Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly
In their collaborative series, Performed Places (2006–ongoing), Ghani’s filmmaking and Kelly’s choreography excavate layers of memory and meaning enmeshed in historic sites. Through archival research and by responding to physical remnants of a given space’s former life, they develop movement, narrative, and video choreography that reanimates the past.
When the Spirits Moved Them, They Moved engages Pleasant Hill, Kentucky’s Shaker Village, a nineteenth-century settlement where the preserved architecture and landscaping convey Shaker spirituality. Rooted in principles of simplicity, shared resources, and racial and gender equality, Shaker communities offer a utopian alternative to the primary settler-colonial values that shaped the United States at its founding.
Ghani and Kelly began with first-person accounts from the community’s archives, assembling a textual score that guided a daylong performance. Through hymns that become rhythmic stomping and folk dances that become frenetic movements, the work traces the emotional and spiritual arc of weekly worship meetings in which spiritual gifts overtake believers’ bodies. In the three-channel video, this performance is distilled from twelve hours into the choreographic journey shown on the central screen. On either side, mirrored shots of the serene environs emphasize the ordered design of Shaker life outside these chaotic convenings.
Projected life-size with surround sound, the video invites audiences to imaginatively step into this space and join this transformative gathering. The related photographs invite slower reflection on Shaker ways of being-in-common.
Mariam Ghani, born 1978, New York City
Erin Ellen Kelly, born 1976, St. Louis, MO
When the Spirits Moved Them, They Moved , 2019, three-channel video (color, sound); 23:36 min.
With dancers Lauren Argo, Theresa Bautista, John Brewer, Amanda Carrick, Lauren Frederick, Lizzie Gulick, Erin Ellen Kelly, Faryn Kelly, Rob Morrow, Sanjay Saverimuttu, Ashley Thursby, Philip Velinov, Natalia Velinova, and singer Twana Patrick.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 2021.23.1
For full film credits, see: mariamghani.com/work/1288.
Diptych (Bend in the Wall and Theresa at the Door)
Meeting House, Morning
Triptych (Two Houses, Two Shadows, Ashley Fallen to the Floor, and Last Cow in the Field)
Triptych (Trees Above, Amanda Abandoned, and Stones Below)
All photos 2019, dye transfer prints on Dibond, from the series When the Spirits Moved Them, They Moved
Courtesy of the artists and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
As you step into the room, you face a central projection on the far wall. Along the walls to the left and right are mounted photographs, and the main wall text is to the left of the door. To the left and right of the doorway are benches oriented toward the projection wall.
The main video work, When The Spirits Moved Them, They Moved, is composed of three horizontal projections lined up to make up one long image that fills the wall. The left and right videos are mirror images of each other. They show matching overviews and close-ups of a preserved nineteenth-century village with white and yellow wooden buildings, bright green manicured grass, and lush trees with textured bark. The central video follows thirteen dancers as they warm up in a field and then walk into a two-story meeting house. They get dressed upstairs and then come down into the bright open interior where they perform together from morning to late afternoon. An older white woman sings while walking around the group. The dancers, dressed in all red, white, or yellow, trace coordinated movement patterns, and then begin to sway, shake, and swoop. They roll on the floor, form a circle and improvise wild dances in the center. At times, an audience is shown sitting on benches and clapping along. Finally, the dancers lie still on the floor and then sprawl around the room, leaning their bodies against the meeting house’s wooden benches, windows, and open doorways. The video ends with a montage of the empty building with sunlight slowly fading.
The photos that line the gallery are printed stills of the natural scenes of Shaker Village in Kentucky and dancers from the videos.
To the right of the section text is a smaller printed panel that reads:
On Mother Ann’s birthday the whole Society met at the Meeting House to celebrate the day. Like all Sabbaths in Shaker villages, a beautiful stillness pervaded. After the body of worshipers gathered into order, we commenced the services by one bow and opened the meeting by singing a hymn. All that were able united into ranks to step for the first song, then formed two circles for the march. At this time in a meeting it was usual to step quick and lively for two songs, sing two songs for the slow march, then two for the round dance with the circle unbroken. On this occasion the house was too crowded to march with convenience, so the dancing commenced in a promiscuous manner by the middle and young classes, and was attended with great power. The seats had to be taken out of the room to give place for the spirits to sing and dance, and the gifts and blessings of heaven were poured forth by the heavenly Orders in great abundance. We received gifts of freedom and simplicity, life and zeal, balls of love and blessing, sparks of holy fire, palms of victory, staves of strength, crowns of love, mantles and robes of wisdom, chains of union, and numerous other gifts of a similar kind, calculated to strengthen our souls and fill us with life, which continued to flow almost incessantly throughout the meeting. Sometimes when an individual would receive a bush or other emblem filled with quickening power or holy fire, we would all unite and shake heartily. A great many were wrought upon by an irresistible power, which caused the assembly to shake and reel and toss like the trees of the forest when shaken with the wind. The involuntary exercise became so violent that we discontinued ranks and all united in the dance, and one was moved upon by the departed spirit of a female of some other Nation, and all her movements and motions seemed to prove she had lived to a very old age. There was some quiet sleepy kind of spirit took possession of Illinois Green, which caused her to sit about on the floor apparently asleep for some time, then all of a sudden she sprang to her feet and whirled and jumped about the room as tho she was affrightened into a fit. About the middle of the meeting, Emma McCormack was possessed by a spirit and lay helpless for some time, continually hollowing, then suddenly sprang to her feet and danced round the room very swiftly for a short spell. After this Emma broke out in the most melodious strains that the human mind could conceive of, singing songs new to us, that appeared to be from the Spiritual world. Much praise was danced and sung that day, and towards the conclusion we received from Holy Mother Wisdom, each one a drop of her pure love … Some of those that were there say it was one of the liveliest meetings they were ever in.
Intro text adapted from:
A Brief account of the proceedings of the day, and the meeting of the Society at Pleasant Hill, Ky. December 25th, 1845. / Western Reserve Historical Society VIII A-49
June, 1847 / Spiritual journal, Pleasant Hill archives
Monday, March 8, 1852 / Spiritual journal, Pleasant Hill archives
Saturday, February 14, 1857, and March 1, Sabbath 1857 / Filson Historical Society, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 11 of 40, “Journal Kept by James Levi Balance, April 1, 1854-March 31, 1860”
THE LORD’S DAY, MAY 25TH/ JUNE 1st  / “A Journey to Kentucky in the Year 1873,” Elder Henry C. Blinn
As you exit the gallery room, make a left turn. A few steps forward is a display case that protrudes from the wall with the next works. On the other side of that case, about thirteen feet from the last gallery, is the section text with QR code