The ancient art that Deborah Bell often draws from provided blessings, offered protection, ensured the fertility of nature and people and safeguarded the health of communities. What makes Bell’s art unique is that she does not, as too many Western artists have, draw from elements of ancient or indigenous art to better convey a message or insight. She realizes that we who experience art still have the same needs that the first peoples had in approaching art. Despite how secular our world seems, we still seek blessings and supernatural intercession. Bell refuses to condemn this universal need and instead works with it. Bell’s work provides this ancient and sacred element and invites the participant (not viewer) to embrace the experience an entire tradition and history has tried to suppress. At the same time, she also realizes the need to conceptualize the spiritual journey, the desire to rise to the level of a humanity deserving of the blessings and protection of divinity. My interview with Deborah Bell.
How does this upcoming show continue or depart from your last few shows?
As I was making the work for this show it all felt like a progression, a continuation of themes I have been using for many years. However, now with the chaos and unrest in the world sparked by COVID, I look back and with hindsight can piece together a story and see a logic in the unfolding of events and how it all leads up to this present moment. The impetus for the creation of the Sentinels 2020, which are the central works for this show, was always around the idea that if all potentials exist in the quantum field, then who or what power is holding the world and us in focus whilst we play in this material realm? As I was making these works, I sensed a great purpose and need for their creation, and even although I started their production in mid-2019, I always knew that they were meant for 2020. I had no idea what 2020 would bring, and even now, none of us have any idea of what the future holds. I am very grateful that these beings, these Sentinels, exist physically at this time. I trust that they are keeping watch.
Do you think we still have a need to derive “magic” or aspects of the “sacred” from works of art?
I think that art serves so many purposes. Amongst other things, it can initiate, recount, describe, seduce, critique, protest and extend its definition of itself. I, however, am interested in the idea of art as a power object. I am drawn to the art of cultures that have used it for this purpose. I am also aware that such work reveals itself through the act of making. I don't believe that it is something that can be planned in advance. It requires the artist (in this case me), to get out of the way - to serve as a conduit for its emergence. In this way it can be linked to magic or the sacred. It comes through from the implicate realm into this material existence, and as such can alter our world, if ever so slightly.
As someone who has experimented with moving beyond traditional forms of artistic engagement by looking at the ancient world, what are the limits to artistic engagement? Do you believe that art can elevate us, change us, make us aware of how flawed and petty we often are and push us toward being more humane?
I would like to believe that art can do all these things. However, when I work, I am not necessarily aware of the end viewer. My act of creating is in many ways a selfish act. I do it for myself, from some pressing need, and for my own transformation. I am aware that I am altered through the process of making. It is always so affirming when someone who has seen my work comes up to me and tells me how it has altered them as well.
You were quoted as saying your Sentinels are meant to be holding the center in a chaotic world. Is this a direct reference to Yeats?
I am so glad that you have reminded me of Yeats. Whilst some of his words from his poem The Second Coming have reverberated in my head for many years, I had not made that association when I said what I did. And now, because of your question, I researched the poem and why it was written, and found out that he wrote it at the end of the First World War, as the Spanish flu was taking hold and his partner was ill with the virus. But unlike him, I believe in a centre that can hold. I relate more to Rilke and his poem:
I live my life in widening circles
That reach out, out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.
I circle around God, that primordial tower.
I have been circling for thousands of years,
and still I don't know: am I falcon
a storm, or a great song?
(From his Book of Hours - translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
Each of your sentinels seems to have a different personality or distinct characteristics. Can you talk about this?
When I start making the sculptures with my assistants, we build a tall tower out of an upright slab, but then I need to call out the presence of each piece. I start with the head. I build, cut and carve and build again. I may make a face many times until there is a sense of recognition - an “Aha! This is who you are!” Only afterwards do I look at them and maybe recognise facial characteristics that could be African, native American, Etruscan, Chinese, Gothic or whatever. I do not set out to make them, I wait for them to appear.
In allegorical literature numbers are symbolically meaningful. 40 represents a period of transition, 6 is preparation for something, 3 and 7 both seem to be a completion of a process. Can you talk about the symbolism of the number 8 and why you chose it?
I have always been interested in the power and symbolism of numbers. Whenever I have created a series of sculptures made up of different figures, whether it be five, seven or nine, I have always been very aware of their symbolic significance. And then last year I was approached to make a series comprising of eight. I was delighted, as it was a number that I wanted to explore. As a child, I had always been fascinated by the symbol for infinity and that it resembled an eight on its side - a twisted zero, a Mobius strip that contained the whole. I also used to play with drawing two eights touching side by side and saw two interlocking hearts. And then of course there is the 8x8 - the 64. That magical number of our genetic code, of the Chinese I Ching, of computer bits. I then started to research the symbolism of that number and learned about the eight Chinese immortals who control all aspects of life and who have eight tools of power that can give life or destroy evil. I also learned that eight was a Christian symbol of salvation and resurrection, and I thought of the octave - the interval between one musical pitch and another with double its frequency, and how that represents continuation, repetition and cycles in a movement to higher and higher frequencies.
The sentinels are positioned in a semi-circle, like an enclosure, so that space is created that the participant may move into and outside of…
I would like these sentinels to be positioned in a circle or a semicircle, depending on the space they are exhibited in. I would like them to hold the centre, to represent a notion of totality and wholeness - to relate more to Rilke then to Yeats.
I think of ancient sacred spaces, standing stones, Stonehenge and labyrinths. For me, a circle is a votive space. As individuals we are always in the centre of a circle, the centre of all directions, the hub of our own wheel.
So it looks as if the sentinels are male and female.
In most of my other series of sculptures I have worked with uneven numbers, and thinking about it, there are usually more female than male figures. This is probably because I am a woman and I know what it is like to be a woman. However, eight, both in shape and number suggests a balance, a type of yin and yang. The masculine and feminine need to be equally represented. To do otherwise would be to make a statement which I did not want to do. So yes, I was probably aware that there would be four male and four female figures beforehand, but the personages that emerged were always a surprise.
Some folks like to point out that you started as a political artist and switched gears. If this is so, why did this shift occur?
I was a young woman studying art in apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, and like my fellow students I was both enraged and felt powerless in the face of the racial discrimination and inequality practised by our government. At that time, I felt entrapped not only by the political situation but also by the definitions of what was expected of a woman and relationships. I had a sense of cloying claustrophobia that is apparent in the heavy paint of those early works and the depiction of threatening embraces - between man and woman, soldier and detainee. My figures were weighed down by heavy clothing that seemed to swirl with uneasy emotions and incarcerated in awkward interior spaces that showed no way out. There is a sense of desperation, a questioning of: “Is this all there is?” When I look at these paintings now, I can recognise that this could have been the seed for my spiritual search. I felt trapped in my own body, trapped in the matters of man, trapped in material existence.
So how did the shift occur? In the early 90’s, my brother died. I was holding his feet as he died and felt a lift and a shift out of him and became acutely aware that we are all more than our bodies. Around this time Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It was the end of Apartheid, and the country started preparing for its first free election. I think this all opened something up in me - a new spaciousness, the sense of freedom and the promise of a better future. My figures became naked and innocent rather than sexual, and they moved outdoors and embarked on a journey.
In an interview you gave you mentioned the goddess Artemis and how significant she was to your artwork. Have you replaced Artemis with anyone or anything in particular?
For me Artemis is the warrior woman. The huntress - bow in hand, forever striding forward. Her arrows arc into the future. She has great purpose, and I can see that as an archetype she has helped me travel far. But now I feel that I am done with that journeying. It is time for a homecoming - for Surrender and Forgiveness. There is nothing to seek, it was all here all the time.