“I want to wake up more into myself and see who else out there is on the same wavelength or has the same interests, so we can start having important conversations and create a community. We are so much more powerful as a group because it is not just about you – it is about something bigger.”
– Santiago Sierra Soler
Mexican photographer and filmmaker Santiago Sierra Soler created this month’s cover. He is a phenomenal artist and a dear friend with whom I am so excited to collaborate.
In February, Funga did a piece on The Waking Ape, an independent creative collective founded by Santiago Sierra Soler and Vito Basso in 2019. Their sole mission is highlighting and promoting the emerging consciousness movement through storytelling. You can view more of Santiago’s beautiful work on his website or follow him on Instagram.
Below you can find an interview about his process as an artist and spiritual journey. Dispersed throughout the article is the photo essay he put together for this edition of Funga. The collages he created comprise people, teachers, friends, and places he has encountered throughout his life.
What was your intention behind the cover photo and your process of making it?
Step 1 – EAT MUSHROOMS. Kidding (kind of). For one part of the process, I did eat some mushrooms and shot pictures in Reserva de la Biósfera, a Natural Reserve in Sian Ka’an.
I made some shots of nature and some of trash. I was focusing on sargassum, a type of brown algae that sometimes washes ashore in huge quantities in this region of Mexico. A friend and I went on a hike in the Reserve and arrived at an incredible virgin beach just as the mushrooms were beginning to hit. The algae caught my eye for some reason, especially the color. I didn’t have more of a plan, but I just intuitively took pictures of things through my mushroomy gaze and thought it would be a nice addition to the collages I created for Funga.
Right now, I am focused on integrating my past life in New York and the work I have been doing since moving back to Mexico. So the collages include some different types of pictures I have taken of people, nature, objects, and textures I have collected over the years. Peter Beard was a big inspiration for this project and someone I greatly admire.
Can you tell me about your journey as photographer and filmmaker?
I guess it started with music first, but I realized it was a bit of a long shot. I played piano at the Conservatory for six years but grew a little tired as it was very time-consuming and intense. So I began making music videos, followed by advertisements, and as a natural progression, my interest in photography grew. I started directing fashion shoots mainly, which led to a promising career in the US but also to an eventual depression which I can credit to the fact that I was working for other people and not living out my own creativity. I had a very transformative experience with mushrooms (more on that later) which led me to change many things about myself and also gave me the introspection to start thinking about what I would like my work to be like. The question that came up was, “How do I want to be remembered?”
For me, the answer is telling stories through film. It is a medium that encompasses storytelling, visuals, music and can touch upon philosophical concepts. Music remains one of the most important aspects of my process. With my latest project, the Bellas Artes short film, I decided on the soundtrack first and let that guide the rest.
What is the most meaningful project you have ever done?
The Waking Ape, which we already talked about, has been a very meaningful personal project, leading me to learn about conservation. Getting to work with my friend Vito Basso was also a very exciting aspect.
Next, I would say the book I did – Nahual.
“In Mesoamerican indigenous tradition, Nahual refers to human beings who have the power to shapeshift and transform into animals, elements of nature or perform supernatural acts.
It is also a form of introspection that allows those who practice it to have close contact with the natural world and the spiritual world.”
All my projects have been an evolution of one another. It was incredible to collaborate with this community in Yucatan, which is why the documentary and book reflect the indigenous tradition and the myth of the jaguar – an animal that is very emblematic of Mexican culture. It was a lifelong dream to make a book, and I already can’t wait to make another one soon.
Lastly, the short film that I have just done for Bellas Artes feels like a thesis because it encompasses a big production, a story, and is very visual and experimental. For me, it is crucial right now that my work has a message and a purpose for existence because it makes them last longer. The research for the project has been amazing because it is about how we used to look at time in a spiral in Ancient Times. So it is all about cycles that start in one place and end up in a place similar to that but a little different. The project is also about muralism, which starts with Mexican history and hunter-gatherers and then goes into empires that we had in the prehispanic times, where it was greatly about rituals. In that segment, you will get to see a lot of mushrooms. The exhibition will open at Bellas Artes on April 27th, 2023, and will run for three months.
When did your spiritual path begin?
I think we always are, especially as kids. At that point, you just don’t see it as such. For me, being spiritual is just returning to being a kid and realizing that you are not the identity you created for yourself. I also think that is what mushrooms are amazing for because they separate you from your identity, and you get the perspective to notice that that is just a mask. It is also an opportunity to use that as a starting point to create who you want to be. That is incredibly powerful because if you don’t have that point of view, stepping out of that constructed identity is very challenging because you become more rigid as you age.
This is something I learned from friends that live in the desert. For them, it is not about knowing facts but about having experiences that make you learn more about your inner self.
When did your relationship with psychedelics start?
When I moved to New York to start working on my career, I was competitive and mainly focused on trying to get ahead. I started becoming very angry and was frustrated because I couldn’t see all the amazing things I was doing. From there, I had a life-changing experience with mushrooms. It was not my first time, but I had never done them like THAT.
It was New Year’s, five years ago. My brother’s wife was just about to have their daughter, whose delivery was delayed, so my younger brother and I decided to rent a house in Woodstock for a few days. Randomly, that was the house of the guy that had written Startreck.
Looking back, it was truly the right moment for this to happen because, at that time, I felt like a crumpled-up piece of paper that had all these amazing things written on it that I couldn’t read.
So we made a little altar and fire and because it was New Year’s also wrote some resolutions which we burnt. The most important aspect is to give thanks before anything because gratitude allows you to receive. It is the first vibration of the higher frequencies. The fact that I did it with my brother was a special part because it is a human I am truly tethered to. I remember looking at him and seeing him in all stages of his life, from a baby to an old man.
It was a huge download of information, so I was overwhelmed but never scared. I also cried a lot. The next day, we visited a Tibetan monastery in Woodstock, which is where it all hit for me.
I remember looking at the ceiling and having this overwhelming feeling of belonging.
When I got back to New York, I started seeing signs everywhere. I suddenly had a calling to do ayahuasca, to expand on my yoga practice, and an urge to travel to India. I still want to do a lot of homework from that trip, but it really started shaping my life. It is not that it changed me, but it took away the fog and clutter, which allowed me to focus more on who I really am. It shows you yourself, and then you can decide if you want to honor that and keep working towards it. If you don’t do the homework, you will remain the same.
What psychedelic is your favourite?
For me, yoga is better than any psychedelic because psychedelics are a window, but to be able to stay there, you need discipline. If you don’t have that, you’re getting nowhere like the hippies in the 60s.
I have had all these experiences that have put me on a path, and I know for sure that it is a path I will continue until I die. Psychedelics give you tools to handle situations that come, like problems with friends and deaths in the family, because at the end of the day, it all doesn’t really matter.
Whenever I am in an altered state, I think that the only currency of value is spirit. Everything else is not that important.
Whether you do ayahuasca, mushrooms, or peyote, they teach you the same things, even though the tone is different. This is because it is not information that comes from somewhere else; it is information that you already have inside of you that you bring into your conscious mind.
Do you have a purpose as an artist?
My purpose is to always continue learning and work on themes that get me closer to who I am. I especially feel that working with nature holds up the greatest mirror.
I want to wake up more into myself and see who else out there is on the same wavelength or has the same interests, so we can start having important conversations and create a community. We are so much more powerful as a group because it is not just about you – it is about something bigger.
If you could choose to exist as one plant, which one would it be?
I would pick hikuri (peyote) because they hold so much knowledge and also feel very Mexican, which I am too. Other reasons why I would choose to be a hikuri come from my good friends in the desert. They call plant medicines power plants and have shared with me some myths surrounding them.
The first is that hikuri doesn’t undergo photosynthesis like all regular plants through the sun but through the light of the stars at night.
Another theory is that when enlightened masters die, they come back to humans as power plants.
Even if the above myths might not be true, I like to imagine they are.