Stanford Art Spaces
From September 25, 1997 to November 13, 1997, Stanford Art Spaces features an exhibit by Barbara Galuszka-Parsons entitled The Altar Series. This exhibit of high resolution digital photography is located in the Allen Center for Integrated Systems (CIS), Gates Computer Science, Terman Engineering Center, and Humanities and Sciences buildings.
A review of this exhibit appeared in the Stanford Daily.


© 1997 Barbara Galuszka-Parsons
"Kuan Yin" is one of 44 high resolution digital photographs in this exhibit.

Artist's Statement

The words "once upon a time" resonate for us all, as they signify the beginning of a narrative process of discovery. Each of us carries with us the stories we heard beginning with those words throughout our lives and understands that the tales are retold in many forms. We remember the wonder and excitement of our first hearing, as well as the last telling. We understand that to accept the role of storyteller is to assume an authority tied to the power of narration itself; yet to disappear in the act of revelation, the narrator must be "... transparent enough that the world can pass through him."

Today the visual image has been in the ascendant, only just beginning its decline, and many of our stories and their references are made visual in still images or in moving pictures. The time of well-wrought poetry sung out by those with careful memory is in eclipse, as the power of those phrases has diminished and the memory of them has faded. Rather, we are greeted each day by an avalanche of beautifully produced images to which we may or may not assign any recognition of meaning, and from which we might derive a number of markers and directions which may or may not be significant to us. Content and context have been devalued by the notion of impact and style.

In this cultural climate and especially in view of the political events of the last dozen years, I became interested in the role of images with dual meanings, borne of separate traditions. As I traveled, particularly in Latin America, Asia and Central Europe, I could not fail to appreciate the tremendous variety of shadings and forms given to recognizable symbols and signs. Traditions such as the Day of the Dead allowed considerable latitude for personal expression in the narration of a familial story tied to ancestral worship. Shrines and altars charted the celebrations of various events within a variety of belief systems, and the patterns and repeated icons of worship and celebration were often accented by a quizzical or eccentric personal element.

Extensive research and documentation led to my creations of assemblages for altars in a photographic studio equipped with high-resolution digital capture. Each altar was carefully researched, and objects accurately placed, often with specific reference to the anthropological as well as to the personal. The sets for the altars were disbanded after being photographed; the altars exist only in the photographic record.

Some fifty images constitute The Altar Series, a visual examination of spiritual syncretism. The Altar Series repeats many elements and deities, whose source and ritual event derive from Afro-Cuban, Celtic, Slavic, Buddhist, and Judaeo-Christian traditions. The Altar Series celebrates the human need to define both secular and sacred and to establish a specific locus for each. Technology thus gives new dimension to storytelling and the narrative tradition and allows for the reintegration of content and context previously lost to memory.

High-resolution digital capture now can be paired with filmless digital output as Cibachromes, which are known for their intense color saturation and archival stability. The Altar Series manifests this hyper-real detail together with seamless computer manipulation for image integrity. The Altar Series includes such "mutable" elements as smoke and incense effects, as well as light artifacts; these are an essential characteristic of digital capture, integral to the art-making and to the altar-making process.

Exhibit

AMATERASU

The Japanese Shinto story of Amaterasu, who is represented by the emblem of the rising sun, bears some similarity to that of Demeter. In this story, however, the great sun-goddess Amaterasu quarrels with her brother the storm god, who first kills the food goddess Uke-Mochi and then flings a horse carcass through the goddess' weaving room, which causes chaos and death.

Amaterasu then brings winter to the world by shutting herself in a cave and allowing darkness to fall over all the world. A dance of profanity by the goddess of merriment causes such a riot of laughter that Amaterasu's curiosity is roused. As Amaterasu peeks outside the cave, she catches a first glimpse of the beauty of her own light as reflected in a mirror installed at the entrance of the cave. Thus light is restored to the world.


BABA YAGA

This is the old woman of autumn of Slavic tradition, who stirs all fate with her mortar and pestle as she rows through the air. Cats are her familiars, and the skulls of unfortunate souls lost in her woods adorn her fence. Baba Yaga lives in the last sheaf of harvested grain, to be reborn in the spring's new growth.


BAN NAOMHA

Ban Naomha, a magical trout, swam in the sacred well of the sun, Kil-na-Greina in County Cork. This magical trout was invisible to all but to the second-sighted. By taking three drinks from the well, crawling around the well three times, and placing an egg-sized stone on the altar with each pass, an individual could force the fish to show herself and to answer any question.


BLACK MADONNA

In Italy, Poland, Spain, Portugal, and several countries in Latin America, the Black Madonna has a particular resonance for Christian worshippers. In Katowice, Poland, the shrine of the Black Madonna is an annual site of pilgrimage as is the Shrine of The Black Virgin of Rocamadour, France. Both might be considered Western variations of the great Black Goddess Kali.


BRIDE

Bride is the Scottish name for the Celtic earth goddess triad fundamental to that culture. Fire is the symbol of Bride, and a fire was tended constantly by women for the goddess on all nights but one each month. Origins of ironwork reside in Bride's legends, and all poetry and story-telling are in her cauldron. Bride was also a great teacher and healer, who brought whistling, keening, and singing into being. No man could pass through her hedges.


BUDDHIST MADONNA

The feminine bodhisattva of Chinese Buddhism chose to retain human form rather than to transcend as pure energy. Kuan Yin is she "who hears the weeping of the world," and is the embodiment of compassion on earth. The offerings are traditional, from the golden beads at her feet to the flowers and fruits which surround her image. The light is meant to suggest the origin of Kuan Yin, who emerged from the light of the Buddha's eye. The overturned water glass with candle is a plea for protection against the slander of others, and other offerings ask for a purity of understanding when dealing with others.


CASH OFFERING

Traditional forms for saints to be dressed according to the liturgical calendar are pinned with offerings of dollar bills as well as fruits and peppers.


CASSANDRA

According to Greek legend, Cassandra was a priestess of the sun who traded a sexual alliance with Apollo for the power of prophecy. Thus gifted, Cassandra spurned Apollo and was cursed. Everything Cassandra prophesied became true but was disclaimed by her people the Trojans as false. Cassandra was viewed as insane and abused. In Euripides' Trojan Women, Cassandra discusses her fate as royal concubine with Hecuba at the fall of Troy. After Cassandra's capture and murder, she was worshipped as the goddess Alexandra.


CECILE

The European patroness of music, who transformed her bridal chamber with music, fragrance, lilies and roses in order to convert a new husband. Praised by such poets as Dryden and Pope, Cecile is often synchretized with fertility goddesses and is associated with all forms of music.


CHANGO

One of the mast popular of all Afro-Cuban deities, Chango is the powerful warrior, brilliant strategist, charismatic leader, and charming rake identified with fire, thunder, lightning, and sudden explosives of all kinds. Chango is synchretized principally with Saint Barbara, yet his many paths have numerous associations. Represented here are also figures from Japanese and Chinese legend, as well as the attributes of the ram, black cat, white horse, and the traditional offerings of amala, fruit, and dry red wine.


CHERRY 'N CROSS: ALTAR

The image of a cross laden with cherries against the black velvet background suggests a sacrifice of flesh and blood. The cross itself is made in the same manner as dresses worn by young teenagers celebrating their fifteenth birthdays in Hispanic tradition, just as Anglos might celebrate a "sweet sixteen".


DAY OF THE DEAD

Altars for the ritual worship of ancestors are assembled at the same time as All Soul's Day in the Christian calendar, and Day of the Dead altars are a combination of pagan and Christian ritual. Families may assemble at a candlelit gravesite and bring an empty chair for the dead who will walk in the night. Favorite foods and cherished items along with traditional orange marigolds, white chrysanthemums, and orchids adorn the altars.


DEMETER

One aspect of the trinity of great earth goddesses of Greece, and the autumnal portion of a seasonal metaphor. Demeter's daughter, the springtime Persephone, is lost to her, and the love of mother for lost daughter becomes consuming grief. This story is common to the Mediterranean perception that the earth loves and consumes its own green growth.

According to the legend, a reunion between Demeter and Persephone occurs after Demeter is startled into laughter by profane gesture, and the earth moves again into a new season of growth. Ancient Greeks celebrated the aspects of Demeter at stark altars of stone with offerings of fruit and cereal grains, as the literal translation of the name would suggest.


DZIWOZONY

Here are the acorn-filled poppets of Celtic tradition, which appear also throughout northern Europe. In fact, "dziwozony" is the Polish name for wild women of the woods, with large, square heads and red bodies, They lived in burrows in forested areas and sought to divine the secrets of nature, especially those of herbal medicine. This altar is also a seasonal metaphor for change and transformation.


ELEGGUA

Eleggua is the trickster figure of the Santeria and in his various aspects or paths, known as avatars, is synchretized with no fewer than twenty-one Christian saints, including Saint Anthony of Padua, the Holy Infant of Atocha and the Anima Sola. In Santeria Eleggua is envisioned as a slim and agile mulatto whose colors are red and black. As Eleggua is a figure of fate and a messenger, offerings of toys, keys, whistles, balls and globes are appropriate.

Eleggua is represented here as the prankster and arbiter of truth and lies in the form of the principal comic puppet actor of Indonesia, who is also concerned with ferreting justice from a tangle of tricks. Reference is made to both Martin of Porres and to Anthony of Padua, as well as to the charismatic turtle and conch shells which may serve to represent this orisha.


EOS

Eos is the Greek goddess of the dawn, who is associated with the trilogy of sun goddesses also of afternoon and of sunset. Eos drove her chariot across the sky dragging light to the day. Her lovers included the brutal Oggun-like Orion as well as Tithonus, whom she turned into a cricket.


ETAIN

Etain was a Celtic sun goddess and divine mare who lived at the entrance to the underworld in a place open to the sun. In one legend, Etain is bewitched by a fairy-queen and turned into a purple fly, and after seven years fell into a cup drunk by a woman and was reborn in human form, only to return to her divine shape through the intercession of another fairy, her lover, and was borne off to the underworld with him.


HARVEST

Another acorn-filled poppet of Celtic tradition, which appear also throughout northern Europe, but is linked here to the cycles of transformation represented by a Hindi way of life.


HINA

Hina is the greatest of all Polynesian goddesses, at once the warrior queen, death mother, and tapa-beating woman of the moon. Most of the legends of the South Seas involve Hina, and one of the most famous involves Hina's affair with an eel, which was dispatched by fellow mortals. Hina buried the head of the divine serpent, and the first coconut grew in that place.

Hina was made of clay with two faces on opposite sides of her head. The Hina effigy in this altar is meant to reflect the crone Hina who renews herself by surfing in the great waves of the Pacific, and is based loosely on an original in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.


KUAN YIN

The feminine bodhisattva of Chinese Buddhism chose to retain human form rather than to transcend as pure energy. Kuan Yin is she "who hears the weeping of the world," and is the embodiment of compassion on earth. The offerings are traditional, from the golden beads at her feet to the flowers and fruits which surround her image. The light is meant to suggest the origin of Kuan Yin, who emerged from the light of the Buddha's eye. The overturned water glass with candle is a plea for protection against the slander of others, and other offerings ask for a purity of understanding when dealing with others.


LUCY

Synchretized with St. Lucy, Obatala is the king of the Santeria orishas and represents rational and linear judgment, whose energy is derived from calm and pacific introspection as opposed to unruly emotion. The white orisa of clarity and reason is the judge who makes the right decisions without the use of magic, seductive spells, or sleight of hand. It is consistent that bland foods are correct offerings for Obatala, with no alcohol, heavy spice, blood or palm oil, and that belonging to Obatala are all white substances, including bones and brains, silver and platinum.

Although Obatala is most frequently identified with Our Lady of Mercy, these altars contain specific reference to Lucy, associated with the sense of sight and also with festivals of light. The central figure is a laughing Buddha; laughter derived of knowledge replaces anger just as tolerance replaces impetuosity.


MORGAINE

Here is the Morgan of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, where she appears as the king's dreaded foe, and of Sir Gawain, where she is bent on the destruction of the Round Table. Once the queen of the underworld and of death, Morgaine is a powerful daemon, the force of destruction and transformation.

In some tales, Morgaine is Arthur's sister, but in other stories she is an immortal, living in Avalon as an artist and healer with her eight sisters. There can be no doubt of her affinity to the Irish Morrigan, the crow-headed goddess who sang runes and cast charms to strengthen her favorites before battle, washed the armor of the doomed, and observed the battlefield in flight as a crow or as a snake at closer range.


OBATALA

Obatala is the king of the Santeria orishas and represents rational and linear judgment, whose energy is derived from calm and pacific introspection as opposed to unruly emotion. The white orisa of clarity and reason is the judge who makes the right decisions without the use of magic, seductive spells, or sleight of hand. It is consistent that bland foods are correct offerings for Obatala, with no alcohol, heavy spice, blood or palm oil, and that belonging to Obatala are all white substances, including bones and brains, silver and platinum.

Although Obatala is most frequently identified with Our Lady of Mercy, these altars contain specific reference to Lucy, associated with the sense of sight and also with festivals of light. The central figure is a laughing Buddha; laughter derived of knowledge replaces anger just as tolerance replaces impetuosity.


OGGUN

Oggun represents the wild and desolate force cast out of society and living in the natural world. Oggun is synchretized with St. Peter and with John the Baptist, and is associated often with hermits or shepherds. Like the Greek king, Oggun is essentially a noble innocent whose transgression against his mother resulted in exile. A fierce temper reduces Oggun to living always with his lower nature, through which brutality corrupts the hardworking orisa.

In isolation Oggun creates and works, and is considered the patron of medicine, of metalwork, and of agriculture. His seven iron implements are a part of each altar, along with traditional offerings.


ORUNLA

Orunla is usually associated with St. Francis of Assisi, and is the symbol of wisdom. Orunla divines the mystical oracle, foresees the future and the solutions to al1 problems, and knows the incognita of destiny.


OSHUN

Oshun is the orisha deity who presides over carnal love and fertility and is associated with pure and languid river waters. A seductress of great ability, Oshun presides over beauty and physical attraction, over dance and laughter.


OYA

Oya as a cosmic force is identified with wind, fire, and the thunderbolt as it zigzags across the sky. Oya is similar to Kali in that she represents the violence of nature and its destructive force. This wife of Chango is synchretized with Therese, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and especially with La Candelaria.

Oya's crown of copper with nine points and tool ornaments is central in this altar, and the traditional offerings of rice and black beans, eggplants, and chocolate pudding are present. The nine pinwheels are her attributes as ruler of the wind, and there are references to Oya as guardian of the cemetery and of the dead.


PO INO NOGAR

This is the Cambodian ruler of worlds and inventor of rice who was born amid the clouds. Her healing-goddess daughter Pajau Tan, was sent to live in the moon, where she provides flowers to the newly dead to ease their transition as they move into the underworld.


RELATIVE GREED

Nearly an inverse of the respectful and celebratory Day of the Dead suite of altars, this is a strong statement of the corruption of ancestor worship in contemporary society. The background needlework of stitched samplers asserts an hieroglyphy of lost symbol.


SULIS

This is the ancient goddess of healing waters at Bath, England. Generally revered as a sun goddess, "Sulis" is a conflation of "eye" and "sun." The deity's perpetual fires were kept ablaze near hot springs. At Bath the Roman statuary depicts Sulis as a matronly woman dressed in heavy garments and cast in shadow. Elsewhere, Sulis is depicted as Minerva Medica, the healer.


SWEETS 'N BLADES

An altar to self-induced pain and sacrifice, this altar calls to mind the conflict between flesh and will in contemporary terms but references the traditional debate as well as street imagery.


VESHTITZE

In Slavic tradition, Veshtitze was an old woman who left her human form at night and became a chicken. Veshtitze flew about until dawn and fed on the hearts of children. Veshtitze was often evoked as an effective deterrent for unruly youngsters. Certainly it is a curious legend for a less squeamish culture.


YEMAYA

Yemaya is the supernal mother and giver of all life; she rules over the ocean waters and is at once peaceful and turbulent. Synchretized with the Cuban Our Lady of Regla, Yemaya is associated with several iterations of the Christian Virgin Queen. The Cuban history is an appropriate paradigm, in that Our Lady of Regla was one of the first specific images to be brought to the New World, where she presides over the Bay of Havana; this experience was repeated from the Caribbean to Guam.


All works are for sale direct from the artist signed and dated and are available framed and unframed, and in large and small format. For price and other information, contact Marilyn Grossman, Curator at (650) 725-3622


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