NEWS: "Documenting the Spirit"- BMA and JHU panel probes into the otherworldly


This weekend, the BMA will be witness to “Documenting the Spirit”, a panel discussion and exploration of how soul and spiritual experience is captured by various media.

In the Palmelo region of Brazil, over half the population claim to be spirit mediums, forming the community dominated by Spiritism which is captured by artists Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj in their piece Captain Gervasio’s Family. This supernatural short film is currently on display in the Black Box at the BMA (Februrary 8th-June 11th, 2017) and it depicts the strange and ethereal culture of spirit mediums in this district, thereby establishing the starting point for this discussion on the meeting of art, representation, and religion.   

The panel, hosted in part by The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Media Studies, will be moderated by Bernadette Wegenstein, director of CAMS and a filmmaker in her own right. The event will be held this Saturday, April 1st at 4:00pm and will feature academic speakers such as Dr. Yvonne Chireau, a Professor from the Religion Department at Swarthmore College, and Dr. Michael Hanchard, Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Both will be joined by well-known community figure Pastor Jamal Bryant, the founder of the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore.

Spirituality by its very nature can encompass a spectrum of experiences, beliefs, and practices. The challenges that come with trying to capture and justly portray such a vague yet powerful topic will be navigated by the panel who offer a range of academic knowledge, ethnographic experience, and personal beliefs. Students and community members are encouraged to attend the discussion and join the conversation as JHU and the BMA facilitate a bridging of art, religion, and social politics.

Ahead of the event, WJHU got the chance to talk with Dr. Yvonne Chireau about her insights into the spiritual and her expectations for Saturday’s exciting conversation:


What kind of methods do you employ in your pursuit of documenting the spirit?

Dr. Yvonne Chireau: I use 2 different approaches to the study of religion, one is more ethnographic, the other is a more academic approach where you observe and record the traditions without taking part, so there are certain limits to your scholarship. I think I do it both ways, when you join a religion you become part of it- there are certain applications & limits to the scholarship. When you take part and create a representation of it- whether it is film or art in any way, it has a different dimension because of the direct personal experience.


Aside from your own work on Spiritism in an academic setting, you have your blog, the Academic Hoodoo. How have you found blogging as way to explore this topic?

I rather enjoy the creative process you get with blogging, not just with the writing of it but with the visual material, that’s the main reason I turned to blogging, I found the medium of blogging really useful. I use what they call a multimedia approach, so what I wanted to do in my practise was to bring together ethnographic film as well as the academic material and the artefacts that seemed to be at the heart of these traditions. The subject matter really lends itself well to using these media.


Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to talking about during ‘Documenting the Spirit’?

The idea that human beings are using their bodies to become intermediaries between the spiritual, the physical and the material world. What I’m looking forward to discussing is how this done and what liberties the artist and the documentarian can take- an experience that in some cases in inferable, so I’m going to talk about spirit possession which is in the spectrum of Spiritism but isn’t the same, and how those experiences are represented. In some ways, it’s very beautiful and that’s what we’re looking at, the aesthetic, but at the same time these are documents of real religious experiences & performances and it’s a very interesting nexus between how one experiences their religion or spirituality



Speaking to Kristen Hileman, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the BMA, we found out the thought process behind bringing this topic of spiritualism to the table in the form of Captain Gervasio’s Family. Hileman was the curator responsible for initially bringing mystical exhibit to the museum:



What motivated you to bring this work on psychic practises in Palmelo, Brazil, to Baltimore?

Kristen Hileman: In consultation with the artists and Dr. Wegenstein at CAMS, I selected Captain Gervasio’s Family for presentation because of its fascinating and complex consideration of Spiritism in Brazil. The film provides a window into a spiritual practice and a country with which many museum visitors will not be familiar.  Part of the power of art is to collapse distances—of time, geography, culture, etc.—and allow us to connect with the lives of others. Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj are intensely thoughtful artists who are documenting a real experience, but doing so outside the conventions of documentary filmmaking. I feel their conceptual and technical approach will also be of interest to Baltimore audiences.



“Documenting the Spirit” will take place on April 1st at 4pm in the BMA Meyerhoff Auditorium and the event is free and open to the public. Find out more about the event here through the BMA, or on Facebook



By Jessica Moog on March 29, 2017, 10:31 a.m.

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