The rise and rise of the totem pole
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In a studio in an industrial warehouse in Barcelona, Luna Paiva creates monumental totems. From clay models to plaster moulds and finally the finished bronze sculptures, they stand like sentinels. One 2021 work was inspired by an image of a collapsing plant posted on Instagram, which reminded Paiva of yucca trees and piled-up stones she had seen on a road trip to Joshua Tree National Park; it’s constructed from thousands of bronze leaves, and has a wonderfully benign, playful presence.
“I like that totems are open for interpretation and are a part of art history across so many cultures,” says the Franco-Argentinean artist, who is represented by StudioTwentySeven gallery in New York. “For me, they are an expression of an inner landscape.”
Paiva is among a diverse group of female artists and creatives who have become besotted with the abstract power of totems. The new wave echoes a similar revival in the ’60s, which witnessed a fascination with art brut as well as the carved redwood totems that were a fixture in indigenous communities on the Pacific Northwest coast of America for hundreds of years. Today, interpretations range from LED-lit female silhouettes by London artist Lauren Baker to exquisite tabletop versions made of semi-precious stones by Celia Lindsell, passing by compositions featuring bronze seed pods and stones such as labradorite by South Africa-based Sarah Heinamann.
“Totems point heavenwards but at the same time they are grounded from ancient stones dug out of the earth,” says Lindsell, who first discovered their magic through a healer friend. “It’s incredibly satisfying working out the shapes and juxtaposition of colours to create a harmony.” Her combinations of stones include amethyst, quartz, lapis and malachite, which she assembles into totems ranging from 40cm to 1.5m high. The works can be found in Kit Kemp’s Ham Yard Hotel store (she is currently working on a commission for Kemp’s new NYC hotel), in Bergdorf Goodman, and she also offers a bespoke service (from £480 for a miniature amethyst work).
These creators join a long tradition. Henry Moore was constantly beguiled by the ancient forms at Stonehenge, Picasso was consumed by primitive Polynesian Tiki figures, and Constantin Brâncuşi and Isamu Noguchi made them too. Today, Ugo Rondinone gives public spaces a burst of optimism with his linear fluorescent totems, Annie Morris enchants with her towering spherical sculptures, and Angela Bulloch inspires with her faceted geometric painted steel towers. At the Celine flagship on New Bond Street, you can find a giant totem, Najunga from the Kuchu Ngaali (Crested Crane) Clan by Leilah Babirye, painstakingly fashioned from wood, wax, glue, bolts, bicycle inner tubes and welded metal. Babirye sought political asylum in the US after being victimised for her sexuality in her native Uganda; here, her totemic figures form a protective clan of ancestral spirits.
Lauren Baker discovered the spirituality of totems while connecting with shamans and taking part in ayahuasca ceremonies in the Peruvian Amazon. She left a corporate life in the city and became an artist, making pieces that speak to environmental issues, unity and female power. “I like the tradition of totems being a gathering spot for ceremonies and a place for community meetings,” says Baker, whose textile Earth Totems were exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery last autumn; she sees her own ones as potent spiritual symbols. Her Luna Woman Power Totem, made from metal and LED lights, stands 3.5m tall and is positioned in Palmers Green, Enfield, where in 1914 a group of suffragettes held a landmark meeting campaigning for the right to vote.
Heinamann became fascinated by sacred spaces while travelling in Peru; back in Cape Town, she began making pieces in semi-precious stones, bronze and ceramic that got bigger and more ambitious as she combined giant pieces of sodalite or jadeite with bronze casts of exotic seed pods from all over the world. “The fusion of natural fertility symbols within a phallic object takes people by surprise,” she admits. She also takes on personal commissions. “People want to express where they are in their lives and also invest in pieces that just look great in an interior or in a garden.”
Clementine Maconachie was an Olympic athlete before illness curtailed her sporting career. She came to totems after making sculptural pieces for window displays at the fashion boutique Sass & Bide in her native Sydney. Sculpting is now a full-time practice, with the artist represented by galleries in Houston, Texas and Richeldis Fine Art in London. “I begin with a steel stand that I build from scratch and then shape each block of Hebel Stone by hand,” says Maconachie of the soft, smooth stone she uses to make tall, elegant shapes that appear like abstracted human forms or primitive deities. “As I make each block I balance them on the stand, and the next shape just makes sense.”
The simple childhood pursuit of piling up twigs and rocks may also help to explain the appeal. “Placing one stone on top of another is a very instinctive process,” says Paiva, who studied art history and archaeology at the Sorbonne, “and I now see my child doing the same thing – it is a primary reaction to nature.” She was working in theatre design in Buenos Aires, as well as making pieces for the Hermès store’s Artist Window, when she felt compelled to create something more permanent than paper dioramas. She sees totems as still offering potent functions today. “They offer points of congregation as well as a way of signposting, to show you a path.” Infinitely varied in their vertical shape, their mystery remains compelling.