Our ability to look inside of ourselves and examine our motives, cognition, emotional responses and desire is both facilitated and complicated by the use of visual symbols. By using things and relationships between things from the outer world to represent aspects of our invisible inner reality, the inner world becomes more apparent but our understanding of it becomes more divorced from the actual, visceral processes represented. Many of our traditional symbols came from the natural world and allegorical literature from world religions is chock full of these elements that helped point to a possible inner drama and consequent personal or ethical development, i.e., snakes, ravens, horses, fish, trees, stone, water etc.
With urbanization it was no longer possible to engage, or be affected by, nature on as deep a level and this is probably where nature became fully metaphorical as opposed to being an all-encompassing system of which we were a part and which our art and rituals closely mirrored. We became divorced from nature but still had a deep need for its symbols. This seems to have become the starting point for Maria Berrio’s show at Praxis Gallery: In a Time of Drought. For these pieces, Maria Berrio visited the American Museum of Natural History and deliberately appropriated imagery from the dioramas of the dead, stuffed animals in picturesque environments. In New York City it might not be the best connection to nature, but it is a type of connection. Apparently when Berrio grew up in Colombia, in the middle of drug wars conducted by armies in the forests, nature was also cut off to her and she had to learn what she could about the natural world from the relative safety of a relative’s farm.
Berrio, however, is not interested in using nature metaphorically. She seems to prefer to use animal representations in their pre-religious, pre-allegorical, pre-Columbian magical aspect. Just as Gauguin researched, inferred and tried to rediscover what life might have been like in a pre-colonial Tahiti and based his work on that, Berrio seems to be inferring and rediscovering a pre-industrial and more personally meaningful relationship to nature and its potential for impact in lieu of symbolism. Before religions of crowded and polluting cities necessitated that people begin to introspect, reflect on and control behavior by developing or embracing ethical systems (before the word ‘ought’), folks, perhaps, lived more pro-social and pre-ethical community-integrated lives dominated by natural processes, where behavior was much less deliberate and perhaps as insouciant as Gauguin’s Tahitian women were depicted to be. Recall that the prison, with its all-encroaching system of deterrence, was not developed until the advent of industrialized cities (the first ‘penitentiary’ was built in Philadelphia).
In pre-Columbian Meso-American culture, gods were represented by animals based on the observable characteristics of the animal and how it corresponded to the god’s function. To join an animal society meant to possess the spirit of that animal and to acquire, in super-enriched form, the abilities of that animal. To be associated with the jaguar society, for example, meant one would take on or exhibit the stealth, cunning and power of the jaguar. In the various large collages made primarily of torn Japanese rice paper, we see in Berrio’s art an everywoman surrounded by, perhaps, her ‘totemic’ figures.
In East of the Sun and West of the Moon she holds a bear’s hand. In the ancient world the bear was a symbol of death and resurrection (due to its ability to enter the earth, hibernate and reawaken with the earth). But this was not the Christian notion of death and resurrection, it was a concept of death and resurrection witnessed in the natural world and mirrored in beliefs of reincarnation and cyclical rebirth. The program notes for the show indicate that this work might refer back to a folktale in which a woman is promised as a bride to a bear by her father. The everywoman in Berrio’s piece seems fine with this relationship, as her father has given her to a powerful and seemingly eternal natural process.
In A Time of Drought we see that goats look on unperturbed as the everywoman holds a couple kids as if to prepare them for meals. This might go back to the shamanic belief that as members of nature humans have a right to hunt and can negotiate with the chief animal spirit to ensure bountiful hunts, in exchange for the eventual loss of elderly members of the group or members of a rival group who might die. There is no compunction shown here by the woman or the goats toward the slaughter of the kids.
The Nativity takes a common Christian theme and repositions it into a completely natural setting filled with everything from an owl to an elephant. In Cricket Song we see the horse, a symbol of transition, feathers as images reflecting power or ability to transcend and interact with spirits and the non-Christian form of maternity again. Indeed, in each of Berrio’s pieces we see the repositioning of woman away from an allegorical object of spiritual desire and toward something akin to an enduring force of nature, a status that may have been lost with the conquering of nature through urbanization but which Berrio seems to feel women can reclaim.