During a traditional Korean shaman summoning ritual, you never know for certain which god will emerge through the priestess, called the Mudang. In the throes of spiritual possession, her body becomes limitless—a bridge between past and present, mortal and divine. The Mudang is a potent touchstone for Portland-based artist Samantha Wall, who explores the transcendent potential of the female figure through her drawings rendered in vapory inks, graphite and gold leaf. For Wall, the body is never just an object of beauty but a portal toward something more profound. “I’m interested in female bodies represented in a way that feels infinite,” she says of her work.
Wall herself straddles multiple worlds—both as a multiracial woman of Korean and Black heritage and an immigrant born in South Korea and raised in the United States. Similarly, her practice aims to embody women that defy tidy categorization. In “Indivisible,” the artist’s intimate graphite portrait series of multiethnic and multiracial women, her intricate line work intentionally leaves huge swaths of the paper untouched, giving her subjects breathing room beyond the limits culture places on their bodies. “That empty space allows for possibility,” notes Wall. “It allows for the room that I can’t fill when making portraits, knowing there’s so much more that I can’t represent.” Of late, she has also been using India ink and gold leaf on translucent Dura-Lar (a type of polyester film) to conjure the same sense of vastness. On the moisture-resistant material, the ink forms watery pools she can manipulate with a brush. Accented with warm gold, the spectral swirls “create something that feels like cosmic bodies,” says Wall.
These gossamer figures ground her current projects exploring Korean shamanism rituals, particularly the Mudang. Historically, women have predominantly shepherded these traditions. Channeling these presences when drawing herself and the women in her family proved healing for Wall—reconnecting to the culture she left behind and counterbalancing the invisibility she and so many women of color experience in America. “It lets me break that skin and enter a space where I can play with the archetype, embody their power in a way I don’t feel I’m allowed to socially,” she explains. “I can be unapologetic.”
Creatively, Wall herself is feeling expansive as her work grows in scope with large-scale installations at Portland International Airport and Facebook’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Claiming more space seems right for the artist. As she notes, “Portraiture allows me to leave a mark that helps me feel connected to my community.”