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Sunday, November 8, 2009

José Benitez Sánchez exhibit

On Saturday I attended an exhibit and concert at the Modestino Gallery in Cambridge to celebrate the life and work of visionary Huichol yarn artist José Benitez Sánchez (1938-2009). The event was curated by Stephen Aldrich.

The Huichol people live in the isolated mountain-range and canyons of the state of Nayarit, Mexico. Because of the local geography, the Huichol were largely able to resist the influence of the Spanish conquest. Their nature-based religion and shamanic traditions have remained intact for centuries.

José Benitez Sánchez was celebrated shaman and artist since the early 1970s with an international reputation. He was also a leader and advocate for the Huichol people and culture. The artist and shaman passed away on July 2nd, 2009.

Traditional Huichol yarn art is vivid and complex. José Benitez Sánchez was a master of visual story-telling and artistic expression. The works are filled with detail which invite the viewer to get up close learn more. The photo on the right is a small detail from a 2 1/2" x 4"yarn painting created by Benitez in the Spring of 1979.

A concert of contemporary musical improvisation for the gallery event was provided by Dave Braynt and friends (Dave Bryant – keyboards, Jeff Song – cello and kayagum, John Voigt – bass, Curt Newton – percussion, and Eric Rosenthal – percussion). Some of the musicians had prepared for the concert by viewing the art and listening to traditional Huichol music. This preparation clearly provided inspiration and artistic stimulus. For the occasion, they chose to feature trans-cultural acoustic instruments that were "close to the earth."

The result was a unique musical expression that functioned both as a personal reaction to the art and as a fitting tribute to the late artist. Their sound-painting existed in the moment and seemed to draw upon the glow and reflections of the pieces in the gallery surrounding them. Their music was respectful, multi-cultural, and indefinable - but perfectly fitting and appropriate for the occasion.

The musicians and audience alike discovered a common synergy between the shamanic yarn-art and reflective music, which revealed itself in an open discussion afterward. Bassist John Voigt led the discussion by asking the audience, "which painting was I thinking about?"

At the reception after the concert, people gathered to share stories about the artist and reflect upon his life, Huichol culture, and exhibited work. Several people had known the artist personally, and have been long-time advocates of his craft.

The photo on the right is another detail from a José Benitez Sánchez yarn painting dating from 1985 (photo by Paté Poste, Boston). However, this is art work that must be viewed in person, since the penetrating color, complex texture, compositional totality, and rich detail only come across only when you stand before them.