Human beings, from those at the beginning of time to the inhabitants of today’s technology-ridden planet, are constantly driven by an overwhelming need to improve their luck, to establish connections with distant forces who can make this transformation take place. Many depend on the quaint ritual of casting votes into ballot boxes to choose new leaders who will help them. Others rely on an invisible agency--the world of the spirits and the chosen mortals who can muster supernatural help. Who’s to say which is more primitive and ineffective?
Certainly not Hans Kemp, who has explored the latter option with deep respect and artistry. From the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the highly modernized nation of Japan, he has been allowed to witness holy ceremonies and has portrayed them carefully and beautifully in Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia.
This is not a book to place on the coffee table and skim through at leisured intervals. Whoever opens it will go on a journey that may well take several days, moving through different worlds and into the dark corners of the viewer’s own consciousness. In some ways, Kemp has created a visual version of a psychedelic experience, one that evokes fear, reverence, and new ways to look at life.
In Kerala oracles draped with wreaths of marigolds and clad in scarlet draw blood from their foreheads with special swords, leading vast numbers of pilgrims in “a riotous expression of divine unity,” at temples devoted to the Mother Goddess. In a ceremony that’s equally ancient, the Japanese city of Inazawa turns to Shinto exorcism by choosing one man who will absorb the ill fortune of his community as the lunar new year begins. Chased and grabbed for an entire day by thousands of men who are desperate to hand him their bad fortune, the Shin Otoku, is symbolically cast out, returning later as an honored God-man. Christians in the Philippines show their devotion on Good Friday by carrying crucifixes along the Via Crucis in the Stations of the Cross. Flagellants whip at open wounds that have been cut into their backs and there are men who become Kristos, volunteering to be nailed on a cross, where they remain for as long as fifteen minutes.
These images are shocking at first view: the blood, the nails driven through flesh, the faces locked into ecstasy and frenzy. But through the lens of Kemp’s camera, it becomes clear that what’s being revealed is belief propelled by hope, a common thread that links all humans. When the young men of Papua New Guinea have their skin cut and abraded, with their scars taking on the appearance of crocodile scales, they are not only connecting themselves to the legendary power of that animal, they’re embarking upon an intensive six-week period of education that will usher them into manhood. Immediately thoughts of male circumcision come to mind, a process that has become so engrained in developed countries that male infants routinely undergo it, with few people questioning why. The young men along the banks of the Middle Sepik River know quite well why they are submitting to this ritual; it connects them to knowledge and power.
Kemp ends his journey with words from P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous: “But I had seen myself, that is, I had seen things in myself that I had never seen before.” Within Divine Encounters are myriad ways for us all to see ourselves, if we open our eyes and minds.~Janet Brown