The content of Jel Ena’s Sanctum Infernum immediately signals conflict through uniting the diverging ideas of the sacred and infernal. We know we are going to be experiencing works that are going to try to challenge our boundaries of morals, ethics, comforts, and beliefs. Usually this experience is horrifying and grotesque; but it is the balance of the sacred and profane, not just in theory, but in the visual execution of these graphite drawings that make this show inviting.
Artwork that challenges our comfort zones usually weighs heavier on grotesque physical depictions, such as monsters in literature and film. But Jel Ena’s realism of human form dispersing into ethereal gloom is a subtle depiction that introduces a feminine approach to a horror narrative.
The women in each of the works are transitioning into the infernal mental from the sacred physical that is bridged by melancholy. In film and literature in order to create compelling drama that moves the plot forward, the protagonist is faced with physical opposition in the form of an antagonist. In Sanctum Infernum these projections of internal processes are manifested through wild hair, protruding horns, decaying flora and fauna, and the female nude.
The protagonist and antagonist being one person makes for a circular narrative rather than a linear narrative. There is no state of being that these women are attaining. Like the Tai Chi taijitu symbol, these elements of the sacred and profane engender one another just as they are the dissolution of one another. And when the sacred and profane are seen as circular rather than polar opposites, the division between them becomes indecipherable. By providing this model of good and evil as one, Sanctum Infernum challenges the audience.
Jel Ena was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia in Eastern Europe. With both parents as artists—her father a professor at the Academy of Applied Arts at the University of Belgrade—she was immersed in art at an early age. Though she graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts at University of Belgrade with a major in painting, she credits her art education to both her parents.
[pull_quote_center]What I learned from them in such depth about drawing, painting, technology, art history, business of art, and more, no art school in Europe was offering at the time.[/pull_quote_center]
On top of having professional artists for parents and attending the Academy of Fine Arts, Jel had the fortune to live and travel throughout Europe, home of many artists and works that most of us will only read about in textbooks or see in online galleries. The most impressionable travelling to her career, however, was an opportunity to visit the United States to complete several commissions. During her stay in the States, civil war broke out in Yugoslavia and her family urged her to remain abroad until the end of the war.
Jel has worked as a freelance artist, an illustrator in animation for film and television, and video games. Following the footsteps of her father, she worked several years as an art teacher, and in 2009 she began working as a full-time artist.
Now in 2015 Jel Ena has teamed together with Stephen Romano to produce Sanctum Infernum, which opened at Stephen Romano Gallery Brooklyn, NY October 29th and will be running until December 15th. This series of drawings is particularly intimate to Jel as it deals with many of her personal demons and darkness. In the interview below Jel gives us some insight into what inspired her to study the interplay between the sacred and the profane.
Dirge Magazine: What led you to work on the spectrum of good and evil?
Jel Ena: The idea for the show sprouted from conversations with Stephen Romano about one of my older pieces titled The Devil in Love. That particular piece was created in 2012 and was used for the poster for a play in London. The play was an adaptation of the novel The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte (1772). In a nutshell, the devil, after being summoned by the main character, appears in female form, falls in love with him and, of course, tries to seduce him. What made a lasting impression on me was the adaptation itself, made by play director Venus Raven.
The demon/devil appearing in female form was particularly of interest to me. I was interested in exploring the power and control demon women have (something that in real life is only possible to obtain by men, still).
How do you personally relate to the content of Sanctum Infernum?
In my vision, the ultimate symbols of power of these women are their horns. The symbol of strength is their hair, therefore big wild hair. Their idealized beauty symbolizes unlimited control they can obtain at will.
While researching this subject for the show, I wanted to go further and explore the vulnerability of these horned women, because I was going through a very difficult time. Since they are my own creations, and they do not really belong to any other mythologies or religions, nor stories, except maybe Medea, I view them as my own demons, my strengths but also weaknesses, my feelings and emotions, my dreams and my ideas. Salve Me and Requiem are the pieces that are addressing my deepest and darkest thoughts and dreams.
How would you define Sanctum Infernum as a concept for the show?
It’s a dichotomy of terms; contradiction that is present in all of us, the conflict, and our neverending effort to balance them out. As much as they are contradicting they cannot exist without each other, just like light cannot exist without darkness, heaven without hell, sacred without profane/infernal.
I see these women are often placed in natural settings, however, the mood is dark, and even grotesque, or perhaps more appropriately, infernal. Is there a relationship that you are trying to portray between setting and the inner nature of female form? What also would you like to add in regard to your purposes for utilizing the female form in your work?
I believe that beauty can be reflected in pretty much any setting. My drawings are stripped of any specific environments other than a few symbols that emphasize loneliness, emptiness, including death and decay in some form, but also power and strength and immortality. I pay special attention to the selection of models for my work. Their features are of utmost importance as they are supposed to be contrasting the settings they are in.
Each of the women in your works has horns of some sort or another protruding from the heads. This could easily be associated with being a demon. Would this correlation be correct?
Horns have several meanings in this series. Firstly, they indicate that all of them are coming within the darkness/Infernum. Secondly, they are symbolic of their power. Thirdly, it is the outward expression of their primal urges.
These are realist depictions of women, yet the horns, the wild hair, and decaying animals floating amidst them are “surreal,” and yet you draw them to appear naturally apart of their forms. How do these animals, plants, skulls, fit into the being of these women?
I think they are beyond that. Their forms are in some way idealized on purpose in order to juxtapose an overall dark and grotesque mood (that this body of work emanates). Their bodies are an epitome of light existing amidst the darkness. Their hair and animals carry certain symbols. The bigger the hair the more strength they possess, something like Samson.
Are there specific meanings behind the flowers that you chose?
Flowers in these works are dead. They are slowly decaying, or more likely their decaying processes will never end, as the moment of decay is frozen in time in my artwork. I think this can be applied to animals as well.
In drawing Stigmata there are two wounded pigeons. Is there a personal connection with loss represented by these two deaths?
Stigmata is the one with two doves. Those two doves are not wounded, those are Luzon bleeding-heart doves (Gallicolumba luzonica), also known as stigmata. There is a legend about them and Jesus on the cross where they flew and brushed themselves on Jesus’ ribcage wound and forever kept his blood on their chests. But that legend has nothing to do with this piece, I just wanted to explain why they have those red spots.
What I was exploring in this piece and a few others is the idea of the possibility of redemption, or death as a salvation from eternal torment, which was never given to the devil or demons by god in Christianity. Why is that so? Would that be that if they are saved or let to die then heaven would have no meaning? Who will than take care of all the “bad guys”?
The way the carcasses are connected to human forms gives me the impression that there is something going on with the idea that death is not letting go. Perhaps there is something that isn’t moving on after it has died.
Are they really dead or in a transitional place where they are waiting to be reincarnated?
“Death is not the end; death is the cessation of the connection between our mind and our body. Most people believe that death takes place when the heart stops beating; but this does not mean that the person has died, because his subtle mind may still remain in his body. Death occurs when the subtle consciousness finally leaves the body to go to the next life.”
There is no specific atmosphere. No clear heaven or hell. Where does the infernal lie?
No, there is no clear heaven or hell, at least I don’t see them like that. Infernal life exists within me, probably other people too but I can only speak for myself here. This inner torment, everyday struggle is to achieve balance and prevent the darkness from becoming one big swallowing hole.
Either these women are from darkness or they are entering darkness. What are these women discovering about themselves?
These women are coming from darkness, an infernal place, but they are discovering how strong and powerful they actually are.
The concept for these drawings is clearly dark, but I noticed that the pale bodies of these women are highlighted greatly with light. How does light emphasize darkness?
The very same way sanctum emphasizes infernum.
Commonly in stories when a character becomes dark they are described as ‘surrendering’ to darkness. I see surrender also in your works. Would you say surrender relates to darkness? Furthermore, how would you relate surrender to Sanctum Infernum?
In some of the pieces they are seeking salvation, not from darkness but within the darkness. It is their environment, it is the negative and positive energies, feelings, emotions they are battling to balance out. I don’t believe in surrender. Darkness (infernal) is not necessarily bad, just like light (sacred) is not necessarily all good.
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