Bhakti: A Practice of the Heart

Decompress and nourish your creative spirit with Bhākti: A Practice of the Heart at the Crossings Gallery. Brighton artist Deborah Johnson curates an interactive installation featuring mixed-media, portrait paintings, and visual affirmations in a lush living room. As a queer South-Asian artist and mental health professional, Johnson connects her personal ancestry and spirituality to create a place of comfort and sanctuary for all. Drop by to reflect in a journal, view the art, gather with friends, or engage with the community altar!

Visit the Crossings Gallery to experience the installation starting September 23!

Register for the free opening celebration on September 23!

Origins of the Bhakti Movement

The Bhākti Movement began in Tamil Nadu, India in 7th century AD. The movement was anti-caste, women-led, and centered around the idea that everyone could have a direct relationship with God—who could be found in nature or community—and that divinity existed within all of us. Bhākti yoga is a deeply political and heart-centered yoga practice that has an emphasis on singing, chanting, and gathering in community.

As a result of the appropriation of yoga in the West, we often only focus on asāna (physical practice) when yoga is an entire philosophy and lifelong practice. Our perception of what a healing space looks, feels, and sounds like is often rooted in a washed-down and appropriative experience of spiritual practices from non-Western cultures. Wellness culture has told us that there is always something to be fixed, improved upon, or bought that will make us better. Yoga shows us that slowing down, connecting to our breath, our bodies, and to the natural world, can allow us to step towards freedom. 

A Place to Nourish Your Creative Spirit

The pieces in this gallery have all been created by an intuitive art process through the practice of listening to trees, ancestors, and stories, as well as through following the heart. The furniture in this gallery has all been sourced secondhand, donated, or loaned, and serves as a reminder of the abundance that exists around us. It emphasizes how there are ways to experience physical comfort that do not further contribute to capitalism, a system that continues to harm the earth and gains power when we see ourselves separate from the natural world.

We have all changed in the past few years amidst COVID-19, and our bodies are holding so much that words cannot name. We all deserve to have physical spaces where we find respite; a place of comfort that allows our nervous systems to rest and access our innermost dreams and desires. Often when we enter gallery or museum spaces, there is a rigidity attached to institutions rather than an integration of the body and heart—the most integral components to the art-making process and to living. While this is a traditional gallery that showcases art, it also seeks to be a decompression space; a place where you can practice, rest, play, and nourish your creative spirit in community.

Weekly Bhakti Gathering Hour

Featuring the artist and special guests!
Wednesdays, September 28–December 14, 6:00pm–7:00pm

Every Wednesday during Bhākti Gathering Hour, visitors can connect with new people, journal, create art, or practice tarot, as well as meet the artist and special guests. Conversations will be hosted by rotating local BIPOC artists and will allow visitors to learn about the spiritual and personal aspects of each artist's practice. On October 12 and November 9, the healing practice will be focused on those in the BIPOC community.

Advanced registration is encouraged.

Register for Free


Who is this decompression space and gallery for?

The space is welcoming and open for all to attend. The installation and the weekly events are based in cultural practices rooted in South Asia and yogic philosophy, and aim to provide resources for BIPOC healing given the unique forms of harm and systemic oppression BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) people experience in the world. No specific spiritual affiliation or background is necessary.

What will a visitor experience at the exhibit?

Visitors will experience an interactive gallery and decompression space that will allow them to make art to contribute to the installation, journal, or gather with friends. There are art prompts to respond to, books to read, and a plant cutting exchange to participate in. Visitors can also view mixed media art such as textile pieces from recycled materials, gauche portrait paintings, and visual affirmations within a lush, open living room style space. 

What is a community altar? Should I bring something?

The community altar is a space for individuals that serves multiple purposes: a place to pause or meditate, a place to honor loved ones living and passed, and a place to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. Visitors are invited to bring something to leave on the altar, such as pieces of nature, photos, art, or meaningful objects (i.e. shells, leaves, crystals). However, it is not required.

What happens during the Bhakti Gathering Hour on Wednesdays?

Visitors will briefly sit together in a circle for a welcome by the artist, Deborah Johnson, followed by a short meditation and conversation. Then, participants will be invited to explore the space. They can look at the art, read the books, respond to a journal prompt, view or make something for the community altar, or talk to each other and the artist(s). The event is designed to be informal; visitors are welcome to come and go at any time. Special guests will co-lead select Wednesdays. On October 12 and November 9, the healing practice will be focused on those in the BIPOC community.

Some events mention "chanting." What is it?

Chanting is the repetitive practice of speaking or singing words or sounds. Chanting is found in spiritual practices around the world, but has a unique role in yoga: sound is considered sacred and healing.

Why is the installation centered on BIPOC healing practices and needs? If I'm not BIPOC, can I attend?

The installation and the weekly events are based in cultural practices rooted in South Asia and yogic philosophy, and aim to provide resources for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) healing given the unique forms of harm and systemic oppression BIPOC folks experience in the world. However, the space is welcoming and open for all to attend.

What should I wear? Should I take off my shoes?

Visitors should wear whatever they are comfortable in. Shoes should be removed within the gallery at the community altar area (only).

Do I need to buy tickets or pre-register?

Gallery: No registration is required. Guests can drop by anytime the Harvard Ed Portal is open. 

Events: Registration is highly encouraged.

All Harvard Ed Portal programs and events are provided free of charge. 

Upcoming Events

Art by Deborah Johnson

Opening Celebration

September 23, 6:00pm–8:00pm
Harvard Ed Portal

Join us to celebrate the launch of Bhākti: A Practice Of The Heart at the Crossings Gallery!

RSVP for Free

Portraits by Deborah Johnson

Weekly Gatherings

Select Wednesdays
Harvard Ed Portal

Don't miss the opportunity to connect with and form deeper relationships with your community at weekly gatherings!

Registration coming soon!


Art illustration by Deborah Johnson

Full Moon Party

December 8, 2022
Harvard Ed Portal

This winter, we'll be hosting an event to celebrate the full moon! Join your community for a night of joy, comfort, and affirmation.

Registration coming this fall!

Artist Statement: Deborah Johnson

My artistic journey has always centered a deep connection to my mental health, ancestry, and community. One of the most important questions I've learned to ask myself as a somatic practitioner and artist is, "For the sake of what? Art for the sake of what?" For me, it is for the sake of spiritual and emotional expression, for the sake of connection, and for the sake of freedom. I hope through emphasizing an intuitive art process, using materials that are easily available, and integrating the body, that my work can challenge the idea that art must be inaccessible in order to be valuable or effective. I hope my work encourages someone to buy cheap watercolors, take a deep breath, and paint the pain they have felt in their upper back, or write down the words they wish their mother told them, and frame it above their makeshift altar.

Read More

Two critical parts of my artistic practice are focusing on the process over the product and belief in the healing nature of creative expression. It is born out of listening and allowing for something larger than ourselves to move through us to do one of the most magical things we can do: create. As a queer South Asian who immigrated at a very young age, I know my identities are political and, in this age, marketable. My relationship to these identities is inseparable from the work I create, but also serves as both gateways and barricades to the ways I can fully understand others. My journey to learning about South Asian spiritual and mental health practices as a yoga teacher has deeply informed my artistic practice and my political beliefs. Our liberation is inherently tied to one another, my freedom tied to yours; and so I hope that with every piece of art that I create, it allows us to slowly untether ourselves from the trauma of white supremacy.

Both as an artist and mental health professional, I think it is imperative to be multi-disciplinary and a lifelong student. Each of my practices—dance, painting, writing, and music-making—all feed into one another. As I've learned bharatanatyam, I have been able to allow the anger and grief my body holds to be released into the earth. Designing and painting written affirmations and digital illustrations allows me to cast spells that center joy, magic, and care. I believe my work is a vessel for my ancestors, my personal connection to nature, and a practice that allows me to strengthen my relationship to my intuition. Through returning to ancient South Asian iconography, history, symbolism, and ways of being and integrating them into my artistic practice, I seek to create art that holds something holy and ancient while being firmly rooted in the present needs of the body.

Meet the Artist

Photo by Mel Taing (Instagram: @m.ltaing)

Click here to visit website    Click here to visit artist's Instagram

Deborah Johnson

Deborah Johnson (she/they) is a queer Indian-American multidisciplinary artist and creative care worker based in Boston, Massachusetts. Johnson was born in Chennai, India and grew up in Chicago, a city that nurtured her relationship to art, from teaching family art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago to being a part of the first Teen Council at The Museum of Contemporary Art. She studied political science at Oberlin College and is currently getting her Masters in Social Work at Boston College.

Special thanks to West Elm, Brookline Booksmith, Dharma Crafts, and Sword & Kettle Press for supporting this exhibit.

Kalama Mutual Aid

Kalama Mutual Aid aims to cultivate community solidarity and fight economic inequality at the root by normalizing consistent redistribution and political education. Visitors can learn more and donate to Kalama at their official website. You can also donate in-person by scanning a QR code at the front desk; you will need a phone and can use a credit/debit card or Apple Pay.
Sources consulted:
* Autumn Asher BlackDeer & David A. Patterson Silver Wolf (2020) Evidence Mapping: Interventions for American Indian and Alaska Native Youth Mental Health, Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 17:1, 49-62, DOI.
* Honoring Yoga's Roots by Susanna Barkataki
* My Grandmother's Hands by Resmaa Menakem