Recovering light and shadow

Cultural Capital

On Bird Bone Whistler by Doris Bloom

Art, like falling in love, simulataneously disorganises and nurtures the self toward a creative re-ordering- perpetually regaining equilibrium in the constantly unpredictable currents of the air.

Jonathon Fineberg, Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain.

Art, in many different forms, has been integral to people, communities, and cultures across the world and across time as is so wonderfully demonstrated in the exhibitions, the archive of memories, at the Origins centre, from rock art to tapestries. Art communicates memories and journeys, dreams and nightmares, and by disorganising and nurturing the self, leads to personal and spiritual transformation, to health and healing.

The remarkable artist Phutuma Seoka, started to sculpt on the advice of a traditional healer in his village. He had visited the healer as he was having recurrent nightmares. These were dreadful nightmares- in one of his sculptures he is wrestling with a snake larger than himself. The traditional healer told him to sculpt, allowing him to wrestle with his nightmares consciously, and with this, create a path forward by creating beauty (Some of his art and reflections are currently at WAM).

Doris Bloom’s art illustrates this as well. Her art (visual or performance), is literally disorganised and nurturing, and this is what the viewer experiences as well. As a neurologist, focusing on brain health, I appreciate the power of art to lead to health. My focus on brain health started with looking at dementia prevention strategies, how to protect memory, and understanding memory. From a medical perspective, memory is considered in terms of facts, events, emotions, or processes like driving a car. Memory is, however, conceptualised differently in different cultures.

Swami Veda Bharti in the Yoga of Memory, describes memory as this:

Our contemporary science defines different types of memory depending on different types of brain functions and based on neuronal connections. The ancient understanding of memory was less physical and more psychospiritual. Memory, in the ancient traditions, is not merely located in the physical cerebrum but becomes deeply ingrained in the subtle body in the form of samskaras, processed conditioning and modulations of the subtle body.

Samaskaras has been further described as impressions on our consciousness through experiences of the soul across many lifetimes. These impressions are exposed through various triggers in the external world. Sri sri Ravi Shankar

Both Phutuma Seoka’s process and Doris Bloom’s art reminded me of this concept of memory. Memory that is physically located in the brain and body, that is not only linear but cyclical, that is psychic and spiritual. By tapping into her archive of memory, using archetypal and personal symbols, of grief and love, of the journey through both, Doris uses visual language to communicate this.

The material she used included charcoal made from Birch trees. This charcoal was made while making a fire at her home in Denmark with her husband Henrik. In one of her works there is a solitary tree over a nondescript seemingly forgettable field in Lithuania that becomes seared in memory once you understand more. The piece is titled Marijampole, 1940-2023 and captioned with a quote by Hegel, Only at the moment of disappearance do we reach a full understanding of things. Lithuania is where her mother Ascia was born, in the early 1930s and where she survived the holocaust, before moving to South Africa and marrying Joseph Bloom. Doris was born on a farm in Vereeniging, studied art in Johannesburg before moving to Denmark, for art and love, marrying Henrik. One of Henrik’s grandparents is buried in the oldest Jewish cemetery in Johannesburg, across the highway from the Origins Centre, where her exhibition is being held. These journeys, like her art, are layered and are cyclical, physical and psychospiritual, are linked to her memory and that of her ancestors. Her art is an invitation to pause, to reflect on our journeys, our mothers’ and fathers’, our ancestors and their journeys, and hopes and suffering.

| It is an invitation to wrestle with our nightmares, to recover light and shadow, to the point where we create beauty…

How are art, memory and neuroscience linked?

Her art and her journey also reflect what happens in the brain when we create art and often when we view art. When we create or view art, a network in the brain called the default mode network is activated. It represents the active parts of the brain when the brain is in a default mode- that is not actively engaging with and processing information from the outside world. It is actively processing internal information such as autobiographical memory, projecting into the future and in the present understanding self. (Which is a lot like daydreaming). This process is made real in Doris’s art, which relates to the past, present, and future.

Art that we appreciate is often art that moves us, where we feel understood by the art and artist, where we feel that there is a message communicated to guide us. Something about this process, where we as viewers are engaging with an external object created by someone else, is processed by the brain in the same way as processing information related to ourselves.


Do you feel constantly stressed and fatigued?
Do you have 20 minutes a day to transform your life?

How does art help?

Doris’s art, is a reflection of her journey, mapping her trauma and mirroring our own, and is a guide to transcending this. It is an invitation to explore a process of necessary healing for us- individually and collectively, to recover our memories and acknowledge our histories of torture, of love and vulnerability, of comfort. It is an invitation to wrestle with our nightmares, to recover light and shadow, to the point where we create beauty in our lives and ourselves, for ourselves, and for the people we share this journey with.

Just as Doris has done.

|Accept the invitation. Visit the exhibition. It is beautiful and inspiring.

Bird Bone Whistler is on @ Origins Centre (Wits, Johannesburg) until 2 July 2023.

Be inspired. Stay Motivated. Keep on learning.



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Do you feel constantly stressed and fatigued? Do you have 20 minutes a day to transform your life?


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