The Healing Power of the World’s Most Valuable Scent

The first painting, altered after the first day of Oud: Awake to Wellness at Olfactory Art Keller. (all photos Renée Reizman/Hyperallergic)

I’m hustling to Olfactory Art Keller after being delayed on the subway. I have an appointment at noon for a one-on-one performance with the multidisciplinary performance artist CHOKRA. I’m already embarrassed because I’m not wearing white, as requested, but I’m visiting from Los Angeles and didn’t pack the right colors in my carry-on. I make it through the gallery’s purple-tinted doors 15 minutes late, wondering if I’ve completely missed our 14-minute ritual. But all that stress melts away as my senses are filled with the earthy scent of oud, one of the rarest fragrance ingredients in the world.

CHOKRA’s Oud: Awake to Wellness is an intimate ceremony that is inspired by the artist’s mixed ancestry and rituals. CHOKRA, who identifies as nonbinary and queer, left their home in the United Arab Emirates to more freely express their identity. It led them to Southeast Asia, where they learned how to tap resin from Aquilaria trees. The substance, oud, leaks from trees when infected, healing the tree. Oud is a trauma response to pain. It parallels CHOKRA’s turn to art, healing their past with the joy of self-expression.

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At the ceremony, CHOKRA begins by setting intentions and waves charcoal incense to cleanse us. We move to a low table for a kodo ceremony, a fragrant Japanese ritual that uses incense to awaken spirituality. CHOKRA burns a sliver of Aquilaria tree bark and invites me to inhale deeply. I’m reminded of sesame seeds. I’m instructed to sip warm tea and taste a date, and the smell profile of the oud changes. It becomes more umami with the tea, sweeter with the date.

While CHOKRA guides me through the ceremony, they rest a dish of oud oil on a small painting. Nested within a bright blue square on the minimalist canvas is a square of gold leaf. The pigment has been mixed with oud oil before applied to the canvas, which leaves small brown freckles on the surface. CHOKRA created one painting for each day of their performance. By the end of the exhibition and performances, each painting will be covered in gold leaf and wrapped in a string that has been saturated with oud oil during one of the one-on-one sessions. The paintings, which are incorporated into every performance, become imbued with our intentions.

From the humble setting, I would not have known that oud was so valuable. Luxury brands have capitalized upon it, adding the ingredient to expensive perfumes, ripping it away from its cultural history. CHOKRA says that a drop of oud is more valuable than gold. Attending this ceremony introduced me to oud’s original purpose as a sacred healing tool that helps one recover from illness, mentally and physically. By combining different oud rituals from their own cultural background, such as holding a Japanese kodo ceremony prepared with Indian Assam tea and utilizing Oud Cambodi (the rarest type of oud, harvested from Cambodia), CHOKRA shows how the resin has united their mixed heritage, which often made them a target of discrimination. But in Awake to Wellness, those divisions dissolve into a holistic experience with healing at its center.

CHOKRA lights a candle to prepare for the ritual.
The materials for the Kodo ceremony.
The materials for the Kodo ceremony.
The untitled paintings CHOKRA incorporates into the exhibition. The blank space represents the canvas that is part of my kodo ceremony.

Oud: Awake to Wellness continues at Olfactory Art Keller (25A Henry Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through March 12. Tickets are available online.


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