Transcending Cultures through the Arts, Part Two

Art transcends nationality, language, time. Our deepest fears and joys have been and continue to be mirrored across the ages.

The psychologist Carl Jung recounted a vivid experience of culture shock during a tribal dance in East Africa. He had become excited and joined in with the dancers by waving a rhinoceros whip in the air. The tribe was ecstatic to see his participation and the dance intensified. At this point, Jung became scared that it was going too far, that he would somehow lose his identity. He stopped, passed out gifts and asked that everyone go home. The Chief was extremely disappointed as he and his people were enjoying themselves.

Jung became afraid not so much because the emotional charge of the dance was foreign, but because it was familiar on a subconscious level. His own response shocked him; his ego had temporarily lost control. After such an experience, he needed time to breathe, explore, and react. Have you ever taken a friend to see something that you found spellbinding only to find it either left them cold or made them uncomfortable?

Journey to the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon
Into the canyon
Into the canyon

On vacation in southern Utah, my husband and I visit the small unit of Canyonlands National Park known as Horseshoe Canyon. It is a journey of some miles on red dirt roads into the desert between the tiny communities of Hanksville and Green River, requiring four wheel drive and impeccable weather. After more than two hours, we park at the trailhead and descend into Horseshoe Canyon, the site of spectacular Barrier Canyon pictographs. Barrier Canyon is an older name for Horseshoe and has also been used to name the Indians who came here between 2000 and 4000 BC.

As we begin the walk into the canyon, the wind is relentless and throws red dust into our eyes. More than once I pull my stocking cap over my face and hang onto N blindly as he leads me, protected by his glasses. The canyon resists us, it urges us to turn back, not to make the long hike to the Great Gallery. Quieter now, we press on, and begin to see pictographs appear, painted high up on the rock. At one curve of the Canyon, there is a small sheltered area. Pictographs here are close at hand and have been damaged by vandals. A dust devil springs up and we leave in a hurry. It looks for all the world like some disembodied spirit trying to take shape.

Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon
The Holy Ghost panel, Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon

Finally we stumble upon the Great Gallery, where a park ranger is giving a lecture. The humans here are incongruous, gawking in their hiking boots and hats. The ranger invites us to step over the rope and walk up to the colossal paintings, placed here by artists so many centuries ago. Some of the figures are nine feet tall, dark shapes with strange headdresses. One in particular, known as the Holy Ghost, seems to float, partially transparent like a jellyfish. Smaller, simpler figures of men and animals surround the strange figures. Worshippers? Slaves? Subjects? The exact meaning is lost, but the sense of wonder, of awe remains. Were these paintings documenting a lifestyle, or are they fantastic imaginings?

Great Gallery, Horseshoe CanyonTourists included for scale.
Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon
Tourists included for scale.

Why did the Barrier Canyon people come here to paint, in this forbidding canyon, so inhospitable, so prone to floods and wind? Archaeology so far shows that the area was visited but not inhabited. Was it some sort of pilgrimage? If so, have we somehow participated with them by coming here?

The ranger dusts the trail steps with her broom. The wind blows the dust right back onto the steps. Futility. It is a long walk back to the car.

3 thoughts on “Transcending Cultures through the Arts, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Quote fot Today: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry « synkroniciti

  2. katmcdaniel Reply

    Simple is wonderful, although simple does not equal easy. Thanks for reading!

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