Smoke and Mirrors: Arts Magazine

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Smoke and Mirrors: Photographs by Vance Gellert
In his photographs of medicinal practices in South America, Vance Gellert examines the nature of healing.

By Tamatha Sopinski Perlman

WHEN WE WALK into the doctor’s office, what do we expect? What do we need from our visit? Besides the medicines and therapies that will be prescribed, what else do we need to make our bodies and minds receptive to healing? Healers and doctors are universally sought. But the way they set about helping their patients varies from place to place around the world. As a pharmacologist and photographer, Vance Gellert set out to examine the nature of healing, to discover the ratio of science to art required in the healing practice. “Smoke and Mirrors,” on view in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) galleries from June 13 through August 10, is his photographic exploration of the healers, rituals, and plants that create the magic of healing in parts of Bolivia and Peru.

The beauty of photography, as Gellert sees it, is that it is at once a recorder of fact, an empirical tool in the service of science, and an art form. Photography, he says, captures images infused with layers of meaning and nuance that give the recorded facts a human and emotional connection. The many healing rituals he witnessed included “reading” eggs, ashes, or even guinea pig intestines to determine diagnoses, and using various plants that can reverse illness or act as hallucinogens to open doors to other worlds or perspectives. The South American healers, Gellert noted, straddle the lines between art and science. The biology of plants and remedies combines with the art of created environments to open the pathways to healing. Gellert’s point is that a physical object or talisman can give us the faith and strength to heal ourselves in conjunction with the medical remedies.

Gellert uses medium- and large-format film cameras to capture details and vibrant colors. His large prints convey the beauty and mystery of the land and its people, and the complex concepts of medicine and wellness. Gellert’s photograph of the Meracdo de las Brujas (witch’s market), shows a bazaar in La Paz with its stacks of herbs, bones, llama fetuses, and packaged remedies, through which visitors must pass to get to the modern pharmacy beyond. Conversely, his picture of Carlos Prado, a ytiri (mountain healer), captures the spiritual and serene essence of his coca ritual as smoke billows around the his head. “You need to allow yourself to be immersed in the ritual,” Gellert said, “and to suspend disbelief until it is shown to not be true. No matter what the culture, people do not continue a treatment for hundreds, even thousands of years if it doesn’t work.”

Other photographs in the series feature the plants and animals that are integral parts of certain rites and ceremonies. Healers collect ingredients, then mix and test their remedies on themselves. In a photo of Peruvian shaman Perry Garcia, who uses ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic beverage made from the bark of a woody vine) in his practice, the shaman appears to be an organic part of the annatto tree, whose seeds provide the achiote spice used in making ayahuasca. The red flowers surround him like a saint in a retablo (small, wood, religious painting). The shaman leads the user through the hallucinogenic effects of the ayahausca.

Part of one hunting rite practiced by the Matses community of eastern Peru consists of “stressing” (stretching out) a Phyllomedusa bicolor frog so it oozes a hallucinogenic sweat (sapo). The collected sweat is dried on a stick and introduced directly to the bloodstream through a burn on the hunter’s skin. Immediately, the patient experiences vivid imagery that appears to show him the location of his prey. Over the next seventy-two hours the hunters feel endowed with strength, bravery, and increased visual acuity. The frogs are released with great ceremony after a few “stressing” sessions, after which they no longer sweat in fear. Gellert’s shocking close-up photograph of this ritual reveals a cacophony of color and curiosity rather than violence.

“Smoke and Mirrors” is a study of both facts and cultural beliefs about illness, healing, and wellness. Gellert undertook the series in an effort “to transcend the cultural differences and create a receptive and stimulating environment in which to consider new directions in health care.” Some remedies used by the medicos and healers of Bolivia and Peru are not so different from those used by Western doctors. Many of the same plants are the basis for some synthetic drugs in the United States. Gellert claims, as do others, the “placebo effect” is responsible for up to seventy percent of Western cures. This means of course that Western doctors create their own “smoke and mirrors.” By inserting his artistic practice into scientific inquiry, Gellert believes he can help unravel the mysteries of wellness and healing.

Tamatha Sopinski Perlman is MAEP Program Associate at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) is made possible by a generous grant from the Jerome Foundation.

Citation: Tamatha Sopinski Perlman, "Smoke and Mirrors: Photographs by Vance Gellert. In his photographs of medicinal practices in South America, Vance Gellert examines the nature of healing." Arts 31, No. 3 (May/June 2008):20-21.