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Smoke and Mirrors: Photographs by Vance Gellert
June 13–August 10, 2008

Minneapolis, May 15, 2008—In a new Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) exhibition, Minnesota photographer Vance Gellert examines the nature of healing in his photographs of medicinal practices in South America. Gellert’s vibrant, large-scale photographs of native healers, rituals, and plants convey the beauty and mystery of the land and its people, as well as illustrate how art can contribute to scientific understanding. “Smoke and Mirrors: A Journey to Healing Knowledge” is on view June 13 through August 10, 2008, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA).

As a photographer and pharmacologist, Gellert traveled to Bolivia and Peru to examine the nature of healing, and to discover the ratio of science to art required in indigenous healing practices. During his visits, he witnessed healing rituals such as “reading” eggs, ashes, or guinea pig intestines intended to determine diagnoses, and using various plants that are believed to reverse illness or act as hallucinogens to open doors to other worlds or perspectives. Gellert believes many South American healers straddle the line between art and science, and an important factor in his research was, he said, “to do like art asks, to suspend disbelief, to not exclude any possibility, or any observation, no matter how strange and exotic.” Applying this framework, Gellert documents how a physical object or talisman may instill in individuals the faith and strength to heal themselves in conjunction with medical remedies.

Gellert uses medium- and large-format film cameras to bring out details and vibrant colors. His large prints evoke a spirit of place, of the cultures he visited, and of their healing traditions. Photography, he says, captures images infused with layers of meaning and nuance that give the recorded facts a human and emotional connection. His photograph of the Mercado de las Brujas (witch’s market) shows a bazaar in La Paz, with its stacks of herbs, bones, llama fetuses, and packaged remedies, through which visitors must pass to get to the modern pharmacy beyond. Conversely, his picture of Carlos Prado, a ytiri (mountain healer), captures the spiritual, serene essence of the coca ritual as smoke billows around his head.

Other photographs in the series feature plants and animals integral to certain rites and ceremonies. Healers collect ingredients, then mix and test their remedies on themselves. In a photo of Peruvian shaman Percy Garcia, who uses ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic beverage made from the bark of a woody vine) in his practice, the shaman appears to be an organic part of the annatto tree. The tree’s red flowers surround the shaman as if he were a saint in a retablo (small religious painting).

Another photograph consists of a Phyllomedusa bicolor frog being “stressed” (stretched) to produce hallucinogenic sweat (sapo) for use in a hunting rite by the Matses people of eastern Peru. The frog is eventually released with great ceremony, and the shocking close-up photograph of this ritual reveals a cacophony of color and curiosity rather than violence.

“Smoke and Mirrors” is a study of both facts and cultural beliefs about illness, healing, and wellness. Some remedies used by the healers of Bolivia and Peru are not unlike those used by Western doctors, and many of the same plants are the basis for synthetic drugs in the United States. Gellert’s photographs transcend cultural differences to create a receptive and stimulating environment in which to consider new directions and methodology in healthcare.

Gellert received a bachelor’s degree in physiology and a Ph.D. in pharmacology, both from the University of Minnesota. He completed an MFA in photography at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and was co-founder and director of the Minnesota Center for Photography until 2003, when he became a full-time photographer.

Free public events include an opening reception on Thursday, June 12, at 7 P.M., an artist-led tour on Thursday, June 19, at 7 P.M., and a critics’ trialogue with Diane Mullin on Thursday, June 26, at 7 P.M.

The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) is made possible by a generous grant from the Jerome Foundation.

About the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), home to one of the finest encyclopedic art collections in the country, houses more than 80,000 works of art representing 5,000 years of world history. Highlights of the permanent collection include European masterworks by Rembrandt, Poussin, and van Gogh; modern and contemporary painting and sculpture by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Stella, and Close; as well as internationally significant collections of prints and drawings, decorative arts, Modernist design, photographs, textiles, and Asian, African, and Native American art. General admission is always free. Some special exhibitions have a nominal admission fee. Museum hours: Sunday, 11 A.M.-5 P.M.; Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 A.M.-5 P.M.; Thursday, 10 A.M.-9 P.M.; Monday closed. For more information, call (612) 870-3131 or visit

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