Some candid answers for a written interview with Ozzo Ombro. I may take down this post soon, after I figure out something better to do with it (or not), but in the meanwhile, here I experiment with having it up. Hope you may find this interesting or useful in some way. Feel free to comment/ discuss; all viewpoints are welcome.
- Who is Wu Zhimi?
Wu Zhimi is a Dongba student who also identifies as a woman.
In the past I have referred to her as “a Frog Wing avatar,” meaning that she is a holographic iteration/ projection, manifested by my self/ selves (as Frog, or as Elaine, etc). She is a version of my self, a part of my self/ selves, one particular facet of my total being(s).
She is not fictional, per se. However, I do follow and publicly promote her narrative quite heavily these days (compared to the private/ invisible/ currently non-existent lives of Elaine or my “family name,” Mimi, or Jasper Fields, etc), and one can argue that any narrative in the “public” realm, of the zeitgeist, of the communal consciousness- is equally as “fictional” as it is “true.”
“Wu Zhimi” is a Naxi name, given to me (Frog/ Elaine) by my Naxi teacher, He Xiudong, who is also an overseer/ chief Dongba in Lijiang prefecture. Although i carry Wu Zhimi with me at all times, wherever I go… I specifically associate her identity with topics of religion/ ethnicity, especially in relation to Dongba studies, because that’s when and how she was born… She arose out of pressures from within those contexts.
- How did you 'find' her? What is your background and what brought you her identity?
1. To answer your question from a secular perspective:
I was born and raised in Southern California, USA- in the suburbs of Monterey Park, bordering East Los Angeles. My parents were born and raised in Taiwan; my grandparents were all from different parts of mainland China.
A few more generations back, we have Mongolian roots, and that’s as far back as we are aware of.
In 2011, I participated in a study-abroad program based in Yunnan. In addition to taking Mandarin Chinese language courses, I also studied some Naxi paper-making and “the relationship between Chinese farmers and contemporary art.” Lijiang was the best place to do this, to pursue all these things simultaneously. That phase led me to begin working for Lijiang Studio, which in turn brought me up to Tacheng Village in 2013, to He Xiudong’s ancestral home. My curiosity towards Dongba religion and Naxi gender roles led me ask many questions about female Dongbas… If there were any in the past/ present, and if there are any in the future, how would that work? Would she/ they navigate through our realities any differently than the currently existing Dongbas, who all happen to be men? If so, how?
The dominant social response was that this is an interesting scenario, and that perhaps i should continue pursuing these questions, and that if i, myself, am interested in becoming a Dongba, as a woman*, and as an artist, then I should pursue that idea, too- allowing this possibility to play out for as long as it needs- until its natural end. And that is what has been happening, and is still happening today.
*I include the disclaimer that I do not identify as a woman 100% of the time, but for the sake of this project, for answering these questions, I do specifically identify as a woman when I identify as Wu Zhimi.
2. To answer your question from a metaphysical perspective:
My mother is Buddhist (by tradition) and my father is ambiguously agnostic, influenced by Methodist schooling. As a child, I received some exposure to both Eastern and Western religious ideas, environments of worship/ contemplation. I began a serious immersive phase catalyzed by the sudden and unexpected death of my aunt (my mother’s sister). She died as a consequence of a mugging, which i was one of the sole witnesses to (at age 8). After that night, i was sick for some time. I was not allowed to her funeral, due to Taiwanese belief that demons (presumably those at the cemetery) are more likely to possess children and/or the ill.
My uncle (my father’s brother) started taking me to Protestant church, proposing it as a good venue to discuss issues of life, death, and spirit, etc. Christians suggested that my aunt went to Hell because she had been Buddhist during her final moments, that this fate was irreversible, and my parents were bound for Hell too, if I failed to convert them to Christianity. The mugger(s), on the other hand, can still redeem their souls and go to Heaven, merely by apologizing and accepting Jesus as savior. This took some time for me to digest.
I read the Bible every night for years, searching for loopholes in the text. I attended church by myself- sometimes with my brother, never with my parents. Where and what are Heaven and Hell, what are requirements for access, and why? Could my aunt gain access posthumously, and how?
These were the fundamental building blocks of my religious/ spiritual background. Later in life, i challenged Christian rules and definitions, took philosophy classes, experimented with psychedelics, Zen Buddhism, Daoism, other forms of meditation, etc… after “finding God” I set out to find the Devil- to locate Hell, and Evil- in the name of moral research- to gain a better understanding. I believe I dug deep enough and found It; my journey since then has been a slow crawl uphill, to return to Light; discovering/ creating Wu Zhimi has been a part of that road.
I pray regularly and I consider all aspects of life to be a continuing conversation with GxD/ Godness. It continues to answer and confirm, to lead me down this path. I understand that shamanism and polytheism are presently categorized as “evil” by the Christian church, but I believe spiritual truth and power transcends dogmatic boundaries and our linear experience of time.
Our communal spirit is constantly evolving, and this process involves expanding our vocabulary/ rhetoric and conceptual frameworks. We now find ourselves on the global stage of the Information Age, we connect to each other psychically via internet highways, bypassing the hegemony of government control so easily for the first time in history… How does this affect the global communal spirit and our understanding of our selves and each other, and the environment(s) that created us? How does traditional shamanism, formerly localized across cultures, see itself in a globalized network?
Wu Zhimi’s identity grew (and still grows) out from a series of questions. I do not see her as a product of premeditated political agenda. She finds herself forming organically, day by day, as a response to societal needs, in conversation with communities that surround and support her.
- What has Wu Zhimi accomplished so far? What does she see in the near future?
Wu Zhimi has not accomplished much… She barely exists- still somewhat of a newborn. I suppose she has accomplished some semblance of physical manifestation- she has been seen by human eyes, though not yet understood… So she has been able to challenge old beliefs merely by insisting on existing, via visibility. The director of the Dongba Research Institute had some trouble accepting the idea of a woman performing Dongba dance, but when a chief Dongba argued that there wasn’t anything wrong with it, that started a discussion… which is good and healthy, from a cultural standpoint.
Wu Zhimi is a student and studies Naxi language, Dongba texts/ philosophy/ tradition/ dance, and general religion/ spirituality. She contemplates how religious roles may vary by gender, and she continues to ask questions.
One of her recent projects (in progress) is to compile and publish a book of Dongba dances, in collaboration with He Xiudong.
Since I was born neither ethnically Naxi nor nationally Chinese, I foresee that, in the near future, there will be some debate on Wu Zhimi’s legitimacy as a Dongba practitioner- Maybe we will have some nuanced discussion on ethnicity, authenticity, spirituality/ religion via geography, how to trace our roots, and whether or not it is even necessary or helpful... amongst other things.
Last month, Wu Zhimi was invited to visit Nicaragua, to conduct a Dongba ritual there, in connection with the development of the Nicaraguan Canal (re: destruction of Lake Nicaragua), so there is that possibility. Also received some suggestions to go to South Korea and see/ learn from the shamans there (mostly women). Would be great to learn about deities and rituals from those regions.
I ordered a Becker-Hagens “EarthStar” grid-map-globe thing from www.vortexmaps.com and it’s been very exciting and interesting, to have this object here in person, as a visual aid. I foresee that this will bring new ideas and inspiration- which will diversify and strengthen the conceptual development of my work.
- What are her hopes and dreams?
To serve her life’s purpose, whatever it is. Facilitate balance. Insh’Allah: “May God’s Will be done.”