Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos (b. 1982) is a Brazilian art witch. She doesn’t immediately introduce herself as such, but over the course of our correspondence she embraces the title. It’s a fitting moniker given the Gothic themes and mythical creatures that populate her canvases, like the sphinx of ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology (figure 1). In the artist’s re-imagining of the winged lion-woman, the creature’s yellow talons grip a human skull– a Gothic reminder of human mortality, and a nod to the femme monsters of Victorian literature.
Her interdisciplinary approach to art and magic(k) provides further proof that Vasconcelos is, indeed, an art witch. Art-making is so crucial to Vasconcelos’s magic(k) practice that it is impossible to discuss one without the other. An examination of the artist’s spirituality is thus a necessary prerequisite for an analysis of her work.
This essay has its roots in my conversations with Vasconcelos, who shared with me the details of her spiritual and artistic process. I have supplemented this dialogue with several historical and psychoanalytic texts to help elucidate the symbolic power of her work. I have also employed my own observations to draw greater conclusions about the artist’s practice. I begin with a summary of the artist’s spiritual roots before diving into several aspects of her magic(k) practice. I explore her desire to rebalance the cosmos through images drawn from the collective unconscious, as well as the self-actualization that accompanies individuation. Gender identity emerges as a central theme in this analysis, through work that seeks to balance the cosmic plane with fluid feminine and masculine energies. From there I turn to style, examining how the artist draws on Nouveau style and iconography to communicate powerful messages about gender equity and freedom.
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THE MAKING OF AN ART WITCH
Arguably, an art witch is born, not made. But in this case, we cannot neglect the impact of the artist’s childhood on her artistic production. As a child growing up in the small town of Goiânia, Vasconcelos heard stories that reflected the diversity of her native Brazil. Her paternal grandmother, a storyteller, regaled indigenous folktales about Brazilian plants and creatures, like the guarana and the jaguar. The global fantasy market permeated Vasconcelos’s world too, through Hans Christen Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, whose dark fairytales she avidly read, and the whimsical adaptation of these stories by Walt Disney.
As a teenager, her interest in magic(k) grew. A trip to an esoteric bookstore in the seventh grade led to a brief stint practicing Wicca. As “that weirdo girl” in school, Vasconcelos found solace in the feminist cult film, The Craft, directed by Andrew Fleming. The film appealed to young women like her, who were eager to take control of their own narratives. A product of third-wave feminism, The Craft rewards its female characters for their individuality with magical powers. The collective strength of the four protagonists also highlights the strength of female friendship– another feminist theme that foreshadows the artist’s feminist magic(k) practice.
Vasconcelos looks back on her magic(k)al influences fondly. She particularly admires The Craft‘s strong moral center, which has become clearer to her in recent years. “There’s a lesson to be learned,” she reflects. “One’s actions always have consequences. The way you use your power will always turn back at you somehow.” As I remember it, the outcast protagonists sample the sweetness of revenge, but are more profoundly affected by the taste of forgiveness. Part of the film’s legacy is the importance of balance– a concept that filters through the artist’s spiritual and artistic work.
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Vasconcelos laments that imbalanced cosmic and physical planes are poisoning western society. She attributes this imbalance to the marginalization of certain cosmic entities– an assertion that gives mankind a surprising degree of cosmic agency. This charge implies that deities exert less power when they are repressed by a human collective.
The artist is particularly concerned about the imbalance of feminine energies in Western spirituality. She deplores the loss of Lilith and Babalon, goddess she describes as “unbridled, raw, and suppressed feminine forces,” whose energies once occupied the spiritual plane. Lilith, the first wife of Adam, rejected a life of submission, performing what might be the first feminist act of resistance in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Babalon connotes a number of feminine entities, from the Great Mother Goddess to the Scarlet Woman referenced in Revelations, who drinks the blood of the saints and the martyrs. Her energy is multivalent but no less powerful.
Both goddesses were overshadowed by the Virgin Mary, whose nurturing femininity was never meant to be the sole model for female behavior. Vasconcelos identifies the loss of the rebellious woman and the sexual woman in Western culture as the source of society’s fractured collective psyche. The singularity of the archetypal Virgin has engendered an unbearable paradox; woman is only good insofar as she is chaste, but for the sake of humanity we must procreate, and the touched woman is a Whore. This moral quandry traps women in its claws and indoctrinates men with impossible expectations of female behavior. Vasconcelos says that Lilith and Babalon, whose popularity has risen during the most recent occult revival, can restore balance on the cosmic and physical planes.
This idea changes the way I encounter the artist’s work. I start to see each creature in the context of the spiritual plane; how might this next energy affect our spiritual health? In Dijnn I discover another feminine energy, to balance the qualities of the Virgin Mary, Lilith, and Babalon.
According to the Qur’an, the Dijnn are a race of shape-shifters created from smokeless fire, who live in familial clans governed by a Dijnn king. They also appear in a number of pre-Islamic, Arabian belief systems, illustrating their omnipresence in Arabic culture. Vasconcelos is attracted to figures who remain in the cultural consciousness through dynastic and religious shifts. Her magic(k) practice seeks universal truths from disparate occult disciplines, like tarot, kabbalah, and symbology. She has found inspiration in the Sufi order of Hazrat Inayat-Khan, which teaches followers to embrace shared ideas between faiths. The constancy of the Dijnn points to their universality, smoothing the cognitive leap required to view them in conjunction with Judeo-Christian deities. Thus, it is not so difficult to consider the Dijnn existing on the same celestial plane as her sisters Mary, Lilith, and Babalon.
Vasconcelos describes the female Dijnn of Islamic lore as a seductive spirit in search of a lover. I notice that this half-nude phantom is treated differently than her sisters. She is neither chaste nor sinful, lacking the Virgin Mary’s chastity and escaping the judgement cast upon the supposed prostitute, Mary Magdalene. Her sexual quest is depicted as a noble endeavor; she strides forward in profile, echoing the silhouetted faces of Roman emperors stamped on coins. A set of chains undulates from her narrow shoulder to the cuff clasped to her wrist, in the same golden hue as the regal headpiece that ornaments her crown. As she floats through the air, an invisible force summons the earth to her body, forming a black cloud of dirt and smoke.
Meanwhile, Lilith and Babalon emit a rebellious, reactionary kind of sexuality, as a result of the biblical narratives that demonized their bodies. The female Dijnn have not faced such persecution, so their sexuality is not tied to a narrative of subjugation. Furthermore, the Dijnn aren’t sex deities. In fact, they don’t follow any archetype. They are another race of beings, composed of individuals with free will. Western cosmology needs the autonomous energy of the female Dijnn to balance its rigid icons of chastity, penance, and rebellion. I believe Vasconcelos’s Dijnn embodies a kind of freedom that will suture our fractured psyche.
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Vasconcelos asserts that the unconscious mind is the source of the energies, images, and messages that can heal our cosmos. Accessing this realm is a pivotal aspect of the artist’s spirituality, and one that requires her artistic skills. She commences her meditations by repressing her conscious mind, a spiritual experience that opens the door to her unconscious. Once there, she utilizes art-making as a tool to alchemically translate images and messages onto paper. Vasconcelos considers this process a ritualistic act of creation. Because of this, she makes no distinction between her art-making and her spirituality, labeling them a single practice.
The artist’s interest in the unconscious brings to mind the psychoanalytic components of surrealist ideology, which Vasconcelos says are compatible with– but not identical to– her practice. This is particularly true in regards to the theory of the collective unconscious, which posits the existence of universally-recognized symbols and motifs. Developed by Carl Jung, the theory can be used to explain how similar myths developed independently of one another, across oceans and time. Vasconcelos believes in the existence of such a universal mind, and identifies this realm as the source of all magic(k), where the human spirit makes contact with gods and spirits. She says that all artists access this realm, even if they cannot recognize or accept it, purely because magic(k) contains the essence of all art. “To create is to take a journey into the underworld,” Vasconcelos explains, “and after coming back, one will have a piece of art that speaks to the human spirit…by depicting experiences through shared symbols.”
This explanation of the artist’s inward journey is a useful introduction to a complex theory, but it’s important to bear in mind that she rejects over-systematizing her process. The more I try to clarify the essence of the unconscious, the more pieces of the truth I lose. I have written that the conscious mind must be repressed for the unconscious to appear, but Vasconcelos later informs me that the two are not wholly dichotomous. The two co-exist, in fluctuating proportions, and one can even masquerade as the other.
I ask Vasconcelos if she feels anything at all when she begins each journey. After all, can one remember an encounter with the unconscious mind? She tells me it is a matter of noticing the sensations. When she attempts a conscious artistic experiment, she feels “something ancient and primal” take hold of her body. “In the end,” she says, “there’s a stronger force that takes me to this place, this ancient root, expressed in black, red, and white lines.”
The origin of these colors in the artist’s unconscious explains the repetition of this palette throughout her work. Red recalls the menstrual blood of life and the spurting blood of death. Black is a more slippery beast, sometimes signifying secrets, darkness, and evil, but also illustrating piety—as in the case of priestly garb. As its foil, white stands for light and all that is good, as well as innocence and clarity.
These colors are significant in A Noite e uma Vaca Preta, which takes its name from a Brazilian dark electronic song. Black cows and bulls are considered a bad omen in Brazilian folklore, and Vasconcelos informs me that this bovine creature represents death. “She’s a primal goddess who emerges from the bloody waters of creation,” the artist explains.
The goddess’s sexual characteristics exacerbate her monstrousness; her four breasts are pierced with metal rings, and she sits in a pool of menstrual blood that flows from her shoulders. Adding to her atrocity is her deformed face, reduced to a mangled mass of matter adorned with a single eye. At first glance, she appears frighteningly monstrous, but a closer examination reveals a number of symbols that cross-culturally signify power and protection. These motifs point to the artist’s reverence for the goddess.
She lends the creature a single eye—one of the most important symbols in the collective unconscious, as identified by Jung. The eye connotes divinity, appearing as the Eye of Providence in Christian iconography, the Third Eye in Hinduism, and the Evil Eye in a multitude of cultures. Its presence atop the Goddess of Death suggests a reverence for death. The golden full moon shimmering between the goddess’s horns refers to the circuity of life, of which death is a part. A Noite e uma Vaca Preta may signify death, but it also foreshadows inevitable rebirth.
But there is more. When examining a work by Vasconcelos, it’s not enough to decipher its meaning. There is also the question of purpose; why is this image appearing now? How does its message contribute to the artist’s spiritual practice? In my analysis of Dijnn, I explored society’s psychic need for a particular spirit, and I believe A Noite e uma Vaca Preta functions similarly to balance the cosmological plane. Its cyclical and reproductive themes offset Western attitudes towards death, which often tilt towards fear.
That death is gendered female here is important because the female body has long been associated with dissolution and death. According to cultural critic Barbara Creed, illustrations from the classical period to the Renaissance feature uteruses with horns, indicating a conflation of female reproduction and Satanism. Antiquities scholar Margaret Miles notes that hell is depicted as a womb in early Christian art. And more recently, the fear of female reproduction has manifested itself in legends of monstrous births, which Creed regales, and the very real, forced clitoridectomies outlined by literature scholar Marie Mulvey-Roberts. By balancing societal attitudes towards death with reverence, Vasconcelos appears to curb the patriarchal need to project its fears onto female bodies. In this way A Noite e uma Vaca Preta lends a different kind of feminine energy to the celestial plane.
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In my conversation with Vasconcelos, the artist references another Jungian theory– individuation– in conjunction with a particular work. Though it is mentioned only briefly, this theory changes how I contextualize the artist’s work within her spiritual practice. Dijnn and A Noite e uma Vaca Preta contribute different feminine energies to the cosmic plane, but Vasconcelos is not interested in rigidly dividing cosmological energies by gender. Her Sacred Union– Chemical Wedding posits a marriage of masculine and feminine traits within the self, an idea that is drawn from Jung’s theory of individuation.
Jung introduced his theory in the book Seven Sermons to the Dead, published in 1916. A process of personality development, individuation progresses through three stages as individuals confront potentially obstructive circumstantial factors. The first stage is characterized by maternal nurture and adolescent rebellion, the second by adapting to patriarchal laws and expectations. Those who establish financial and familial stability may progress to the third stage, in which previously-repressed parts of the psyche are finally addressed. Gender non-conforming qualities, for example, would have hindered individuation in its first two stages, but are safe to address at this developmental phase. In fact, Murray Stein– an expert on Jungian psychoanalysis– emphasizes the need to integrate one’s masculine and feminine qualities at this advanced stage. Those who succeed in this, among other reconciliations of the self, achieve individuation.
Societal changes in the last hundred years have rendered Jung’s model of individuation outdated. It relies on a strict gender binary that grossly dichotomizes human behavior, even if the ‘realm of the father’ is a symbolic term. It’s unlikely that Vasconcelos is a Jungian purist given this issue, as well as the artist’s aversion to strict dogma in other aspects of her life. It is more probable that aspects of individuation appeal to her, and these kernels of truth are worth exploring.
She is specifically drawn to the marriage of masculinity and femininity, which she invokes in the work, Sacred Union—The Chemical Wedding, through the embrace of two angels in a cosmic fire. Vasconcelos fills the page with symbols of power that demonstrate her reverence for this union. Symbols include the sun, the moon, and the eye. An open right hand at the base of the drawing recalls the Wiccan ‘right hand path,’ as well as the protective power of the hand in Judaism and Islam, and the divine connotations of Christ’s bloody palm.
I argue that these cross-cultural symbols underscore the universality of the sacred union. Although gender non-conforming behaviors have been repressed by various psychoanalytic models and religious teachings, they have remained a part of us, and this dissonance has created a bloody, psychic wound. Vasconcelos’s interpretation of individuation– in the form of a fiery celestial union– has the potential to heal this trauma.
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Up until now, this essay has focused on the spiritual content of Vasconcelos’s practice. I have illustrated that universal symbols and individuation have the power to restore cosmic balance, particularly as it pertains to gender identity and trauma. The second half of this essay will focus on the stylistic element of Vasconcelos’s art-making. Style is a tool the artist uses to visualize and communicate unconscious images and messages. She gravitates towards modes of representation that best suit these messages, exploiting the genre tropes to communicate a contemporary, feminist message.
For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the artist’s relationship with Nouveau illustration, though her interest in symbolism, medieval art, and ancient Greek pottery are fruitful areas for future study. Furthermore, I detailed the methodological influence of surrealism in the previous section, but refrained from including a full visual comparison, and this remains a line of inquiry for future research.
Much of the artist’s oeuvre is formally similar to illustrations rendered by Nouveau artists. Like the decadents Harry Clarke, Alastair, and Aubrey Beardsley, Vasconcelos paints a black-and-white world, though hers is punctuated by a bloody red. Furthermore, the artist’s towering Twin Demons (fig. 6) echo the inky bodies of their sinewy Nouveau ancestors.
Vaconcelos’s demons have elongated bodies similar to the central figure in Clarke’s illustration for Tales of Mystery and Imagination (fig. 7), who towers over a crouching peasant. Their hunched backs also recall the curved spines of so many Nouveau figures, like Alastair’s Salomé (fig. 8). The pose is provocative, echoing the contorted bodies of Jazz Age flappers, but it’s also an expression of grief, as Salomé collapses over a dead man’s skull. Lastly, fabric features prominently in all three illustrations. The figures wear floor-length cloaks, a garment that feels heavy with both somber religiosity and melodrama.
Another formal element that appears in the artist’s work is the Nouveau faux-frame. Popular in fin-de-siècle poster design, this framing device situates an image within a series of ornamented borders and text panels. The painting Nemesis clearly employs this trope (fig. 9). The titular figure is flanked by two pillars beneath a title card that bears her name, much like an 1896 advertisement for Victor Bicycles, drawn by William Henry Bradley (fig. 11). Aubrey Beardsley’s J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan (I have kissed your mouth, Jokannan) (fig. 10), from 1893, has a thinner border and an off-center title card, but achieves the same stylistic effect. It was drawn for the French production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, more than twenty years before Alastair illustrated the same tale for the print edition.
Beardlsey’s Jokannan and Alastair’s Salomé are also of note because their biblical plot is echoed in Nemesis. Their shared layout and iconography is no coincidence– a deeper examination of all three works reveals how Vasconcelos utilizes style to comment on the demonization of female sexuality.
The tale of Salomé spans the events of a single evening. The titular maiden, who is also the Princess of Judea, finds her advances rebuked by John the Baptist. She later dances for King Herod in exchange for a favor—John’s head on a silver platter. Both Beardlsey and Alastair’s interpretations of the story feature Salomé clutching her victim’s disembodied head. Nemesis also depicts a powerful woman and a decapitated skull. The former is the Greek goddess of divine retribution, whose bloodthirsty deed represents, in the artist’s words, “an evening of the scales, Salomé-style.” This remark brings to mind Vasconcelos’s study of universal truths between faiths– perhaps Nemesis and Salomé are the same cosmological body.
All three illustrations feature a co-mingling of sex and death that is achieved through the invocation of castration anxiety. Decapitation historically and psychoanalytically connotes castration, an act that both arouses and repulses. The three artists differ in how they use this tool to represent the vengeful woman.
Alastair’s illustration is the greatest departure from the three-dimensional world. His waif-like Salomé is more line than substance, surrounded by silhouetted cyclops on a blank page. This monstrous menagerie converges around the princess’s head, as if it has sprung from her unconscious mind. The creatures’ unblinking eyes, a prevalent symbol in the collective unconscious, effectively elicit fear from the viewer. According to cultural critic and scholar Barbara Creed, “cruel, appraising eyes” are a sign of the castrating woman. By virtue of her proximity to the watchful wraiths, Salomé absorbs their castrating connotations. However, her petite stature and her victim’s fairly bloodless skull minimize the amount of fright she can elicit.
Beardsley’s interpretation is more fearsome because he zooms in on Salomé and uses different psychoanalytic tropes to elicit anxiety in the viewer. He depicts the Princess of Judea as a castrating monster with writhing, snake-like locks—an archaic sign of the monstrous female body. She is further de-humanized by the shapeless sack of a garment that obscures her form, only highlighting the hunched curve of her back. According to the scripted text scrawled beneath her knees, Salomé will kiss John’s cold, dead lips– an act of necrophilia that is universally taboo. And though the Saint may be dead, the sexual exchange does elicit a sexual response; from John’s blood sprouts a tall white lily. Thus, Beardlsey’s illustration neatly depicts the fearful and arousing effects of the castrating female monster.
Nemesis is similarly titillating due to its subject matter– decapitation connotes castration regardless of context, according to psychoanalytic theory. But Vasconcelos does not render her heroine monstrous. There are no shadowy creatures present to do her bidding, and the goddess’s black hair is regally adorned with flaming red feathers rather than snakes. She stands tall, gracefully extending her left arm and cocking its wrist, in the slinking posture of the Decadents. And unlike Alastair and Beardsley’s illustrations of Salomé, Nemesis isn’t hidden beneath a mass of fabric. As a result, her plump breasts and undulating hips register as human and female– and decidedly less monstrous.
Nemesis communicates the power of female sexuality without resorting to tired tropes of female monstrosity. The goddess maintains her human, feminine form, and shows no penchant for necrophilia. She performs the castration with a sword, rather than a phallic or womb-like appendage that would implicate her sexuality in the crime.
She does step on her victim’s skull, which might tempt the viewer to interpret her motivations as sadistic. I find that doubtful given her averted gaze, which weakens her emotional connection to the victim. Furthermore, her slender foot, perched atop the bloody head, is more poised than domineering. The goddess exudes an air of confidence that is keenly felt by the viewer, whose connection to the severed head is virtually nonexistent. A mass of blood and hair, the partial corpse isn’t humanoid enough to elicit sympathy. Nemesis remains the central source of identification and emotional connection.
It’s notable that Nemesis invokes castration anxiety without demonizing its protagonist. In a way, it is a painting about fear that doesn’t hyperbolize that which frightens.
The female body, and a powerful woman, are threatening enough on their own to elicit a feeling of dread. That Nemesis remains human and female while Salomé is reduced to a dehumanized monster speaks to Vasconcelos’s feminist point of view. By utilizing the formal trappings of the Nouveau, and explicitly referencing the tale of Salomé, the artist provokes a dialogue about the demonization of female sexuality in Western culture. She also breeds a welcome addition to the feminine cosmological landscape– a deity who is sensual but not sexually violent, fearsome but morally just.
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In writing this essay, it became clear to me that Vasconcelos is not just a powerful art-witch. She is a sociologist who has diagnosed an imbalance of energies polluting our celestial plane. She is also healer who has prescribed the proper remedy– a concoction of feminine and masculine energies to enrich our stagnant cosmos. And Vasconcelos is also a communicator, endowed with the skills often given to activists, politicians, teachers, and very good friends. She communicates through the universal language of imagery, the only language powerful enough to reach the entire world, and to heal a bloody psychic wound.
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Creed, Barbara, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 1993 (London and New York: Routledge, repr. 2007)
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Miles, Margaret, ‘Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious meaning in the Christian West,’ (1989), cited in Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, 2007
Mulvey Roberts, Marie. Dangerous Bodies: Historicizing the Gothic Corporeal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016)
Stein, Murray, ‘Individuation,’ < http://www.murraystein.com/individuation.shtml > [accessed 2 October 2019]
Vice, ‘What Are Jinn: The Arab Spirits Who Can Eat, Sleep, Have Sex, and Die,’ < https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/9k7ekv/what-are-jinn-arab-spirits > [accessed 2 October 2019]
Wilde, Oscar, Salomé, 1891 (New York: Dover Publications, repr. 2002)