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Axis Mundi

Russell Scott2006

Origins Centre

Origins Centre
Johannesburg, South Africa

This conceptual piece speaks to the tiered cosmos in San religious thought. Termites emerge from the mound and ascend into the heavens along the axis mundi in the form of a tree. As they ascend, they transform into therianthropic (part human, part animal) creatures. These wooden creatures are derived from San rock paintings and they are sculpted in a flattened relief, remaining faithful to the original two-dimensional artworks.

Landscapes were meaningful and complex places for the San living in the past, as they are for those San still living today. Small, inconspicuous and even invisible features of landscape, such as shallow water pans, low rocky outcrops and termite mounds were also seen as important. These places allowed access to the spirit world. The supernatural world is described, paradoxically, as being both below ground and in the sky above. Only certain San ritual specialists, known as owners-of-energy, can enter this alternative world. Once there, they encounter strange animals, the spirits of dead friends and relatives, and, on occasion, god. In turn, certain inhabitants of the spirit realm can visit this world by emerging from the same points of entry used by ritual specialists. It is particularly during the trance dance that movement between the two worlds is facilitated.

Many of the experiences reported by San in trance may seem strange and peculiar. For example, some report that they change into animal-form during the dance. This experience of transformation is often depicted in rock art. Images of therianthropes – part human, part animal – are abundant in rock art sites throughout southern Africa. While seemingly peculiar, this type of experience is reported by people throughout the world when in a state of trance.

Russell Scott is a South African artist who is well-known for his large-scale installations made of natural materials – usually stone and wood.

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