BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue r26

Waking the Witch: Old Ways, New Rites

Main picture: ‘Home Rites’ by Cathy Ward, courtesy Oriel Davis

Kate Bush’s song ‘Waking the Witch’ – a glorious, sometimes-kitsch-sometimes-terrifying cacophony of voices that begins with a whispering of ‘wake up’ and ends with shouts of ‘Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!’ – is playing in my head as I approach Oriel Davies’ main gallery. I can’t help it. It’s all there – the blood, water and stone, the blackbirds, the hoarse roars of the Witch-Finder, the jury of ‘good’ people and the ‘innocent’ girl. ‘This must be played loud’, exhorts the maker of an accompanying unofficial video on YouTube.

With contributions from sixteen artists through performance, video, ceramics, paintings, textiles, drawings, installations and photography, this is not only a complex show but, because of its somewhat over-reliance on lengthy text-based explanations, also rather a tiring one. There are just so many different manifestations of witch-hood to grapple with: the pre-industrial, post-feudalism witch – healer, seer, herbalist and wise woman: the persecuted witch – oppressed, burnt at the stake and marginalised: and the contemporary witch – feminist icon and modern-day shaman.

Polly by Lucy Stein courtesy Oriel Davies

Who is she? What is she? I ask myself. And how can you extricate her from all those tired cinematic and fairy-tale-imbued clichés? To which, I have to say, this exhibition does succumb. Nevertheless, Lucy Stein’s painting, ‘Polly’, 2012, featuring a Puritan-esque girl with her right arm metamorphosing into a black swan, approaches something like magical. As does Fiona Finnegan’s beautifully restrained ‘In the Shadow of the Sun’, 2018, hung, curiously out of reach, high up the gallery wall. Cathy Ward’s series in antique frames with their tiny swirling drawn incisions are equally bewitching in their strangeness. And Mary Beth Edelson’s collection of gouged silver gelatin prints, Dematerializing in Fire Ring, 1975, featuring a naked woman cross-legged in a circle of light is particularly powerful.

Georgia Horgan’s film, Magic Kills Industry, 2015–2018, is both informative (insightfully connecting the Enclosures Act with society’s devaluing of women and their work) and elegantly constructed, with some stunning newsreel juxtapositions. Nonetheless, some of the other films with their crude graphics, frolicking sack-clothed masked figures, close-ups of long-nailed hands cupping toads and groups of be-costumed girls striding through snow to make pentangles, seem merely parodies of hackneyed B-Movies or stilted, jerkily framed versions of Ingmar Bergman classics. Are these almost laughable pastiches intentional?

Perhaps, as with any truly intangible notion, the witch cannot, indeed should not, be pinned-down. Saying that, Katarzyna Majak’s extraordinary Five Witches, 2011 – five photographic portraits of contemporary witches – ooze authenticity. An elder, a shaman, a dancing healer, a whisperer away of illness and ‘one who listens to the woods’: these women, as they pose with their feathers, shells, pipes and sticks, hold our gaze fearlessly. And what eyes – they are mesmerising.

For me, the true potency, the success, of this show lies in its objects. There is the ritual knife made from bog wood, the witch’s bottle found beneath the front door of a house in Sussex whose imagined iconic etched face is replicated in Serena Korda’s glorious Jug Choir, 2015, nineteen huge vessels that froth and foam with powerful bedevilment. There is the obsidian scrying mirror, the discomfortingly named hag’s stone and key, the three sage bundles, the burnt wood cursing stick and the curse box with its phallus-ed wax figure and dried lizard’s skin. The artists’ versions of these mostly antiquarian artefacts sit perfectly among them. Lucy Stein’s red ceramic ‘Fertility Charm’, 2018 and Candice Lin’s gorgeous ‘The Gender of Smell’, 2015 – miniscule carved incense totems – are both beautifully observed and understood. As is Cathy Ward’s ‘Home Rites’, 2009, an installation comprising a battered kitchen table etched with a marvellous scrawling of love hearts, names and Wiccan symbols, on top of which are five magnificent corn dollies enclosed by bell jars.
Jug Choir by Serena Korda, courtesy Oriel Davies

Pay attention! Bush’s choir exclaims in my head.

Eschew the overload of information, peer in closer and Oriel Davies’ Waking the Witch will enchant.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.

This exhibition runs until 7 November.


previous blog: Interview with João Morais
next blog: Serendipitous Intimations of Mortality


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