Enchantments’ writer and staff member Ana Vice reports on New York University’s Occult Humanities Conference.
This year’s NYU Occult Humanities Conference (OHC) – presented by Pam Grossman and Jesse Bransford – offered a series of tantalizing lectures, panel discussions, and events on all things esoterica. Held biennially since 2013, the event provides a platform for artists, academics and specialists to present on a variety of spiritual and academic topics, while also celebrating those who've incorporated occultism in their work.
Over the course of two days in October, the conference quickly became a think tank for new ideas on the evolution of spirituality in modern times. "Art as magic” and “magic as art” was an underlining theme throughout the weekend, beginning with Brian Cotnoir’s presentation on Alchemy and the Arts. The importance of elevating marginalized groups was also a key motif, (see Nectar Knuckles and Dianca London below), as well as technology's global impact on spiritual exchange.
One major takeaway? We are most definitely in the midst of another occult revival.
Here are some highlights from OHC’s 2019 conference:
Moon Marked and Touched by the Sun: Black Women Writers and the Reclamation of the Witch
Dianca London (writer, editor, and Kimbilio Fiction Fellow) took a closer look at the role of the witch, seer, and conjurer in black women’s writing during her thought-provoking presentation on the work of Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Rita Dove, and Luisah Teish. Selected poems by these remarkable women were used to show how within the black literary canon the “divine feminine” has been used as an impetus for self-expression, empowerment and to promote social justice. London offered an in-depth look into each writer’s embodiment of the “witch archetype” and how it purposefully enfeebles colonialism, white supremacy, and misogyny. Every poem was like spellwork and riveting to the core. “won't you celebrate with me” (a must-read from the Book of Light by Lucille Clifton) was an exemplary poem included in this talk.
Alchemy and the Arts of Creation: or what I learned in 50 Years of Alchemical Obsession
Brian Cotnoir (filmmaker, writer, and artist) works with alchemical concepts and processes in order to remake the work of some of the early alchemists in order to gain insight into their cosmological perspective. He has come to the conclusion that any act of creation is, at its core, alchemical. His presentation focused on how physical materials utilized for a creative process (as part of “outer practice”) can be united with the “inner practice” of transmutation on a spiritual level.
In Alchemy, transmutation is the act of converting base elements (e.g. lead) into precious metals (e.g. gold). For example, the base metal lead is the lowest of base metals and could represent an imbalance of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), whilst gold is superior and represents a perfect balance of all four elements. By linking such a “natural” process to an ideology, one may find a way towards inner spiritual “ascent” by way of outer physical practice. It was a highly enjoyable lecture with clear examples of how one can achieve spiritual enlightenment through the act of creating. Even though the context was Alchemy, the gist can be applied to all the arts.
Cotnoir's newest book Alchemy: The Poetry of Matter has recently been released by Khepri Press.
Terrapolis: Chimerical Geometry
Laurel Sparks (artist, teacher, and MacDowell Colony Fellow) held an insightful talk on her adaptation and superimposition of esoteric symbology within her artistic process. Laurel incorporates various principles of Chaos Magic, Kabbalistic theory, and a range of divinatory methodologies to produce a geometric and physical lexicon through mixed media – which is largely inspired by the music of Psychic TV and Einstürzende Neubauten. Her conceptual paintings are often made of woven stained canvas strips embedded with tiny found objects, trinkets, and sometimes glitter. Although the artwork might – at first – come across as abstract and (at times) devoid of feeling, the body of work as a whole was conceptually fascinating and full of esoteric splendor.
Betye Saar and the "Ethnic Occult"
Nectar Knuckles (recently a Curatorial Fellow for The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Museum of Modern Art) gave an in-depth talk on the renowned artist Betye Saar, a notable figure in the Los Angeles Assemblage scene and Black Arts Movement in the 1970s. Saar’s early mystical work is infused with political, spiritual, and sometimes surreal imagery that mixes occult symbolism with folk art elements.
The term “Ethnic Occult” refers to use of both ethnic and occult motifs that echo so profoundly in Saar's art. This included, but was not limited to, her incorporation of occult symbols, gris gris bags, mojos and African fetishes. A profound depth is apparent at every level, including spiritually, psychologically, socially, and artistically.
Tarot as Spiritual Psychology
Rachel Pollack (writer, poet, tarot specialist, and author of Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom), sees the tarot as a way to paint a spiritual and psychological portrait of an individual. During her presentation, Rachel gave examples of both Major and Minor Arcana from the Rider-Waite tarot in order to show that Tarot is more than a list of symbols or correspondences. For Pollack, a psychological approach can help us see “the links between our inner selves to the outer world, including the world of spirit.” She explained many of the archetypes found in the Major Arcana, in addition to the underlying system that the Rider Waite tarot embodies, as well as Minor Arcana symbology.
Her most recent book The Beatrix Gates is now available via PM Press.
Panel Discussion: Tarot Today, Tarot Tomorrow
In this informative panel discussion, Pam Grossman (writer and co-organizer of the podcast “Witch Wave” and author of Waking the Witch) spoke with Courtney Alexander (artist, writer, and creator of the “Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot Deck”), Rachel Pollack (writer, poet, and creator of “The Shining Tribe Tarot”), and Cristy C. Road (artist, writer, musician, and creator of the “Next World Tarot”). Each of these women created and designed their own unique tarot deck and offered up their individual perspectives on tarot – as well as its rise in popularity and potential impact in the future.
Courtney Alexander’s experience of creating the "Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot" (which sublimely incorporates original artwork, a loosely Rider-Waite based paradigm, and African Diaspora) was particularly enrapturing – and the deck is as powerful as it is beautiful.
The Giantness’s Apronful
Judith Noble (witch, artist, teacher, co-ordinator of the Black Mirror International Research Network) gave a presentation on a series of magical experiences she had at the ancient megalithic sites of Barclodiad Y Gawres (The Giantess’ Apronful) and Dowth (The Place of Darkness) in County Meath, Ireland. Both ancient sites had been originally used for burial rituals and rites.
Noble's work is about contacting spirits whilst dreaming/asleep (a.k.a. dream incubation) in these places and she believes that art and magic arise from the stones, earth, moon, and sea. She also spoke about making art during eclipses and how special it can be. I've also visited many "spiritual" megalithic sites in the British Isles when I lived in Scotland and perceived a strong connection to the land, sea, moon, and nature. I found Noble's presentation enchanting and the perfect end to a rigorous and heartfelt series of talks and presentations.
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