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INFERNO - Interview with Elijah Tamu

INFERNO - Interview with Elijah Tamu

Those well-versed in the currents of the Black Metal underground have on many occasions stumbled upon the name Elijah Tamu. A potent artist who has not only painted the artworks of respected albums like TEMPLE NIGHTSIDE's "Recondemnation" or ABYSSAL's "A Beacon In The Husk", but is also active with this band PANEGYRIST and involved in the works of REVERORUM IB MALACHT. When Black Metal band INFERNO asked him to provide a fitting painting to their latest album "PARADEIGMA (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)" a long artistic journey started. Elijah was kind enough to share personal thoughts and emotions about his painting and his way of looking at Art with us.

Q: Good day Elijah! As far as I know "PARADEIGMA (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)" is the first time you worked together with INFERNO concerning a cover artwork. May you tell us how the idea to work together for this release was born?

I first encountered INFERNO several years ago with their album "Omniabsence Filled By His Greatness". 2017's "Gnosis Kardias" was what really hooked me, though. When I saw one of the first online announcements for that album, I remember being immediately enthralled by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal's artwork in conjunction with spiritual resonances I sensed in the name of the record. Musically, it ended up being one of my favorite releases of 2017. I got in touch with a few of the members via social media; in fact, Marcel Szumowski, the drummer on "Gnosis Kardias", ended up recording session drums for "Hierurgy", the 2018 debut album of my band PANEGYRIST. Adramelech (vocals) expressed a strong interest in my artwork and reached out to ask if I would like to do artwork for INFERNO's forthcoming album. I got to briefly meet him when INFERNO played at Oration 2018 in Iceland, and he told me he'd be in touch as the music and thematic content of the record developed. Stephen Lockhart, the organizer of that festival, of course ended up being chosen to do the production on "PARADEIGMA (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)", so that was an interesting little convergence. It's always fascinating to see how various threads weave together over the years.

Q: Can you elaborate for us the different steps which were needed to give life to the picture now decorating the latest INFERNO album? It is known that your path to the initial idea is one of intuitive and religious practice, while the painting work itself, so the operative task of giving form to the idea, is then a calculated work. Was it the same for "PARADEIGMA"?

The basic framework that you outlined holds true for the process I went through for this project – the main difference being, I think, that more time went into this one than usual. There are a few reasons for that. As you mentioned, and as I have discussed extensively elsewhere, artwork is a fundamentally religious task for me, carried out in constant communion with my Lord. That I am a Christian is common knowledge at this point. In the case of INFERNO, of course, not all of the ideas and spiritual direction behind this album were compatible with my own dogmatic path; thus, my beginning point was an examination of the potential overlapping points and common ground, and all of this was brought before my Lord in prayer, seeking his direction on the matter. I arrived at a place of settledness in my spirit, sensing freedom to move ahead. I of course also let the band know of my religious commitments, and they were thankfully still happy to move forward.

I began by sending them art and photo references I had found online, which I felt were in some way connected with my meditations on the themes they had described. The early sketches I did involved more of a cubist approach, which was later mostly abandoned. Through email correspondence the band pointed out certain elements they liked and others that they did not. The ideas evolved and were refined synergistically. They wanted a somewhat abstract feeling, similar to the cover I had done for ABYSSAL's "A Beacon In The Husk", and they also wanted fractal patterns to play a prominent role. From the very beginning, the understanding was to have a large rectangular painting that would function as the continuous two panels of a gatefold. The dragon-like butterfly wings and mask had been a part of my initial sketches, but the pieces really fell into place when the idea of spiraling vertebrae came to me. The band immediately highlighted the fractal vertebrae in a sketch I sent them, indicating that this hit a strong resonance with them.

All of this unfolded over quite a long period of time, since at the time Adramelech first inquired about a cover painting INFERNO was still working on the material for their split with DEVATHORN and were still only in the early phases of composition for "Paradeigma (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)". I recall creating some of the initial sketches back in the summer of 2019, and it wasn't until February 2020 that I completed the painting. Figuring out the final arrangement of the design elements took a significant amount of time; all the intricate detail needed to be harmonized within an overarching sense of balance and motion, and this is a difficult thing to do. As always, I had all the details laid out in pencil before I started with the paint itself. This gave the band a very clear idea of the spatial layout for the image before it came to life.

Q: Adramelech told me that the three books "The Cosmos Of Self-Creation" (Michal Ajvaz), "Time Reborn" (Lee Smolin) and "The Red Book" (Carl Gustav Jung) were important for the creation of the whole album. Were the thoughts of these books also relevant for your painting?

I wish I could comment more extensively on this, but I have not read any of these works. The band did not refer to these books in particular in our emails, but they sent me fragments of their own writings. They have described elsewhere how the mystical and philosophical ideas behind this album formed and were documented in a long text they themselves authored. The excerpts they sent me served as the springboard for my own meditations, examined, as always, with the devotional religious lens through which I see and engage with all aspects of life. Much of this was fairly intuitive, since it deals with fundamental aspects of reality and perception: consciousness, patterning, above-and-below, flux, creation, eschaton, etc.

Q: To follow up: is the music of an album itself helpful for you when trying to paint a fitting artwork?

In general it's helpful for me to hear as much of the music as possible for any album I am doing artwork for. However, in the case of "PARADEIGMA (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)", the album was not completed during the majority of the time I was creating the artwork. The band sent me some small clips of material in progress, but I didn't hear the full album until it was released. This was not a problem, though, because I knew I could trust the quality of their work. "Gnosis Kardias" and the "Zos Vel Thagirion" split had already given me a good idea of the direction they were headed – that frontier space, still ripe for exploration, that pushes the textural boundaries of Black Metal but maintains a certain fervor and intensity that I usually find lacking in things labelled "Post Black Metal".

Incidentally, it's interesting to me that INFERNO initially didn't want to use distorted guitars on this album, as you recently discussed in your interview with Stephen Lockhart. This theoretically distortionless approach to Black Metal has likewise held my imagination for years, and I've long pondered ways of distilling the sinew and fire of Black Metal into something even more potent, but without the high-end hiss of standard guitar distortion. Which isn't to say that distortion is a bad thing, either – but something calls to me from beyond the edge of the familiar. I realize I'm going a little off topic here, but indulge me for a moment. It was REVERORUM IB MALACHT's album "Urkaos" that really sowed the seeds of this fascination for me; even though the guitars were distorted, the highs were filtered out, leaving these subterranean resonances. I had never heard anything like it before. Guitars that sounded like a choir of ghosts. The LURKER OF CHALICE self-titled full-length is another one of those places where I see that elusive something peeking through. I'm very glad to see INFERNO continuing to forge ahead into similar territories, and I look forward to where they go from here.

When I finally had a chance to hear "PARADEIGMA (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)" in its entirety, the following phrase seemed to me an apt distillation of the sonic and mystical questions the album asks: "Pattern upon pattern—what does it mean?" This type of music is based more upon shifting waves of overtones than it is on melodies, and it always stirs up strong visuals in my mind's eye. I don't have any kind of full-fledged synesthesia, but this kind of layered overtone music is regularly associated in my mind with specific textures, color gradients, and soft glimmers of iridescence filtering through cloudy depths. Translucent sound. Something akin to Rothko's paintings, which glow with the most subtle inner fire. On the other hand, the images in my own paintings are generally much more concrete than abstract; though surreal and symbolic, they involve clearly identifiable shapes and objects, with a sense of solidness. Be that as it may, I hope that the artwork I created effectively plays its role in directing the viewer/listener toward fruitful and true contemplations on the labyrinthine, coiling architecture of consciousness and cosmos. I trust it was more than mere chance that led to this pairing of images and sounds.

Q: Can you elaborate for us your methods of painting and which tools you used to create the picture?

I use a combination of gouache and ink on watercolor paper for my paintings. This allows for the use of wet-wash effects in certain areas, but with much darker and more vibrant tones than you would typically get from watercolors. I also use coffee instead of water as the solvent in some places, which adds earth-tones that can be used to good effect where needed. Because I use a significant amount of wet wash in my paintings, I always pre-shrink the paper before I begin, to avoid having the paper ripple. To do this, I fully immerse the paper in water for about 20 minutes, then fasten it down to a large board using staples around the edges. As the paper dries and shrinks, the staples hold it so that it stretches tightly and evenly across the surface of the board. When I begin painting, I keep the board horizontal so that the colors don't drip.

Q: What would you say was the hardest part of this specific picture? What was the biggest challenge for you artistically?

A lot of the challenges that came with this painting had to do with the size. This was the first two-panel album cover I had painted, and the dimensions of my usual paper didn't divide into two squares that would be large enough. Using a larger size of paper meant that I needed a larger board to mount it on, and the only board I could find was made of a much denser composite material that was very difficult to staple into. Laying out the composition and arrangement of the final image was also very time-consuming, because I needed to maintain a consistently high level of minute detail across a large space, while also making sure that the entire image had a sense of balance and flow to it.

Q: Your art speaks the language of death, transformation, and rebirth, because those are phenomena you have experienced yourself in your life and on your religious path. How do you see these topics materialized in the artwork for "PARADEIGMA (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)"? Is there a specific symbolism present which represents these three topics?

The idea of flux and azoth – the mercurial prima materia of creation – is central to this album's concept. The vesica piscis, the unifying third, the movement between polarities: manifestation. The band have called this the 'Ekstasis Of The Continuum'. My work is always some kind of unification through tension and contrast: darkness and light, the "aphotic" and the "phosphenes", if you will. Anything involving flux is, for me, closely related to death and the possibility of rebirth. So it is with baptism: the water becomes aqua vitae (and indeed the waters of birth) upon the initiate's reemergence, but it was first a burial and a drowning within primordial chaos, an unmaking of the old self. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4, ESV). These themes are present in this particular piece of artwork, though it is more primarily an exploration of the nature of consciousness. Rather than try to spell things out in a series of "x image represents y concept" statements, I would prefer to offer a few interpretive starting points and then discuss the ideological background. Without understanding my belief system, the images remain intentionally ambiguous. So, what do we see in this image? Ripple effects and the movement of wings. A mask with closed eyes, behind which a universe unfolds. Fractal spirals of bone, dendritic spines. A luminous portal and a winding mountain path.

Certainly, there are some key divergences here between my own beliefs and those of INFERNO; I very unambiguously believe in the centrality of identity, both for the uncreated God and the created beings he has brought into existence, whereas INFERNO views all individuated selves (whether man, devil, or god) to simply be transient iterations of the flux. For INFERNO, there is no meaning save movement itself, and all attempts at teleology are doomed from the very beginning. This is actually the same perspective present in David Chaim Smith's non-emanationist kabbalistic alchemy, which has lately been a subject of discussion between me and friends. Smith views all forms of identity to be reifications that must be dissolved, until no sense of self or other remains attached to the flux of perceptions, whose grounding non-identity he calls the "secret mercury": limitless possibility, consciousness without subject or object.

Despite some worthwhile insights and paradigmatic shifts it provides, I have a number of criticisms for such an approach – the most fundamental of which is that I don't see sufficient reason for pursuing such a task of universal dissolving in the first place. To me this seems to be an over-application of principles that are, in their own limited contexts, true. One of the first observations of anyone who has begun a process of seeking enlightenment is of course that our beginning assumptions about ourselves and the world are quite fragile, shallow, and insufficient. This is true. And so begins a lifelong process of sacrifice wherein all false perceptions are shed like a snake's skin. "Surrender all that may burn to the flame within." That is a noble aspiration. I do, however, think it is a fatal overstep to simply conclude that all forms of identity are mere reifications that must be dissolved. Perhaps people come to such conclusions out of a very basic desire to be free from suffering – in which case the teaching of the Buddha is quite compelling: the self is composed of attachments, and since these attachments are the cause of suffering, peace can only be obtained by a dissolution of the self. My response is that it is only an impoverished view of selfhood which concludes that selfhood must be destroyed. My approach flips the paradigm on its head and instead views selfhood as the very key to transcendence and non-duality. This is a paradox: only as I become more fully myself can I reach aspects of consciousness that meaningfully go beyond myself. The citadel is larger on the inside than the outside. I have, in times of deep meditation, experienced states of consciousness that might be called non-dualistic, but the meaning of this non-dualism is different and more expansive than a supposed eradication of subject-object relations.

I do not seek ultimate negation of self – what a sad and ultimately boring concept. No, I seek life, and life in abundance. Red sulfur and the mystery of salt, the fixing of the volatile. Horizons that expand forever in all directions, whose mysteries are never exhausted. Selfhood is key. Selfhood is the ground of transcendence; it was present within the Godhead, logically prior to space and time, and is present now in creation's vast array of manifestation. Whether we realize it or not, we long for reunification with God, our source – and such reunification does not annul identity, but rather expands identity allowing consciousness to go beyond itself even while remaining stable and anchored in particularity. This is my view, and no philosophy or mystical experience has unsettled this foundation; instead, whatever truths I have encountered have found their place within its limitless structure. Praise be unto the Lord, from whose eternal mind and eternal love we are manifest!

INFERNO have described "PARADEIGMA (Phosphenes Of Aphotic Eternity)" as a "paradoxical and uniquely immersive piece of Luciferian art which opens a portal to the beyond." It may sound strange to hear this, but I like that description quite a lot. Never will I reduce our disagreements to mere matters of semantics, but I have found a surprising amount of common ground with those who follow Luciferian currents. As for me, I seek the illumination of the True Lucifer, whom I wholeheartedly believe is not the devil, but none other than the Christ Yeshua: the Morning Star, the conquering Lamb whose light shall outlast the moon and sun. The paths of all who seek what is greatest, highest, and most real will ultimately lead to him. Beyond that, what do I need to say? Let him convince you, not my endless flow of words. You will know him when you see him.

"And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star [φωσφόρος] rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation" (2 Peter 1:19, ESV).

Q: INFERNO asked for a more "muted" version of the complete picture which is – in its original form – brighter and more colorful. Is that an issue for you if an artist asks you for such a specific change?

I understand the reasoning behind the choice, and it's not something I have any reason to get hung up on. This isn't the only time a band has wanted to make alterations to the tones, saturation, or contrast of a painting. I'm glad INFERNO was happy with the result they settled on. I asked Adramelech if I could share both versions of the artwork online, and he had no problem with that. That's one thing that is important to me: I like to be able to independently display the version that is closest to what I created, even if certain adjustments in tone or lighting were used for the "official" version that appears on an album cover. I'm also glad that the band discussed the idea of a more muted version of the painting with me beforehand, instead of just changing things without asking me.

Q: After you created an artwork for an album, do you also follow the reactions of the fans and the community to your works?

I wish I were one of those people who could honestly say they don't follow public reaction to their work (key word "honestly" – since I often have my doubts when artists or musicians claim that none of this matters to them). I admit that I follow what people say online. That's not all a bad thing, since it's important for me to know that my work has a spiritual and emotive effect on people. I wouldn't be doing this work if that weren't important to me. But I could certainly shed a lot of the ego-gratification that accompanies it – and I trust I will with time, as I seek to follow Christ's footsteps.

Posted on 09-30-2021 | Category: Inferno