood was infused with great strife and divisiveness regarding race. As I reflected in a previous blog, there was a great fervor about what the removal of the so-called “Rebel Flag” from the South Carolina state capitol meant to the United States as a nation, as well as more tragic shootings of African Americans by police officers. These two events alone polarized the nation, and much needed debate and discussion took place. These events showed us that although as a nation, the United States has come far regarding racial equality, they are evidence that we have not come nearly far enough. Some white people took umbrage at the suggestion that they do in fact possess privileges that African Americans do not, and once again, one could feel the collective frustration of that population with having to educate white folks yet again.


The other event that occurred during the summer was the shooting of a lion named Cecil at a protected wildlife preserve in Zimbabwe by a white American dentist. This event caused just as much outrage as the arguments around the rebel flag and the shootings of African Americans, and another debate about whose cause was the most worthy popped up all over social media.


I was personally frustrated by all of this, and wanted to create a work of art that showed how these events are actually quite tied together and inseparable from one another. Social media and the media in general often seem incapable of a holistic approach to viewing events, and I could not wrap my mind around the fact that people did not seem to understand how that could be. It was this sense of frustration and sadness that led me to create the painting “Casualties of Privilege: No Justice.”


This painting is mixed media, 12” x 16,” and features a triptych of watercolor paintings on the surface of a canvas painted with acrylics in the colors of the Zimbabwean flag. The images on the watercolors are of Sara Bland, the African American woman who died in police custody; an image of Cecil the lion; and an image of a woman of the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe. How the events surrounding these images are linked is critical to understanding the statement made by the painting.


The death of Sandra Bland in police custody on July 13, 2015 caused an outcry amongst social justice activists in an already heavily racially charged climate this summer. The death was ultimately ruled a suicide, but questions remain around the way in which Sandra Bland was treated over what should have been a simple traffic violation stop. For African Americans, it was yet another example of the inequities in the American justice system.


Cecil the lion was a Southwest African male lion known for his unique black mane and was loved as a regular feature at the Hwange National Park in Matebeleland in Zimbabwe. He was under “protected” status, meaning that he should not be able to be poached. However, on July 1, 2015, an American dentist, with the assistance of a professional hunter and guide, lured Cecil from the safety of the park and killed him. As most people now know, there was a huge outcry over the death of Cecil, and over the concept of sport hunting in general. Since then, other animals, including elephants, have met similar fates. I feel there is too much made of a myth of the Great White Male Hunter (although social media has recently revealed at least one Great White Female Hunter as well), coming to Africa and claiming these beautiful animals as trophies. As a friend of mine said, “I can’t understand how someone could look at a beautiful animal like that and think it would be more beautiful as a dead trophy.” Aside from the outcry over the death of wildlife, there is also a great sense of entitlement and privilege that would enable a person to think that they somehow have a right to enter a foreign country and claim one of it’s great animals as a trophy to be brought home and placed on display.


The third image on the painting is of a woman of the Shona people, who live in Zimbabwe. The Shona are a Bantu speaking people whose exact origin is often disputed, as the term “Shona” is a 19th century invention of a neighboring tribe. Thanks to colonialism and racism, their status continues to shift over time. At one time, Zimbabwe was named Southern Rhodesia,  for Cecil Rhoades, whose company, the British South Africa company, had acquired the land in the 19th century. In 1980, the country finally won independence from colonial powers, and was re-named Zimbabwe.


When I think of these three images together – of the Shona woman, Sandra Bland, and Cecil the Lion, I can not help but think that they all have been casualties of white privilege. I become saddened when my fellow white friends protest that they are not privileged, and that they can not and will not see the ways in which white culture is the dominant culture and is so deeply embedded that it is indeed invisible. It is invisible because apparently too many of us can not see it. I will not write a blog about why that is so – it has been amply discussed elsewhere, and I believe that those who are deaf to this message will continue to be deaf.


This is a blog about art and art history. And so today’s blog post, my first after four months of fighting my way through a state bureaucracy (which has it’s own share of white privilege), is about the art that I make. I intend to focus more on art and social justice issues in the coming months. I intend to be more present here.


Fight the power!

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Helena Domenic has been an art history nerd for her entire life, having toured the Sistine Chapel at the age of eighteen months. She never quite recovered from that experience (thankfully) and has been seeking out the sacred and profane in art ever since. She's even a real-life art history professor at a Pennsylvania university. She is also a Tarot nerd, having created her own Tarot deck, the Fellowship of the Fool.


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