'For I Am the Black Jaguar'

Now at the Carlos Museum

By Rebecca R. Stone

Black Jaguar

Central American tripod vessel with modeled jaguar features, ca. 1000–1350 AD.

From earliest times to today, indigenous peoples of the Americas have valued shamanic visionary trance as one of their most important cultural and religious experiences. In Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Andes, shamans still speak of their wondrous trance journeys to other cosmic realms, the truths they learn, and the information they bring back to cure their communities’ ills.

For many years, I have studied the ways in which these remarkable visionary experiences are embodied in the sacred art from the Americas. The research has resulted in my most recent book, The Jaguar Within: Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American Art, and a parallel exhibition titled, ‘For I am the Black Jaguar’: Shamanic Visionary Experience in Ancient American Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. The exhibition explores the intersection of art and religion in indigenous Amerindian cultures and showcases more than 100 of the Carlos Museum’s works of art from ancient Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Peru, in addition to loans from local collections.

Many Emory undergraduate and graduate students have been intimately involved in the planning, label writing, and installation of ‘For I am the Black Jaguar’ from its conception in 2010. The premise of the show is that the indigenous Amerindian cultures were—and remain to a strong degree—shamanic: their spiritual leaders went into trance to communicate directly with higher beings, and this experience has been embodied in sacred art.

'For I am the Black Jaguar'

Shamanic Visionary Experience in Ancient American Art

Michael C. Carlos Museum

Sept. 8, 2012–Jan. 5, 2013

For example, images of entranced shamans often exaggerate the eyes, either making them oversized, bulging, and showing the whites, or squeezed tightly shut. I call these “trance eyes” because many modern practicing shamans I have interviewed or read about say their eyes feel like that when they are in trance. Others explain that they see the “Other Side” more clearly with their physical eyes closed. Throughout the exhibition, the accounts of contemporary traditional shamans are juxtaposed with ancient works of art, on the assumption that visionary experience shows strong similarities from culture to culture, shaman to shaman, and century to century. 

I discovered the repetitive nature of trance consciousness by studying numerous ethnographic reports from all over the Americas and other parts of the world, and was amazed at how consistent the experiences seemed to be. Both modern shamans and those mentioned in 16th-century Spanish chronicles describe a series of common basic perceptual occurrences: geometric patterns, bright lights, snakes and other ferocious but wise beasts, telepathic communication with spirits, a feeling of flying, and having profound realizations (such as life does not end with corporeal death). In the Americas, in particular, shamans say they routinely become powerful wild animals such as jaguars, crocodiles, and owls. 

The art in the first gallery of the exhibition features many examples of part-human, part-animal beings, from felines to deer and even whale sharks. Shamans identify completely with these “animal selves”—hence the reference to a Brazilian shaman’s claim, “call upon me for I am the black jaguar.” The second gallery features objects conveying other common visionary experiences, such as shamans flying, turning upside down, simultaneously dead and alive, and disembodied into heads or eyes. The final gallery illustrates the many ways to achieve visions also celebrated in ancient American art, from meditation, dancing, and playing music to ingesting sacred plants. The exhibition features new insights into these “plant teachers,” as modern shamans call them, from Lophophora williamsi and Anadenanthera colubrina to Guarea. ‘For I Am the Black Jaguar’ introduces these challenging and striking works for Emory and the community to enjoy.

Rebecca R. Stone is Masse-Martin Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, professor of art history, and faculty curator of Arts of the Ancient Americas at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

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