We believe that plant medicines are powerful allies for the global awakening, helping many people to expand their awareness, shed conditioning, address fears, process trauma, heal themselves, realise truth, and take action in the face of the ever-more rapidly approaching ecological crisis. These medicines are living gifts from the Earth that should be treated with respect and gratitude. The different plant teachers, their healing benefits, their traditional uses, and our own experiences working with them will be covered in a series of posts. The following article focuses on the artwork of the late Peruvian Shaman Pablo Amaringo. It is an in-depth look at the visual landscape of ayahuasca and touches upon issues of ancient shamanism, animism and anthropocentrism, links between plant medicine and environmental awareness, and extraterrestrial and interdimensional helpers. An introduction to and more information on ayahuasca will come shortly.
Below is an article adapted from an essay written a few years ago that you can download for free here Plant Consciousness- A Shaman, a Hallucinogenic Tea, and the Global Ecological Crisis with the full academic references and bibliography.
‘Nature is not mute, but modern man is deaf.’
– the late great psychonaut Terence McKenna (McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, London: Rider, 1992: 179)
When you first encounter Pablo Amaringo’s (1938-2009) landscapes they look like Edenic paradises. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991; Charing and Cloudsley, 2011) Los Cachiboleros (fig. 1), for example, is densely-populated with vibrant flowers, vines, leaves, and trees, and teems with a myriad of coexisting human, animal, vegetal, hybrid, celestial, and unearthly beings. The highly saturated paintings in this series that has come to be known as the ayahuasca visions depict the artist’s otherworldly visionary experiences after drinking the traditional plant medicine.
Ayahuasca is a sticky, heady-tasting brew consisting of a combination of the banisteriopsis caapi vine and one of a number of hallucinogenic plants such as psychotria viridis, and has been used by the indigenous population of the Amazon for millennia. Ayahuasca is the Quechua (Native American lingua franca of the Andes) name for the brew, which is also known as yajé, caapi, natem, pindé, and karampi. Regardless of the name used to describe the medicine with an earthy essence reminiscent of the forest, the brew contains a substantial dose of the most potent psychoactive compound known to science, DMT (N, N-dimethylryptamine). DMT is endogenous in humans, where it is thought to be produced in the pineal gland and released in during birth, psychotic crisis, near-death experiences, and death. (Strassman, 2001: 69) When taken orally, DMT is quickly deactivated in the stomach by monamine oxidase (MAO). However, the alkaloids provided by the banisteriopsis plant function as MAO-inhibitors, keeping the DMT active and allowing it to be absorbed into the bloodstream, where it has effects that commonly induce violent gastrointestinal purging and spectacular visions. Ayahuasca is an ‘entheogen’, meaning ‘a chemical substance, typically of plant origin, that is ingested to produce nonordinary states of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes’. (Strassman, 2001: 30)
In 1985, Amaringo began painting the visions he experienced during ayahuasca ceremonies, making his interior journies accessible to the external world for the first time. (McKenna, 2011: 4-8; Narby, 2011: 9; Charing and Cloudsley, 2006: 17) The psychedelic aesthetics that this process birthed have been viewed as valuable insights into the rich visual landscape of ayahuasca. In a narrow interpretation of traditional art-historical scholarship, the subject matter of the paintings would likely be dismissed as emerging purely from the imaginary realm, far removed from the so-called physical world. However, underneath the layers of seemingly fantastical imagery, an eerily earthly reality pervades Amaringo’s paintings.
Throughout Western history, ‘reality’ has been a notoriously difficult concept to define, with debates about its nature forming an entire branch of metaphysics, known as ontology. Taking the multivalent interpretations and problematic associations of ‘reality’ into consideration, ‘reality’ is used here to refer to the so-called three-dimensional physical world perceived to exist objectively or at least mutually. When Amaringo’s paintings are viewed closely, details relating to a global ecological crisis currently occurring within this shared ‘reality’ begin to emerge from the dense jungle undergrowth. This crisis is being propelled at an ever-increasing velocity by the current carbon-dependant Anthropocene epoch, an era defined by deforestation, polar melting, rising of sea levels, hurricanes, fires, desertification, biodiversity extinction, and pollution of air, land and water. (Zalasiewicz et al., 2010: 2228-31; Stoett, 2012: 3)
In this article we challenge traditional, reductionist intepretations of Pablo Amaringo’s ayahuasca visions, unnearthing overlooked details to reveal their iconographic grounding in environmental issues, and demonstrating that the Amazon rainforest provided Amaringo with a reverence for nature whilst exposing him to severe cases of environmental destruction, ultimately showing that the visions contain a latent but potent ecological agenda. Such a discussion brings up questions of plant consciousness and agency, as well as emerging evidence of links between ayahuasca and realisations of the interconnectivity of ecological systems. Finally, we consider how Amaringo’s agenda is unfolding within a larger global context of increasing scholarly, pharmacological, and popular interest in ayahuasca and other plant medicine, a trend entwined with an intensifying awakening to the crisis towards which the planet continues to hurtle.
OTHERWORLDLY VISIONS OF AN OUTSIDER?
So far, the ecological concerns embedded within the paintings have not been discussed in the literature surrounding Amaringo’s art. The works were first introduced to the world in Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman (1991), a collaborative publication between anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna and Amaringo. The text focused on the mythology of the ribereños culture and attracted attention within anthropology, ethnobotany, and psychology. (Shanon, 2002) Yet, the paintings have received no consideration within the field of art history. And in the rare cases that they have been discussed, the psychedelic and extraterrestrial iconographies of extradimensional spirits and spaceships have been considered to only relate to an imaginary world of the intrepid psychonaut, despite the artist having suggested that ecology was one of his key motives for painting the visions. (Beyer, 2011: 15)
Within the existing art historical framework, Amaringo’s paintings would be considered outsider art. This peripheral paradigm describes work created outside of the social and cultural mainstream, by ‘artists’ more inclined towards their own inner world than the ‘art world’. (Maclagen, 2009: 7, 81; Maizels, 2002: 31) Amaringo seems to fit its criteria. His paintings are aesthetically similar to the work of accepted outsider artists such as Minnie Evans (1892-1987) (fig. 2). Amaringo was also the first to first to officially paint ayahuasca narratives, making them original. Moreover, Amaringo worked in isolation, was self-taught, and had been a convict, a mestizo, and a shaman; whilst the politically problematic links between his work and psychedelics pushes it further towards the fringe. (Amaringo, 2011: 20) Yet without this connection to psychedelia, his works may not have been considered of any interest at all. Even within the sub-category of psychedelic art, which has attracted a more significant body of art-historical literature, a discussion of ayahuasca art has so far been absent, though a rich visual culture is now emerging as other artists are following Amaringo’s path and sharing their visions in paint. (Johnson, 2011)
For art historians, it is easy to consider the colourful aesthetic of works, such as Yacu Caballo (fig. 3), in loaded terms like ‘primitive’, ‘crude’, ‘naive’ and ‘low’, though this highlights the underlying biases often brought to ‘objective’ scholastic interpretation. Such frameworks of judgment are largely socio-culturally constructed, and beneath them, the ecological value of Amaringo’s work persists. As a mestizo, Amaringo sat the edges of both the indigenous-tribal and the developing-industrialised worlds. The two have historically been incompatible, with the former embracing ‘animism’, a worldview that attributes a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena, and the latter ‘anthropocentrism’, a polar ideology that regards humankind as the most important element of existence. (Gell, 1998) Thus it was from his particular subjective position as an outsider that Amaringo had the perspective to see just how the ecological crisis was threatening both spheres, for they share a home on this planet.
The idea of outsider art is problematic in many ways. (Maizels, 2002: 32) The exhibition Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (1992) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) challenged the supposed separateness of this category, showing that so-called outsiders had actually influenced modernists who had been firmly situated at the centre of the art historical canon. (Eliel and Tuchman, 1992: 1) In a similar spirit, we challenge the ‘outsider’ categorisation of Amaringo’s work, demonstrating that it is not as alien to the artistic mainstream as many scholars might suggest, and drawing parallels with so-called avant-garde and environmental movements that are becoming central to the art world. We take an ecocritical approach to Amaringo’s paintings. Ecocriticism, a recent addition to the plethora of art-historical methodologies, examines environmental issues in cultural practices. It emphasises the entwinement of ecological damage with already-existing patterns of social inequality in terms of geography, race, class, and gender, drawing together diverse strands of research. (McKee, 2011: 1-4) Without such a focus, the paintings’ latent ecological connotations can be overlooked and to the ordinary viewer they might remain internal, psychedelic, and otherworldly.
THE SHAMAN-ARTIST AND THE RAINFOREST
Amaringo’s life experiences helped cultivate the environmental agenda that lies behind the paintings. In 1938, he was born in Puerto Libertad, a small settlement located deep in the verdant Peruvian Amazon. His family relied on the forest for survival, farming crops, fishing, hunting and gathering. In 1953, Amaringo moved to the Pucallpa, where he would remain and later paint his visions. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991) His home and studio was wooden, modest, and surrounded by the forest. A comparison can be made to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who also spent time painting at a remote studio in the tropics. The evident similarities between the two figures complicate the outsider perspective on Amaringo since Gauguin is often considered to have been a pioneer of the symbolist movement, and highly influential to the French avant-garde, with some going as far as to claim that he ‘initiated the art of modern times’. (René Huyghe, 1952) Alike to Amaringo, Gauguin spent his early life in Peru. His works inspired by his experiences in Tahiti are surprisingly similar to Amaringo’s visions.
In both Amaringo’s Huarmi Taquina (2005) (fig. 4) and Gauguin’s Mahana no Atua (Day of the God) (1894) (fig. 5) lush landscapes are formed in bright blocks of blue, yellow, red, pink and green. Further similarities include imagery of unspoilt nature, harmonious indigenous figures, semi-nude female forms, and central deities. Gauguin’s mythologised narrative tells of a desire to escape industrialising forces to a pristine paradise, a concern faced by Amaringo many years later back across the South Pacific. (Andersen, 1971)
Amaringo’s ecological agenda is evidenced by his work with the Usko Ayar school, which he founded in the 1980s, teaching students how to depict Amazonian plants, animals, rivers and people and their relationships. (Luna, 2007) The mission of the school, as established by Amaringo, was (and remains) the preservation and documentation of the ecosystem, indicating this was one of Amaringo’s top priorities. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, Amaringo was elected to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Global 500 Roll of Honour, in recognition his achievements in the protection and improvement of the environment through Usko Ayar (fig. 6). This is evidence that his agenda was even recognised by external bodies. The school was located in Pucallpa, a city that was ‘little more than a village’ when Amaringo arrived in 1953, but quickly experienced massive growth. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 22-23)
ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN PUCALLPA
In 1946, Pucallpa had only 4000 inhabitants. In 1961, this had grown to 26,391, and in 1981, it increased to 97,925. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 29-30) By 2005, the year in which Yacu Caballo (fig. 4) was painted, the population had bloated to 259,830. (Cohen, 2008: 3087) Major pull factors to the area were the abundant land and production opportunities, resulting in an economy revolving around the exploitation of local natural resources, including timber. (Angelsen and Kaimowitz, 2001: 214; Abizaid, 2005: 123) Observing this devastating human impact on the landscape, Amaringo spoke of how ‘The dirt road to the capital… cut right through the virgin forest, and it was an impressive sight to see…such immense trees growing by the roadside.’ He expressed awe at how such tall trees (averaging around 25 to 30 m) had been cut to the ground. Amaringo’s choice of the word ‘virgin’ in his statement seems loaded, not only identifying the area as having been undisturbed old-growth forest, but also framing civilisation as an infringement upon the natural environment. Similarly, he nostalgically described how the forest ‘remained relatively intact’ during his early life in Pucallpa, implying that it would later experience destruction. In Yacu Caballo (fig. 4), a Lupine Blanca, one of the tallest trees in the Amazon, extends up and out of the left side of the composition. Amaringo painted ‘guardians’ in the act of protecting the tree, linking to the risk the species was facing in reality. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 21-23)
The Amazon is a site of folklore and mythology on the one hand and intense eco-political debate on the other, invoking the very same paradox between otherworldliness and the this-worldliness that imbues the ayahuasca visions. (Abizaid, 2005: 122) Both the region and the paintings are predominantly inhabited by flora and fauna. This is heightened by the ‘noisy’ features of the rainforest that are pictured, such as birds, insects and running water. Centuries of human intervention have made the Amazon the core of the planet’s deforestation problem. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 9) In Peru, despite new regulations from 1999 to 2005, new forest disturbances occurred at a rate of 632 to 645 square kilometres per year. (Pinedo-Vasquez et. al., 2011: xi) Data indicates that 86% of this deforestation was concentrated in Pucallpa and the road network around the city (including the road described by Amaringo). This increased by 400% from 1999 to 2005, which happens to have been a particularly active period of painting for Amaringo. (Soudre et al., 2001: 123-24) Much of the logging stemmed from the timber trade, which Amaringo would have witnessed whilst working at Pucallpa port where the logs were stockpiled (Fig.6)
Pucallpa was, and remains, a violent hotbed of environmental issues. In this context Amaringo was exposed to illegal logging and other activities such as river pollution, slash and burn farming and animal agriculture:
‘All human beings should … put effort into the preservation and conservation of the rainforest, and care for it and the ecosystem, because damage to these not only prejudices the flora and fauna but humanity itself. Even in the Amazon these days, many see plants as only a resource for building houses and to finance large families. People who have farms and raise animals also clear the forest to produce foodstuffs. Mestizos and native Indians log the largest trees to sell to industrial sawmills for subsistence. They have never heard of the word ecology! I, Pablo, say to everybody who lives in the Amazon and the other forests of the world, that they must love the plants of their land, and everything that is there!’
– Pablo Amaringo, ‘Foreword’, Peter Cloudsley trans., Howard C. Charing and Ross Heaven, Plant Spirit Shamanism, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2006: xi
Amaringo was familiar with the term ‘ecology’ and understood the crisis to be both global and anthropogenic (originating in human activity). The main causes of deforestation identified by Amaringo directly correlate with those established in scientific studies, suggesting that he was an informed and reliable observer. He reportedly said, ‘I feel a great sorrow when trees are burned, when the forest is destroyed. I feel sorrow because I know that human beings are doing something very wrong.’ (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 34)
Water consumption and pollution are further issues that Amaringo was likely to have been aware of. Christian Abizaid has shown that the course of the Ucayali was manipulated to improve transportation of goods and people, with unknown environmental effects. (Abizaid, 2005: 124) This is the river that Amaringo described seeing from his home when they moved to Pucallpa, and the one that fed the port. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 34) Water also happens to be an important iconographic feature of many of the paintings. For example, the dynamism and porosity of the stream inYacu Caballo (fig. 4) creates a visual slippage between humans and nature. A waterfall outlines two yacu huarmi (water women), and merges into a river. The river blends into the blue and white patterned clothing of the shamans riding the colourful head of a yucumana (giant snake) in the foreground (fig. 7). The medium of gouache allowed Amaringo to easily blend forms and blur the boundaries between human and rainforest. Yet, the paintings do not always depict this as a harmonious relationship. Tension becomes a key theme in paintings such as Los Cachiboleros (fig. 1) where human figures only occupy the right-hand corner of the composition and are overwhelmed by vibrant botany and a plethora of interesting beings. This is evident in the small figure with their back turned from the viewer, reaching up towards an enormous plant which overshadows them (fig. 8). Amaringo stated that if we destroy the plants we ‘cannot survive’, we destroy ourselves because the nature of ecology means that our fates are entwined. (Amaringo, 2011: 157)
Amaringo’s concern for plants is also articulated in the foreword he provided for the book Plant Spirit Shamanism, in which he constructs a powerful argument for their vital role in ecology,
Plants are essential in many ways: they give life to all beings on Earth by producing oxygen…they create the enormous greenhouse that gives board and lodging to diverse but interrelated guests; they are teachers who show us the holistic importance of conserving life. … The consciousness of plants is a constant source of information for medicine, alimentation, and art, and an example of the intelligence and creative imagination of nature. …Thus I consider myself to be the ‘representative’ of plants, and for this reason I assert that if they cut down the trees and burn what’s left of the rainforests, it is the same as burning a whole library of books without ever having read them.
– Pablo Amaringo, ‘Foreword’, Peter Cloudsley trans., Howard C. Charing and Ross Heaven, Plant Spirit Shamanism, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2006,
Amaringo challenges anthropocentric idea that humans are supremely intelligent. He even positions his work as ‘representative’ of plants, linking it to an agenda to discourage further deforestation. However, this source was not written in relation to the paintings, so the issue of whether his values were translated into his art might be raised. Although, Amaringo did directly state that he intended his art to be a ‘tool for the conservation of the Amazon environment.’ And this ecological stance comes across strongly in the work, particularly in the meticulously detailed renderings of botany.
Each leaf, flower and stem is carefully crafted in the large canvas Misterio Profundo (fig. 13), so that they are identifiable as real specimens. For example, the bright purple leaves on the far right belong to a lancetilla (Alternanthera sp.). In an accompanying commentary, Amaringo described how this plant can be used to treat arthritis, alleviate stress and gastric problems, heal wounds and cure diabetes. (Amaringo, 2011: 157-58) The artist renders plant species with indigenous healing value that are at risk of being lost. His experience as a vegetalista (a mestizo shaman deriving healing knowledge from plants) relates to these detailed descriptions of botany and likely played a part in forming his ecological agenda. In his own words:
‘A shaman has in his mind and heart the attitude of conserving nature’.
– Pablo Amaringo
Amaringo was not only a shaman but an ayahuasquero, one specialising in ayahuasca. He sang icaros (power songs from the plant) while painting and suggested that the healing action of the music infused the image and could be transferred to the viewer.(Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 12-13, 33, 46) This creates another link between conscious plants, ecology and the works, and suggests that Amaringo could have intended his paintings to provide healing to the world. The idea of plant consciousness is described by Amaringo:
‘Every tree, every plant, has a spirit. People may say that the plant has no mind. I tell them that the plant is alive & conscious.’
– Pablo Amaringo
In Los Cachiboleros (fig. 9) an unblinking eye occupies each leaf in the cluster found in the left-hand corner, and seventeen black pupils peer out at the viewer. By giving a plant eyes, Amaringo makes clear that it is actively aware of its environment; it is conscious.
EXTRATERRESTRIAL AND INTERDIMENSIONAL BEINGS WITH AN ECOLOGICAL WARNING
In the way that not all of the imagery in the ayahuasca visions is vegetal, not all of the teachers are plants. In Misterio Profundo (fig. 10) a spaceship descends in the centre of the painting, and ethereal blue beings emerge from it. An interpretation of this scene could return us to a narrative of the psychedelic outsider, disconnected from issues of ‘reality’. Yet Amaringo’s own commentary suggests otherwise:
The spaceship that has arrived from a distant galaxy brings spiritual beings to teach. …They warn of the imbalance of the biosphere caused by man’s destruction of the rain forest. Through negligence, ignorance and greed, humans have prejudiced the delicate web of life on which we depend.
– Pablo Amaringo, in Howard C. Charing and Peter Cloudsley eds., The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 2011: 159
Again, Amaringo challenges anthropocentrism by creating an image that uproots the assumption that humans are the supreme intelligence of the universe, and attributes the global crisis to specific selfish human traits. A metaphor of the web of life can be found in Untitled (fig. 11), in which a group of humans sit conducting ceremony on a ‘delicate’ yellow net connoting their interconnectedness. The central cauldron signals that we are not looking at conventional landscapes but ayahuasca visions. As a psychotropic substance, ayahuasca is the epitome of a conscious plant. To Amaringo, it was a conscious and powerful medicine teacher. Ayahuasca is a crucial yet complex layer in the relationship between the paintings and ecology, further blurring the boundaries between reality and vision. Paradoxically, the imagery is both derived from plants and consciously about them.
THE VISUAL LANDSCAPES OF AYAHUASCA
The woody, brown ayahuasca vine can often be seen winding its way around foliage in works such as Genios del Renaco. Although the paintings closely resemble rainforest landscapes, they are what neuroscience refers to as spontaneous imagery narratives, so could instead be termed ayahuasca landscapes. (Echenhofer, 2011: 154) The vertical strips dividing the composition in Caspi Mutkiy (fig. 12) represents richly patterned visions bleeding into one another. Although ayahuasca has become a popular topic of scientific enquiry, much remains to be understood about its nature. Cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon has observed that for ayahuasca drinkers colours reach luminous saturation and intensity, and objects radiate, shine and glitter. (Shanon, 2002: 274) This might explain why, although the rainforest is a colourful place, Amaringo’s paintings are intensified to a vibrancy beyond what is ordinarily seen in nature with the human eye.
Common subjects experienced during an ayahuasca journey can also be identified in Amaringo’s visions. Compiling results from studies by Shanon, Michael Harner, Claudio Naranjo on both indigenous and non-indigenous participants, universal themes including plants and botanical scenes, naturalistic and non-naturalistic animals, entity encounters, distant cities, landscapes, personal material including one’s own death, oneness, scenes of creation and evolution, and geometric designs have been identified. (Harner, 1973: 172-73; Naranjo, 1973: 177-90; Shanon, 2002: 274)
AYAHUASCA AND ECOLOGICAL ONENESS
Such visuals might seem far from the issues such as deforestation that were evidently concerning Amaringo, but they are actually closely linked to ecology. Firstly, ayahuasca itself is a combination of Amazonian plants that was first brewed in animistic cultures. (Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill, 2008: 144) Moreover, it often induces a sense of an ecological-self by shattering the separation between human and nature. (Mathews, 1995: 66) An experience of interconnectedness with the world is common. (Cardeña and Winkelman, 2011: 95) As one ayahuasca drinker commented ‘I feel part of the environment, not separate from it’. (Sanders, 2015) It has even been described as ‘a lesson in ecology’. (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1996: 168) Perhaps inspired by ayahuasca, the paintings break down the binaries of Self and Other. In Los Cachiboleros (fig. 1) green reptilian forms are composed entirely of plants, whilst in El Principe De La Vida (fig. 13) a woman, surrounded by leaves with distinct human faces, gives birth to a snake. Similarly, in Yacu Caballo, snakes pour down into the river. The snake on the right winds around a tree until its body gradually becomes a vine, which eventually becomes branches. In the same scene, faces emerge in the bark and the jagged edges of the rock face form solemn features. Applying personhood to organic matter is an effective way of bringing ethics into the ecological debate. (Hanson, 1988: 66) Adding features to plants may be accused of reinforcing rather than rejecting anthropocentrism since it insists on relating to human form in order to generate compassion. Regardless, the image encourages an understanding of nature as a series of subjects and not just utilitarian objects. Furthermore, through this dismantling of the Self, as well the themes of nonlinearity, montage, and the challenging of binaries, the works resonate with post-structuralist and postmodern thought, creating a context for the paintings within art history that goes beyond modernism.
COLLAPSING THE PARADIGM OF SEPARATION
In addition to promoting environmental concern, the interconnectedness facilitated by ayahuasca breaks down the paradigm of separation, and thus the category of Outsider Art. For a person to be an ‘outsider’ they must be Other. Interconnectedness is a common feature in the mystical discourses of all major religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. (Geels and Belzen, 2003: 7) For example, in Islam, the concept of wahdat al wujūd (unity of being) is central to Sufism. (Stepaniants, 1994: 13-32) Such doctrines were often realised in mystical, meditative or altered states, alike to that induced by ayahuasca, and have inspired manifold and diverse art. Given this context, the ecological and divine unity pictured in the paintings now looks to be much less of an ‘outsider’ idea, but rather one central to human experience. Whilst the antithetical ideology of neoliberal capitalism, which goes beyond anthropocentrism to individualism, may actually be less central than it appears.
A SHAMANIC LINEAGE
When Terence McKenna wrote about the effects of ayahuasca he could have been describing one of Amaringo’s paintings:
‘the world becomes an Arabian labyrinth, a palace, a more than possible Martian jewel, vast with motifs that flood the gaping mind with complex and wordless awe.’ McKenna, 1992: 258
The validity of Amaringo’s visions is also supported through comparison with other psychedelic aesthetics. Graham Hancock and John Ryan Haule have compared Amaringo’s work to prehistoric rock and cave art, such as that found at Chauvet in France, thought to have been created by shamans experiencing altered states of consciousness around 32,000 years ago. Hancock draws parallels between the ancient markings and Amaringo’s paintings, highlighting how the ‘same themes, patterns, supernatural entities and symbols’ occur in both. (Hancock, 2011: 10-11) Haule agrees, describing the parallels as both ‘striking and extensive’. (Haule, 2011: 32) Both are based on the premises established by Jean Clottes that the cave markings were made by ancient shamans inspired by altered states of consciousness. However, more in-depth research is needed to confirm this theory. (Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998) The traditional art of Amazonian cultures provides a more immediate and solid comparison. The ayahuasca art of the Shipibo tribe, with its striking red and black patterning, can be found in Amaringo’s iconography. For example, the vase in the foreground of Misterio Profundo (fig. 14) resembles Shipibo vessels (fig. 15). But Amaringo’s paintings go beyond the abstract designs found in indigenous pottery and textiles.
The reliability of the paintings as representations of the ayahuasca experience is largely agreed upon by researchers with significant first-hand experience, such as Luis Eduardo Luna, Dennis Mckenna, Howard C. Charing, and Peter Cloudsley. Mckenna, who has completed extensive research on the pharmacology, botany and chemistry of ayahuasca over the past thirty years, describes Amaringo as a ‘chronicler of the visionary world of ayahuasca’ (McKenna, The Ayahuasca Visions, 2011: 8) Similarly, anthropologist Jeremy Narby has stated that the iconography strongly resembles his own ayahuasca visions. (Narby, 1999: 60) Whilst Luna has shown the paintings to many vegetalistas who confirm they too have seen many of the same images. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 43)
AGENCY OF THE PLANT OR THE SHAMAN?
Amaringo partly attributes his ecological concerns to the ayahuasca brew itself, saying that:
‘When one takes ayahuasca, one can sometimes hear the trees cry when they are going to be cut down.’
– Pablo Amaringo
(Luna and Amaringo, 1991: 34)
This passage suggests that it was the ayahuasca that prompted the depiction of conscious plants. The image of suffering trees comes across powerfully in the paintings, such as in the anthropomorphic trunks stretching out across Untitled (fig. 11). Automatism and agency are not issues that exist outside of art history but are central to surrealism and other avant-garde movements. (Cardinal, 1997: 79) Increasing Amaringo’s agency (which is important if we are to consider his statements), lies in the fact that his works were produced consciously, unlike André Masson’s (1897-1987) automatic drawings or Joan Miro’s (1893-1983) paintings. (Cardinal, 1997: 79-94) Amaringo did not produce the works whilst taking ayahuasca, but afterwards. He said that he had the ability to recall each of his visions through chanting his icaros. (Luna and Amaringo, 1991: xi-xii) These acted as mnemonic devices for reentering a state where he could recall the visions to select and collate iconography. Therefore, ayahuasca alone did not create the compositions, and unpicking the forces behind the paintings becomes a complex process.
Further supporting Amaringo having a level of agency, Ross Heaven challenged Howard Charing’s assertion that Amaringo was a ‘master communicator of the ayahuasca experience’, rewording it to say that he was ‘a master communicator of his own ayahuasca experience’. (Heaven, Shamanic Plant Medicine) Additionally, it might be argued that direct translation of inner visions to outer imagery is impossible and requires manipulation from the artist, considering that the experience has been described as ‘beyond the scope of language’. (Wilcox, 2003: 1) Roberto Venosa shared this concern,
As an artist, I know that it would take numerous life times to be able to paint the visions from just one aya journey … I discussed this with Pablo and he agreed that there was not a canvas or palette large enough to capture the smallest iota of the overall Ayahuasca visual storm.
– Venosa, ‘A Holy Message’, The Ayahuasca Visions, 2011: 12
This suggests that Amaringo had to compress and adapt his visions in order to interpret them in paint, and the content Amaringo chose to amalgamate happens to be laced with ecological concern. The style, composition, medium and scale were also selected by Amaringo. Therefore, it is clear that his motives played a role and should be considered. In addition to ayahuasca, the paintings were also informed by Amaringo’s personal cultural and environmental surroundings, including the destruction of the rainforest. In light of this, the paintings could be considered a collaborative cocreation between plant and shaman-artist.
AYAHUASCA BEYOND THE AMAZON: A GLOBAL CRISIS
Due to the interrelated nature of Earth’s ecosystems and the significance of the rainforests within them, the Amazonian crisis feeds into the global event. The Amazon recycles the majority of the planet’s carbon dioxide and produces about 20% of our oxygen. (Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill, 2008: 143-4) In light of this, Amaringo’s environmental statements can be seen as addressing an international rather than just a local audience. Although many figures in the ayahuasca visions appear to be of South American ethnicity, in In Connection With Healers in Time and Space (fig. 16) among the mestiza, Shipibo, and Cocama healers is a meditating Hindu yogi, a Campa Indian, a female African healer, and a Tibetan lama.(Luna and Amaringo, 1991) All of these healers are linked by their use or knowledge of plants, or in other words, their connection to nature. Each one is visioned in the centre of a separate ecosystem, though their ripples move outwards towards each other, creating a network. All of these biospheres are united in one composition, in connection with one another. Circles representing the Earth as a whole are also found in Amaringo’s paintings, for example, the large central sphere surrounded by leaves in Chacruna Versucum (fig. 17).
Amaringo clearly intended his paintings to promote conservation of ecology. Whether this message is received depends on the ecological awareness of the individuals viewing the paintings. However, the works have been distributed in documentaries, films, and the internet, on platforms which similarly argue for the preservation of flora, fauna and indigenous cultural practices, such as Seti Gershberg’s Ayahuasca Nature’s Greatest Gift (The Path of the Sun, 2014). Amaringo’s paintings have also been linked to the increasing popular interest in ayahuasca since the 1990s. Someone without any knowledge of ayahuasca might be encouraged to take part in a ceremony after encountering the visions. They might then experience the dissolution of Self and anthropocentric ideas that can come with an ayahuasca journey and ultimately become more concerned about the global ecological crisis as a result. This would suggest that Amaringo’s work is, in some ways, beginning to have the reception he desired, even if not always consciously. Amaringo’s works are spreading across the globe and have been exhibited in countries including the United States, France, and Britain. The centre and periphery model of outsider art becomes complicated when the outlanders operate within the museum system.
Art history is becoming more transnational and pluralistic, moving away from the meta-narratives that create insiders and outsiders. (Belting, 2013) At the same time, environmental concerns are increasingly shifting towards the centre of public consciousness. Land and environmental art have been a significant part of art practice from the 1960s. Alike to Amaringo, these movements transformed the genre of landscape. And this trend continues in the world of contemporary art, for Naziha Mestaoui’s 1 Heart 1 Tree, an interactive projection of virtual forests onto city spaces around the globe. 1 Heart 1 Tree creates a sense of connection with nature, as digital trees grow in rhythm with human heartbeats. The work is not just symbolic: a physical tree is grown for each virtual one, actively combatting deforestation with active planting in Peru among other places. The motives of the project are therefore strikingly similar to those found in the ayahuasca visions. Mestaoui’s 1 Heart 1 Tree beamed onto the Eiffel Tower to open the United Nations climate change conference, known as COP21. Placing Amaringo’s work, with its clear ecological message, into the category of outsider art would now seem inappropriate.
The ayahuasca visions series intended to connect people to nature in the face of the impending ecological crisis. Such an agenda was rooted in the particular environmental issues witnessed by the artist in Pucallpa, such as the violently controversial illegal logging trade, as well as being inherent in the ayahuasca experience itself. This ecological concern is embedded in the paintings in distinct ways. It is found in the vibrant and densely populated rainforest landscapes, with their meticulously rendered botanical specimens, identified as medicinal Amazonian plants. The plants have eyes, faces, bodies, and a consciousness and therefore can no longer be seen in as inanimate objects. Similarly, hybrid forms transcend and dissolve the boundaries between Self and Other, human, animal, plant, nature. It is also found in the imagery of ayahuasca ceremonies, which encourage interest in the medicine and subsequent exposure to its ecologically-minded effects. And lastly, in the domination of nature over humanity, warning of its devastating power and our fragility. The paintings and Amaringo’s statements appeal to a global audience, ultimately picturing the interconnectedness of the ecological system.
Amaringo presented the animism of the indigenous Amazonian world as an answer to the anthropocentric one he saw to be causing the destruction, challenging the traditional view of animism as ‘primitive’ and simplistic compared to the ‘civilised’ world. Similarly, the categorisation of Amaringo’s work as outsider art becomes complicated wehn it is resituated within modernist movements such as surrealism and land art. The works have more of an avant-garde lineage than we might expect, whilst they also share the vision of contemporary digital art such as 1 Heart 1 Tree. In conclusion, although the visions may, on first viewing, delineate harmonious and otherworldly forest scenes, when considered alongside the ravaging of natural resources and ecosystems, it becomes clear that they may have a far greater resonance within the global ecological crisis. Thus, the ayahuasca visions should not only be seen not an alien curiosity, but as a valid voice in the current eco-political debate.
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