Frida Kahlo smoking a cigarette beside a hawk
Magic, Occult, Tarot

Artists Who Explored the Occult in Art and Life

Many of these women were carving out their own styles in their art and diverging from the trends of the time. As women and esoteric practitioners, they were isolated in their art and life. These women were inspirations and path-pavers for ways of living and creating. In building bridges between their spirituality and their artistic expressions, they birthed sacred images that opened the door into the viewer’s subconscious.

Belkis Ayón (1967-1999)

Belkis Anyon
Ayon at the Havana Galerie, Zurich, Aug. 1999

Belkis Ayón was an Afro-Cuban artist and printmaker who explored the folklore and traditions of the Abakuá. The Abakuá is an all male secret society that began in Nigeria and survived in secrecy, underground and away from slave owners eyes when they were brought to Cuba.These practitioners of magic participated in rituals together in secret. Belkis Ayón used layered textures, sacred images, and symbols. she depicts the traditions of this fraternal society with her own feminist twist. She was inspired by the origin story myth of Sikán the African princess, who discovered Abakuá when a fish spoke to her, in her depictions of the Abakuá. Sikán was sworn to secrecy. Being a woman she was banned from participating in and knowing the secrets. When she spoke of the Abakuá to her lover she was killed. Ayón saw herself in this mythic figure saying that like Sikán she was an observer and a revealer. The figures in her prints do not have mouths, symbolizing the secrecy of the society.
In eerie similarity to the fate of Sikán, at the height of her career, Belkis Ayón was found dead in September of 1999. Police investigated the Abakuá, but found nothing connecting to her death. Her death was ruled a suicide.

 

Niki de Saint-Phalle (1930-2002)

artist niki de saint phalle holding a snake sculpture
Niki de Saint Phalle, 1983 photo by Norman Parkinson

A self taught artist who explored many different mediums and subjects from abstract painting to towering sculptures from women’s oppression to the divine feminine. She often used her art as a form of protest against patriarchy. Her most impressive work took her over 20 years to create. It is called Il Giardino dei Tarocchi. The Tarot Garden! This sculpture garden is massive and takes you through the major arcana of the Tarot. Niki de Saint-Phalle explored Neolithic Goddess traditions and often depicted sacred imagery through her own interpretations of colorful, full figured female deities, esoteric Tarot, yonic portals, snakes and ancient symbols.

 

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944)

Portrait of the artist Hilma af KlintIs Hilma the first abstract artist? She started in Stockholm painting portraits and landscapes at the royal academy of fine arts. She remained unmarried all her life and spent much of her time taking care of her blind and sick mother. She was very interested in spiritual knowledge, and as a teenager she participated in séances. In 1896 she and four other female artists formed a group called “The Five”. They met on Fridays to explore their spirituality through séances, mediumistic drawings and contact with the spirits they called “The High Ones”. Hilma wished to blend her art with the spiritual and to surpass the restrictions of the physical world. Her art began to reflect her spiritual life through abstract paintings inspired by her experiences. She often used symbolism in her unique work and was exploring the messages she was putting fourth in her art. She had received messages during her séances not to share her work with anyone. She did not strive for artistic success in her lifetime, instead she used her artistic gift to explore the esoteric. When she passed away she left behind 1,300 paintings that had never been seen by the public. In her will, she asked that her work not be shown for at least 20 years after her death because she believed it would not be understood by the public until then.

 

Remedios Varo (1908-1963)

Remedios Varo painting in her studioRemedios Varo Uranga Was a Spanish-Mexican anarchist, feminist and surrealist painter. She was also a studied alchemist and naturalist. From a young age her father helped her to cultivate independent thinking and encouraged her drawing abilities. Her mother was a devout catholic which contributed to Varo’s criticism of religion. She later attended art school in Madrid. She believed that the state was an oppressive force and aligned herself with people who reflected her ideas. She was always on the move, fleeing political oppression and imprisonment for her freethinking and liberal ideals. She ended up in Mexico where she developed her surrealist visionary art. She depicted women in isolated spaces and mystical worlds to show how she felt as a woman in the boys club art scene. She often depicted androgynous figures with facial features that resembled hers. She painted mythical figures, alchemist symbology, gears, energy swirls, the elements and more.

 

Vali Myers (1930-2003)

nullVali Myers is a true bohemian. She left home at 14 to work in the factories to pay for the dance lessons that put her on the path to become the lead dancer for the Melbourne modern ballet company. When she traveled to Paris to further her dance career she was living on the streets and dancing in night clubs. She aligned herself with bohemian circles and began to explore drawing. Her art was inspired by alchemy, animals, and her spirituality. She made herself her art. Flamboyant clothing, wild hair, dark makeup around her eyes, tattoos on her hands and around her mouth. When she moved to Italy with her lover she became the caretaker of Many animals. Her home became an animal sanctuary of dogs, pigs, donkeys, mice, toads, horses, eels, and of course “foxy”. Before her death at the age of 72 in 2003 she wrote to a friend, ” don’t worry baby, dying is beautiful. I wish one could do it more often.” In an interview shortly before she died of cancer she commented on her flaming life and that death did not bother her because she put all of her effort into living.

 

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo smoking a cigarette beside a hawkWhere to begin? Frida has inspired the world with her life and art. She was a Mexican artist, communist, and free spirit. She lived a life of pain. She suffered from polio, complications from a bus crash that nearly took her life, miscarriages and her marriage to famed artist Diego Rivera. Her body was shattered by the bus accident, she underwent numerous surgeries and had a collection of corsets and casts. She was bisexual and took many lovers. She was a political activist who fought fascism and even lied about her date of birth to coincide with start of the Mexican revolution.null She often painted herself, saying, “ I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best, the subject I want to know better.” She often painted natural and mystic themes and symbols, drawing inspiration from her indigenous heritage as well as her close relationship with death. She depicted symbols of the ancient Aztecs in her paintings. Frida and Diego also collected pre-columbian sacred artifacts. She chose to dress in tehuana clothing that was the tradition of a mexican matriarchal society, but also often dressed in menswear. She turned the courtyard of her house into a wild garden full of plants and animals. Frida was unable to have children and chose to surround herself with many dogs, monkeys, a fawn, a raptor, peacocks and more. Frida Kahlo spent so much of her life in corsets, hospitals and in bed yet lived a vibrant and inspiring life. I strongly recommend you learn more about one of my personal heros!

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