What do horses, rocks, and flies have in common? They’re part of the The New Animist exhibition at the ASU Art Museum and, according to the exhibition’s concept of animism, all three—whether mammal, insect, or mineral object—have inherent value no more and no less than any other being or inanimate object in the physical world. Curated by Kev Nemelka and Angelica Fox, The New Animist is intellectual and playful, allowing both adults and children to be part of the space through activities such as connect the dots and word scramble, a kid’s corner with a DRAWNIMAL app, and with a comprehensive curatorial statement, along with key terms, that provides a contextual basis for the artworks in the exhibition.
The exhibition’s title, The New Animist, refers to the contemporary approach to defining and applying animism in our present time. Traditional animism is a belief system that bestows non-human entities in nature with a living spirit of equal importance as those of human beings. Contemporary animism, although in keeping with the belief in equality, is less concerned with spirituality; instead, it reframes the concept into an ethical principle that elevates non-human entities to “personhood” with the same rights as human beings. Helme Prinzen’s Mandala the Sun appropriately conveys traditional animism through the mandala form, created with delicate strips of painted tissue paper on canvas, which in Hindu and Buddhist religions is a symbol of unity—uniting the earthly and celestial realms. By including this artwork, the exhibition acknowledges the beliefs of traditional animism from which contemporary animism sprang, but it doesn’t impose a particular symbolism or religious meaning onto the artworks featured in the exhibition.
The objects are free to exist on their own, as in the case of Eddie Dominguez’s La Sangre de la Tierro, without being turned into utilitarian or religious objects for human consumption. Although Dominguez’s artwork is created out of ceramic ware, within the context of the exhibition, the captivating, fiery red objects in the middle of the gallery stand for the multitude of objects found in nature: for instance, their round, bumpy form allude to rock formations, and, just like the ubiquitous rocks covering earth’s surface, these shiny, red objects have inherent value within themselves.
The New Animist makes it clear that animist thought is not primarily concerned with animal rights. However, because animism applies to all beings, including animals, the exhibition features artworks with anthropomorphic subject matter, such as the Sirl Devi Khandavilli’s bronze sculptures of poodles and Karel Appel’s lithograph Untitled (animal and figure). The five Khandavili sculptures in the exhibition flip the animal-human dynamic in their facetious representations of humans worshipping animal deities. One sculpture is of a poodle with a voluptuous female body clad in the attire of Hindu goddesses, while another shows a majestic looking, four-legged poodle (wearing heels) being wheeled by two human servants. Khandavili amplifies humans’ pet culture in which poodles are groomed to perfection as elite tokens of wealth and refinement; moreover, the sculptures are a reminder of humans’ egotistic tendency to morph the supernatural into their own image.
The overall theme of the exhibition is best envisioned in Appel’s Untitled (animal and figure). The lithograph (there are four more animal prints by Appel in the exhibition) is appealing to younger audiences, with its saturated colors and cartoon-like forms; it also epitomizes the animist concept through its depiction of animal being and human being almost merged together but separate, existing on equal footing. Both forms are drawn in the same simplified style of contrasting red and green colors, but their bodily features distinguish each from the other. Appel’s print communicates our shared similarities and appreciated differences with non-human entities, as seen in the exhibition’s variety of artworks, from video to interactive app to ceramics, that make for a truly delightful experience.