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‘Water Is Sacred’ at ACCI Gallery 

Playwright Rajiv Joseph wrote, “All water is holy water.” Susanna Lamaina, curator of the juried photography exhibition opening Sept. 1 at the ACCI Gallery in Berkeley, would agree. She proposed the theme “Water is Sacred” to the gallery last year.

As a photographer herself, she said, “Every September there is the photography exhibit. I wanted to create [a show] that addresses the idea that although in this day and age water has become political, a ‘resource,’ it is actually part of our internal landscape. It is sacred.”

Lamaina’s concept included both the daily, practical ways in which water is used and misused, including drought cycles and the increasingly harsh consequences of climate change, and the spiritual significance of water, which encompasses countless millennia.

“We were talking about water and drought on the first Earth Day, in 1970,” she said. “Nobody was paying attention then.” Now, she said, they are, because they have to.

In Christianity and Sikhism, water is used for baptism. In the ancient world, “It was sacred to the Goddess for centuries,” Lamaina said. The Egyptians worshiped Anuket, goddess of the Nile. The Greeks and Romans, in addition to deifying the seas in male form as Poseidon and Neptune, also worshiped their female counterparts, Amphitrite and Salacia, and created an entire pantheon of river and lake deities, as did the Celts. Water was and is worshiped throughout Africa, personified in Benin, for example, as Ezili, goddess of sweet water.

Locally, the Ohlone people built their sweat lodges, used for ceremonial and spiritual purification rites, near stream banks because water was believed to be capable of great healing.

So, when Lamaina put out a call for submissions for the exhibit, she included the request that selected photographers also contribute a paragraph about why water is sacred in their view. This text will be shown alongside each chosen photo. “We were not looking for just pretty pictures,” she said.

As of this writing, 18 artists from all over the United States, and 25 photographs, will be featured in the exhibition. Multiple photography techniques and processes were used, but all photos will be displayed as analog prints, Lamaina said.

Oakland-based photographer Chuck Harlins submitted two photographs to the show, both taken during a trip to Ghana and both showing people pulling in nets with fish catches from the sea.

Watching them, he assumed at first that all these people were employed to do this, even the children. But this was not at all the case. When he asked participants about the task, he found that in some cases they didn’t even know each other. But collecting and then selling the catch was so vital that “we all work together for this,” they told him.

Two or three men would swim far out to begin to haul in the nets, a dangerous job they undertook voluntarily. “Then all these people gather together to pull the nets in,” Harlins said. “The water is truly sacred to them because it is their livelihood.” Yet that livelihood is threatened. The people he spoke with reported the catches were becoming smaller, as were the fish.

But the people continue. “I hope [visitors to the exhibit] will feel a sense of community with the people in these photos,” he said. “How people can be connected. How they can work together to lift each other up.”

Chicago-based photographer Hillary Johnson, who has three images in “Water Is Sacred,” is showing her work in California for the first time. The theme drew her in; she spends much of her artistic time taking pictures of people in the water. This has evolved into an entire series, “The Water We Swim In,” but it began with a dream she had of a woman in water.

In 2018 she attended a photography retreat and became “instant friends” with a woman she met there. Johnson asked if she could photograph her in the water. “It was a magical moment,” she said. When they discussed the experience afterwards, her friend told her “she felt things shift,” as in letting go and healing. Johnson, who also guides meditations and has worked in trauma recovery, was struck by this.

From there, more and more people began asking for water portraits. Even during the pandemic, Johnson continued, “because the safest place to be was outside,” she said. She created what became, in time, more of a ritual, taking the photos only in open water, no swimming pools. She takes most of the portraits during the half-hour before sunrise.

“Early mornings can be so beautiful,” she said. “There is a glow, and not a single shadow.” She said she asks each person, “‘What are the waters that you have been swimming in?’” adding, “It’s a healing process for them.”

One person wrote about deciding to have their portrait taken:

“Because our collective waters have been murky and cloudy this year.

Because my own waters have harbored many sorrows.

When I go to the water—any body of water: creek, stream, river, lake—I feel safe:

in a special, sacred place.

a haven.

a place I go to just be.

I am constantly drawn to water.”

To take the images, Johnson stands on a small ladder, which also serves as a tether for anyone who is apprehensive at first. As a former swimming coach, she can teach someone to float. “The water and the person are forming each other,” she said, referencing a Japanese concept that the surface of the water is the future, and what is below the surface is the past.

The photographs become “evidence of how I am able to see them, and they see themselves in a way they have never seen before,” she said.

Johnson would like visitors to the exhibit to recognize their relationship with water. And she sees herself continuing to take water portraits “until I can’t hold a camera anymore.” One subject told her, “This is a global movement,” and Johnson encourages anyone interested in finding out more to reach out to her.

Other “Water Is Sacred” participating artists include Jenny Abramson, Syl Arena, Siobhan Byrns, Carole Cavanaugh, J.M. Golding, Toby Kahn, Marie Ocho, Zach Pine, Matthew Ross, Karen Safer, Tanja Schlosser, Wendy Sparks, Jeff Torquemada, Andrea Taylor and Melissa Woodburn. All works shown will be for sale.

Lamaina will make opening comments at the reception on Sept. 9. “We’re hoping to help people think about water on every level,” she said. “To be acutely aware of what we do with water … and to return it to being sacred.”

‘Water is Sacred,’ ACCI Gallery, 1652 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Exhibit runs Sept. 1 – Oct. 8. Opening reception, Sept. 9, 4-6pm. 510-843-2527. www.accigallery.com

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