Artist Interviews

Four perspectives on witchcraft in an age of environmental crisis

Cauldron used by Elizabeth Webb, the so-called 'White Witch of Dartmoor', c1900

Florence Peake, Grace Ndiritu, Emma Hart and Lucy Stein discuss what ’witch’ means to them and the work they have made inspired by objects in the collection of Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2022 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.  

Florence Peake

Which works in RAMM’s collection have you taken inspiration from for the exhibition ‘Earth Spells: Witches of the Anthropocene’?

I loved the geology collection – the rocks, crystals and particularly the flint. This drew my focus to the granite on Dartmoor. It has such an epicness to it, with all its millions of years of geological storytelling. I was also drawn to the White Witch of Dartmoor’s cauldron, which the show is centred on.

What are you making for this exhibition?

A text in the form of a banishing spell for shame and guilt, which is used in a film and painted onto interactive curtains, and also some ceramic works. My starting point was to spend time on Dartmoor itself. I worked with a shaman who lives there. The work tied in with a time of personal crisis, as well as the pandemic, so I wanted to think about Dartmoor, the cauldron, and witches as healers, as a way of coming to terms with grief and finding some refuge for this time.

What does the term ‘witch’ mean to you, personally?

It makes me think of a person who engages in ways of perceiving the world beyond its material signifiers and who connects to energetic and vibrational dimensions not necessarily visible to us.

There are many traditions globally that hold a role in society for witches but use other names – shaman, mystic, seer, alchemist, healer. I think of the ‘witch’ as a way of living or approaching the encounter with the world. I don’t see witches as being assigned any particular gender.

Perhaps all artists are mystics, shamans or witches. To think about witches or other people who work with mystical arts is to think about how lineages pass on wisdom, ideas and information, including how these arts of wisdom, healing and magic have encountered violence and oppression.

Grace Ndiritu

Tell me a bit about your interest in shamanism.

My interest in shamanism began when I was a child. I’ve been interested in bringing non-rational methodologies, such as shamanism and meditation, into the art space since 2012, when I began the project Healing the Museum.

How do the natural world and concepts such as ‘rewilding’ influence your practice?

I’m interested more in the idea of a wild woman and women who run with wolves. That was the name of one of my first shamanic performances, back in 2013, at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris. This was the time when I decided only to go to the city when necessary and otherwise to live in nature. I went to live with many different off-grid rural and spiritual communities, including at Tibetan and Thai monasteries and with the Hare Krishnas. I spent six years living nomadically in this way.

For this exhibition, you are re-creating a performance. Can you talk a bit about this?

I will be doing a second iteration of a performance called Labour: Birth of a New Museum (2021). I will be inviting pregnant women to take part in an initiation ceremony to discover the real face of their unborn children, so they can bond with them spiritually and bring those new energies into the museum. The idea is to connect with an unborn audience so that, when they grow up, they will experience art in a new way.

The first iteration was done at Nottingham Contemporary as part of the exhibition ‘Our Silver City 2094’, in which I built a temple inside the gallery and then invited the women to do the performance inside the temple. This time, the performance will take place in Gallery 20 at RAMM, next to the world collections.

I’ll also be creating a new Protest Carpet, connected to spirituality and ecological communities. We will sit on this carpet with the pregnant women and ‘activate’ it. This performance will be filmed to be shown, alongside the carpet, in the exhibition.

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Emma Hart

What does the term ‘witch’ mean to you, personally?

Someone who has a palpable energy, a life force that rubs off and affects people around them. Maybe Greta Thunberg is a witch?

Which works in RAMM’s collection have you taken inspiration from for this exhibition?

I like exploring the idea of the performative object – objects that don’t just commemorate something that once happened but without the presence of which things can’t happen, such as a cauldron or a wedding ring. I looked at a few posy rings in the museum’s store and was able to hold one. There was a text engraved on the inside: ‘in good faith’. I have been thinking about how those words sit next to the owner’s flesh, how they get carried around and how they become an object when the ring is worn.

What are you making for this exhibition?

I am drawing a connection between the idea of a spell and philosopher of language JL Austin’s notion of performative utterances. Austin noticed there are certain words that don’t just describe the world but make things happen. For example, you can’t make a promise or a bet without saying ‘I promise’ or ‘I bet’. You need to say a spell to enact it.

How does this fit with your practice more generally?

My practice is heavily influenced by the desire to make art active, for art to demand more from the viewer than a passive look, even by doing such a small thing as saying a word in their head. I want the work of art to cross a line, leaving its world and entering the viewer’s. Maybe that’s also like a spell – words that cross over into other people’s worlds.

The words I am thinking about for the RAMM commission will be presented in large ceramic speech bubbles, a form that I have used before. They jut out from the wall, normally at head height, and the layout of the text transforms the speech bubble into a face.

Lucy Stein

What does the term ‘witch’ mean to you, personally?

The witch in me is the anxious, sensitive female. When I was a child, I was very open to the spirits surrounding me, but I was terrified. It took moving to west Cornwall in my thirties to self-actualise and make peace with this aspect of myself. For me, the witch and the artist
hold similar positions as both require a hard-earned merging of instinct and intellect.

How do female mythology and ritual underpin your work?

Painting is an everyday ritual for me. I offer libations of expensive pigments and oils and ask with my hands and brushes to heal the body-mind rift for just a few hours. Female power figures are useful as icons of what the female experience entails, as signifiers that offer hope and understanding when it is required. These could be a Roman votive figurine, of the sort in RAMM’s collection, or the images of Courtney Love I had on my teenage bedroom wall. Sometimes I’ll paint these figures directly, more often I’ll try to channel the power in less overt ways.

What are you making for this exhibition?

With the assistance of artist Ben Sanderson, I’ve made a set of library steps. I wanted them to reflect the many spirals in RAMM’s collection, which bring to mind the female reproductive system, and to
describe a reaching up or striving that is almost zealous in feel. A striving for the immortal. Above the steps there will be some paintings on linen using images of works in the collection.

Which works in RAMM’s collection did you take inspiration from?

I have a passion for the golden age of children’s illustration, as exemplified by Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, so both of their works from the collection will be included in my installation. Among other things, I’ve also chosen nine Dartmoor snails, some hedgerow-patterned Devonshire lace, a barn owl and a glass Roman bracelet.

‘Earth Spells: Witches of the Anthropocene’, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter, 11 February to 7 May. 50% off paid exhibitions and 10% off in shop and café with National Art Pass.

About the author
Anna McNay
IndividualTiana Clarke Please note this is an example card and not a reflection of the final product

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