Oriel Davies is the first stop for a spellbinding artistic response to witches and witchcraft
Whether they are seeking to challenge prevailing norms or exploring a counter history full of magic and feminist dissidence, artists can find rich source material in the life and lore of the witch.
In the UK we have a long and weaving history of fascination with witches, their persecution and status as outsiders stretching from the pagan beliefs of pre-Christian Britain to the revived modern interest in Wiccan beliefs and ritual practice. As the press release to this intriguing group show puts it: “the chants of witchcraft echo through the history of the British Isles”.
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Waking the Witch, which begins its UK tour at Oriel Davies Gallery, explores this history and the importance of craft, ritual and the land on the ever changing and shape shifting practice of the witch – through the eyes of 15 artists.
Among them is Serena Korda, whose Jug Choir, made of brilliantly bastardised witch bottles sporting multiple breasts and spewing ectoplasm, offer surprisingly good acoustic qualities. When blown into as part of a group performance they create a surprisingly hypnotic and incantatory sound dubbed, by Korda, ‘The Ectoplasmic Variations.’
There is always a hint of humour and incongruity in the works of Serena Korda, but in this context she provides an entertaining take on contemporary and historical narratives of witchcraft – and it’s one of several works here that could claim to be reinterpreting the ‘multifarious voices’ the witch has been given over the centuries.
Part Hammer Horror, part desolate dream sequence from a Scandinavian crime drama, Swedish artist Nadine Byrne’s film, Dream Family, is a hypnotic take on the themes of ritual, magic and myth, and features five women enacting ‘sacred rituals’ in a landscape of deep green forests and snow. The costumes from this poetic paean to the Wiccan world are also on display together with Byrne’s dream journal.
A more resolutely historical approach to witchery comes from Magic Kills Industry, a film of a performance by Georgia Horgan who charts the effect of politics and landownership on the witchcraft trials. Horgan intertwines her interest in witchcraft with the history of women, the old textiles industry in Scotland and the effects on the means of production of machinery and technology.
A series of paintings includes the ethereal oils of Belfast artist Fiona Finnegan, which seem on the one hand to channel the enchanted depictions of the female that proliferated in the Victorian and Edwardian periods whilst serving up a contemporary yet Gothic take on the aether of the coven and the varied paths of the witch.
The witch in contemporary society is something that Katarzyna Majak has been exploring for some time via her series of powerfully stark portraits of women practitioners of the occult in her native Poland where such deviations from the state religion of Catholicism have either been deeply hidden or have only just taken root.
A more speculative search for this buried knowledge and the symbols and tools of pagan belief can be found in the corn dolly sculptures of Cathy Ward, an artist whose work seems to have a magical thread running through all of it. Here she revives the harvest ritual of weaving a sheaf of grain into a dolly to be inhabited by the corn spirit who resides inside it until spring planting.
There are many interesting communions with witchery and our natural surroundings in this multi-layered show, which makes many connections to intuitive and magical powers and the history of witchcraft. And the artworks are helpfully contextualised through archival material, magazines and artworks, as well as loaned artefacts, including magickal tools used by practitioners of the craft.
Also accompanying the exhibition iBen jeans Houghton – an artist whose practice encompasses everything from film and installation to durational performances and ‘cyclic audio narratives’ – has developed a map of the UK charting the hidden histories of witchcraft. The map goes live when the exhibition opens on September 15 and will evolve to feature embedded podcasts and symbols that respond to the landscapes and histories of each of the touring venues of the exhibition.
Waking the Witch: Old Ways New Rites is at Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown from September 15 –November 7 2018 then touring to Sidney Cooper Gallery Canterbury May to July 2109, Bonington Gallery Nottingham September – October 2019 & 20-‐21 Visual Arts Centre, Scunthorpe January – April 2020.
Explore the interactive UK map of Witchcraft at www.wakingthewitch.uk or use the hashtag #WakingtheWitchExhibition on your social media accounts to join the conversation.
The exhibition has been developed by Legion Projects, find out more at legion-tv.com/
Oriel Davies Gallery
Oriel Davies Gallery is based in Newtown, Powys in the beautiful Severn Valley area of the Welsh Borders. The Gallery can be found just off Newtown’s shopping centre, facing the town’s main car park and bus station, in the town park. Oriel Davies runs an innovative visual arts exhibitions programme…