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Brushes With The Divine 

by Marty Demarest


I kind of gravitated to these things, and they also gravitated toward me," Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli says, his wiry frame folding and unfolding in a chair in the Lorinda Knight Gallery. Around him, leaning on the walls in anticipation for his upcoming show "Devotion," are 32 photographs -- nine in black-and-white, the rest in color. Each one, from the most cluttered to the almost formally austere, depicts something to do with an act of spiritual celebration.


All of the pictures were taken during the last five years by Bonuccelli, a Spokane native who moved to Seattle "post-grunge and pre-Internet."


"These characters and festivals and costumes would magnetize to me while I was traveling," he continues. "It's easy to go to Bali and hang out at the bar and the beach all day and get the Western tourist dose. But if you take a bus to the center of the island, where it's more rural, it's all artists in a way. I think that's more of a true vision, and that's what I wanted to go see. It was very non-touristy spots; and even when I went to where a ton of tourists go, I would find myself someplace where not a lot of them were."


The results turn the airy space into a jewel-box of spirituality, anchoring the whitewashed walls with their colors, seeming to shimmer with reflections of the images across the room. Among the recognizable pantheon of deities and worshippers proceeding around the space, one catches glimpses of people caught in their own moments of personal ecstasy, or communal celebration. The images, flowing from one to the other, create a whirlwind of spirituality, jumbling Native American celebrants with a group of people from Belize, splashed with vinyl housepaint during Carnival festivities.


"So many people in these different countries had multiple beliefs," Bonuccelli explains. "Every person you pass, every shrimp hut, has some image of some significance. Some of it might be cultural, some of it specific to that little island or whatever, and some of it is personal. And it all blends together. Buddhism, for example, seems to be integrated with anything else. Every little computer caf & eacute; would have a little Buddha statue on top of each machine. Or they would be standing next to images of other gods. I can't imagine that happening in America where you're crossing icons and symbology to that degree."


But it's a phenomenon that fills the gallery in downtown Spokane. Like the often dizzying images that Bonuccelli has captured on film, the spiritual effect of the exhibit is ornate. One photo induces a haunting tranquility, as Bonuccelli seemingly hovers his camera over a slender, upward-gazing Cambodian nun, and her matching cat. A few photos away, a red-shirted man from the Cook Islands reveals symbols stretched across an expanse of arm that Bonuccelli describes as "bigger than my waist." Across the room, puzzlement and delight are induced by a picture of a woman caught in a personal moment of praise, dancing in a Mrs. Santa suit with a magic wand outside of the Sydney Opera House.


"A lot of these are third- or second-world countries," Bonuccelli notes. "But people are so full of life. In Cambodia, you witness how laborious every day can be, just to collect water. In the Dominican Republic the power goes out for five hours almost every day -- and it's 95 degrees out. It's not a small inconvenience. And yet people aren't petty. They know what is a major thing and what is a minor thing. And I think that much of their religious beliefs give them that perspective."


But Bonuccelli, who says he is "not a religious churchgoer," isn't attempting to preach or comment with his photographs. Instead, he honors his subjects by filling in the blanks of their stories through careful, visual narration. A handful of Bali men are shown carrying flags and streamers across a beach, the wind whipping the cloth and the waves simultaneously. By framing them against the sea, Bonuccelli tells us the nature of their ceremony without words. And by keeping the men below the horizon, while their banners and canopies rise into the upper half of the photograph, he reveals the effect that their ceremony has on their lives. It does, in short, was a picture should do -- which is transcend words and present us with a truth.





Publication date: 08/07/03

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