The speechless candlelight made the images more powerful. The way the sage billowed, the music groaned, the little light flickered—it made the images seem less like a mural and more like the hallucinogenic remnants of a dream, bloody and hand-smeared on the walls of a very dark cave, or on the inside of your skull—which may be the same thing. Dancing on the under side of your eyelids, before swollen and searching pupils, this was the stuff of mushrooms and all-nighters, of contemporary graffiti and ancient cities, of Latin American travels and my Friday night in Oakland.
The showing of Obi Kaufmann‘s mural The Feathered Serpent at The Oakbook was less like an art show than a ceremonious seance. Painted in the fever and fury of a single day and night (and mushroom trip), the mural was inspired by the artist’s recent travels through Latin America. The distinctive flavor of Santiago’s street art scene and the whispering ruins of Oaxaca’s ancient city Monte Alban swirled around in the artist’s subconscious until a dream pushed images out, from one side of the brain to the other, through his fingers and onto the wall of the gallery.
I am not an art critic, journalist, collector or student, so I won’t try to review or surmise. Instead, I’ll let the artist speak for himself. Here’s his photo essay of Santiago street art on Artopic, and his written essay about the genesis and symbolism of the piece on The Oakbook’s website.
After checking out the essays, I got pretty stoked to see the mural. The work being travel-inspired got my antennas twitching. I’d been to both Santiago and Monte Alban, I love crumbly old ruins, and I really love street art (as you’ve seen before)—often for the aesthetics but more because, as a traveler, I find it reveals so much about the beating heart of a place. I was curious to see how it all connected.
Indeed, what I found most compelling about the work (aside from the spooky images and skeletal figures) was the way it blended seemingly disparate influences. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarity between the streets of Santiago and the ruins of the Zapotec city Monte Alban: vibrant color versus crumbled stone; modern versus ancient; temporality versus remains—a continent, culture and two millennia apart, what commonality did these two places hold? For the artist, it was some kind of communalism, each place informing part of a narrative that was at once universal and personal, regionally distinct and part of a bigger story. Obi saw the world, human history, in the cavernous, torch-lit intersection of two places that don’t seem to intersect. And if that’s not some damn good traveling, than I don’t know what is.
Travel often brings up puzzling paradoxes (thus the tired line, “land of contrasts”). How does one hold, in the same hand, the transience of graffiti and the permanence of hard stone foundations? Or, to extend the metaphor, how does a traveler simultaneously love the spontaneity of the open road and the rootedness of home? I think the answer, if there is one, must lie somewhere down beneath all that, in the narrative thread that ties this big world together—in the collective unconscious, if you wanna get real heady. Or at least, you know, in the images and scrawlings and paint smears that have now been painted over—a wall blazing white and sealed-lipped about the stories it holds.