Mediating between worlds: Shamanic Practice in Hagit Cohen’s Work

Shamanism, the practice of mediating between the physical and the nonphysical worlds to bring about positive change, is present throughout Hagit Cohen’s work. Much of her art contains references to the belief that all matter is animated and holds power. This understanding of the natural world was cultivated by Hagit through her studies with a Shaman over twelve years ago, after reading shamanic literature piqued her interest in the practice. Her three year-long study was kickstarted with an intensive group immersion program that had participants meeting four times a year for five days and working up to 18 hours a day. Studying in the Sonoma county area, the students were inducted predominantly into the Andean tradition, under the instruction of a shamanic teacher who had been initiated in practices from Peru, Nepal, Siberia and Africa. There was a theoretical element to the program, during which students learned about the different shamanic cosmologies, but by far the most immersive part of the experience was a hands-on approach to learning. Through doing, the participants were coached in how to become aware of life force energies and to then apply that insight to healing people, animals and the land. The rituals Hagit learned with her shamanic teacher became integrated into her daily life, and have played a large role in the formation of her recent artwork.

Installing a chestnut seed pod at Krowswork Gallery, Oakland

One of the most influential tasks assigned during her studies was to spend at least one hour in nature every day. Coming from the dry climate of Israel, Hagit had previously been reluctant to go outside when it was raining, so the task challenged her to explore the outdoors come rain or shine. This increased exposure to the local flora and fauna in Tilden Regional Park lead to a new awareness of plant life and particularly towards seed pods, which one might often miss in their everyday life. The practice cultivated close looking and noticing, as Hagit allowed her experience in nature to transform her. By welcoming the natural world into her life, she was able to grasp the importance of stewardship for the earth, a theme that has translated itself into the artwork she produces.

A trip to visit the Achuar tribe in the Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador

Much of Hagit’s current work would not exist without her formative experience studying shamanism. The Erodium series, for example, was created directly out of an exercise set during her Sonoma county intensive. The students were tasked with finding a plant element that represented them and to make this their symbol. Hagit was reminded of the seeds of Erodium cicutarium – more commonly known as pinweed or redstem stork’s bill – that she’d grown up with in Israel, and how their delicate, dance-like quality echoed her own interest in movement and dance. The seeds are launched into the air as the seed pod ripens, boring themselves into the soil, from where they are reborn into new life; another element Hagit found herself identifying with. Growth from out of darkness spoke to her, and so the Erodium seeds became her symbol. In this way, then, the series is essentially a self-portrait, which Hagit sees as capturing not only an often-overlooked part of a plant but also a snapshot of herself.

Three Orange Bulbs (2013) from the Acid Rain series

A large part of the shamanic rituals completed during Hagit’s three-year study revolved around visioning and healing energies. By using one’s imagination, and focusing closely on a subject, shamans can envision the areas of living things that need healing. On her travels around the Bay Area, Hagit encountered many sick bodies of water, and Acid Rain is a documentation of her work to heal them. In these rituals, Hagit bound together freshly cut flowers and floated them in the creeks as offerings for healing. The photo series aims to capture the beauty of the water as well as the decay and pollution that threatens it.

Conducting a ritual in Tilden Park

In this respect, studying with a shaman was a very empowering experience. Hagit’s intensive course gave her an increased awareness that there is much to be learned about that which lies beneath the surface. She gained a luminous awareness of all living things, tied to the idea that everything holds agency and that both the artist and the shaman should “treat [their subject] like they have something to tell you”. Hagit draws further parallels between the work of a “21st century shaman” and that of an artist, particularly a photographer. Both work with known and unknown elements and must not presuppose what the subject has to tell them. One can only control so much; for the photographer, equipment can be set up just so, and the framing and exposure controlled, but the outcome of the photograph is ultimately unknown. For the shaman, land can be cultivated and seeds planted at the optimal conditions of life to thrive, but of more importance is the willingness to trust in the earth to provide, and an intention to give back. In both professions, then, curiosity and imagination play an integral role.

Thank you to Hagit Cohen, CARE’s Fall 2018 Exhibition artist, for taking the time to share some insights into the study of shamanism and the impact this transformative practice has had on her work.

Gestures to the Divine: works by Hagit Cohen is on view through December 13, 2018.

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