Art New Zealand Spring 2021
Lavender Imagined, The National, 5–29 May, JASMINE GALLAGHER
Jen Bowmast’s practice caught my attention a few years ago, due to the unique methodologies she employs in the creation of her work. These sometimes include consulting psychics and seers in an engagement with the shadow realm of the unknown. This element of her practice evolved from a frustration with art school, when Bowmast was tired of constantly being required to refer to a canon founded in the ideas of primarily dead European men, and rationally justify her work using their philosophical theories.
Lavender Imagined has a spare and slick feel that brings elements of feminist nature worship associated with the European tradition of witchcraft into the present day via symbolism, ritual and replication.
Sticks, rope, wood, crystal, pearl and flora are the forms used in this show. For example, an elder stick is cast in bronze, like the lavender stems in the titular work as well—which consists of a velvet rope that is hung from the ceiling and knotted at evenly spaced intervals as it drops to the ground. Each of these knots holds one ‘wand of intent’ made from the bronze cast lavender stems. This ‘witch’s ladder’ form was Bowmast’s response to an object found in an old house in Wellington, Somerset, UK, and described in Folk-Lore Journal in 1887.
Both the represented forms, and the material in which they are cast, have symbolic qualities here. As mentioned in the catalogue text by Gwynneth Porter, lavender oil is a philtre, or a love potion with magical power. And it has aromatherapy properties that have been embraced for centuries, in order to assist with sleep, in particular. Bronze, however, is an alloy that is primarily copper: an essential trace mineral which symbolises both female and male energies for fortification against illness. Likewise, Elder consists of another wand-like stick cast in bronze. Delving into European traditions of folklore and mythology one finds that this tree has rich associations and stories linked to witchcraft and superstition, as well as medicinal properties that have been cherished for centuries.
In a Pantograph Punch review of a group show titled Speaking Surfaces at ST PAUL St Gallery, in which Bowmast participated, Cassandra Barnett provided the following reading of her work: ‘One thing I like about art in the European esoteric tradition is that it centres a decolonising seam to be found inside of Western culture. Seams like this help my inner manuhiri [visitor] befriend my inner tangata whenua. They might hold clues for other manuhiri too―something belonging to them―as they step up as allies of decolonisation.’ This in my mind summarises the power of Bowmast’s work. She seeks meaning within her European heritage from a persecuted female tradition, rather than the dominant male one. And in doing so, she challenges the postcolonial status quo by embracing an ecofeminist form of nature worship, in the creation of ritualistic objects that are fit for the twenty-first century.