Text Vanessa Everts
Artwork and photographs Sophie Steengracht
Waanders Uitgevers / Van Vlissingen Art Foundation, 2018, 95 pp
ISBN 978 94 6262 212 8 English

Sophie Steengracht (The Netherlands, 1991) is interested in mythology, magic realism, transformation and the intertwinement of man and nature. Her drawings, paintings and sculptures feature mythical creatures, flora, fauna, the earth and the sky. In June 2018 she travelled through the Manu Biosphere Reserve in the Peruvian Andes, a place of exceptional biodiversity, home to animals and plants that are found nowhere else on earth. In a forest permanently enveloped by clouds, trees form a kind of botanical gardens; entire forests seem to float rootless in the sky. In this dazzling world filled with myriad shapes and colours, where species transform and move as their environment evolves, the indigenous people see a soul in everything and tell stories of forest spirits. Fungi and lichen make paintings on tree barks and speck the soil like stars in the sky. Sophie photographed, drew, etched and painted this world, where everything is reflected in something else, where patterns repeat themselves and death is as present as effervescent life.

Warmer, wetter, soggy, close, the lowland forest is a place where rot rules the day, fungi take over every surface and smells alternate between that of a zoo that has not been cleaned out for a while, a perfume shop, the herb garden of a master chef and a basket of yeasty fruit. Everything appears to be hiding behind something else or gives off an aura of being poisonous or at the very least inedible, playing tricks for survival. Wrapped in the forest's sticky embrace, the trees and their hairy populations begin to look more and more like monsters. Small white mushrooms shaped like thimbles give the appearance of constellations against a dark background of wet bark. Star-shaped mosses cover a brown stone. Tiny ferns and vines sprout from the huge roots of trees, seemingly out of proportion. A small circle of lichen on a tree's bark looks like a lake photographed from the sky; a map of the Rio Manu with all its branches could just as easily be a leaf with veins. Sophie keeps seeing connections between the small and close and the vast and far away. She takes photographs of the night sky, lighting the trees with her headlamp while fireflies and bats circle around her. Moths, some as big as two hands put together, make white ribbons in the frame. A bamboo rat screams in a bush overhead. In a dream Sophie sees the Milky Way. Then, looking more closely, she sees that the stars are leaves, leaves on trees that are falling towards Earth. Later she learns that the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon have a myth in which the forest is the fallen sky and a belief that if the forest is treated badly the world will lose its shamans and the sky will fall again.

Text © Vanessa Everts. Images © Sophie Steengracht.