Why Witchcraft Is Making a Comeback in Art
Strewn throughout fairytales and folklore, the popular figure of the witch is synonymous with magic, transgression, and wickedness, and is nearly always female. But the history of witches is not just a fairytale, but a history of gynocide—that is, the killing of girls and women—one that feminists have addressed as a history of female suppression. And for female artists working today, paganism is making a comeback.
Historical representations of the witch have flitted between the ugly hag and the brazen sorceress, at times depicting her as a bestial old woman with drooping breasts, and at others as a saucy temptress who brews love potions to bewitch men. In the 16th and 17th centuries, folklore imagined witches as a tangible threat to society. “The land is full of witches,” chief justice Anderson, a witch hunter, told an English court in 1602. “I have hanged five or six and twenty of them… Few of them would confess it.”
Witches were the infidels of the Renaissance era, perceived as a curse on divine and social order, and possessing of devilish powers. It was believed that witches could control fertility and bring about male impotence—suspicions that speak less of witches and more of patriarchal anxieties around the female body and its “powers.” Historians estimate that 100,000 people—mainly women—were accused of witchcraft over a 300-year period, and more than 35,000 were tortured and executed.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that 19th- and 20th-century women’s liberation movements turned to the history of witch burnings to express the continuing plight of women living within the patriarchy. Witches were a symbol of the suppression of female power and the female body. The early suffragist Matilda Gage published Woman, Church, and State in 1893, tracing female persecution through the witchcraze. Later on in the 1960s, the American women’s liberation group W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) drew on wiccan practices for political stunts, dressing up as witches and hexing Wall Street.
Revisionist feminist histories of witch burnings emerged across the 1970s, such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s contentious theory that witches were in fact female healers eliminated by the medical establishment. More recently, the Italian feminist Silvia Federici has examined the connection between capitalism and the disciplining of the female body in her work Caliban and the Witch (2004).
Now artists are turning to witchcraft and magic, setting up covens, writing spells, and organizing workshops in practical magic and feminism. Just this past February, WITCH, a Chicago-based performance collective inspired by the original women’s liberation group, staged a “ritual performance” to protest unfair housing practices in a local neighborhood. Below, we take a look at six artists whose practices—in sculpture, painting, performance, video, and workshop—are by turn linked to witchcraft.
The artist, poet, and DJ Huxtable describes herself as “cyborg, cunt, priestess, witch, Nuwaubian princess,” and draws on the imagery of the Nuwaubian Nation, a religious cult that fuses together ideas of black nationalism, UFO theories, and Egyptian iconography. In her self-portraits, such as Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) (2015), Huxtable transforms her body with metallic paint, entering a posthuman world in which she is queen—an imaginary, futuristic empire where white supremacy is no longer the presiding force, and where normative attitudes towards gender and sexuality have finally been overturned. Huxtable is also a member of a queer coven in New York, called House of LaDosha, that looks back to the ’90s queer culture of Paris Is Burning (1990), organizing club nights, making t-shirts, and exhibiting work together.
Witchcraft researcher and artist Horgan presents her findings in the form of sculptures, films, performances, and lectures. Her video Mechttthild (2015), exhibited recently in “Neo-Pagan-Bitch-Witch!” at Evelyn Yard in London, takes the writings of the medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg as its starting point. Mechthild was feared for her ecstatic, sexual communions with God, and punished for it. Horgan has unearthed other suppressed histories, particularly those relating to the Scottish witch hunts. She also exhibits her work in charged locations such as the Calton Burial Ground in Glasgow, where she placed between the graves ceremonial textiles whose designs were inspired by robes that witches were forced to wear during trial. Horgan’s new headstones stand as monuments to accused bodies—to the heretics denied burial and a proper place in history.
Wood addresses stereotypes of the “wicked witch,” depicting warty fingers, menacing claws, and infectious bodies on her canvases. In Cooties 3/ Woman Operating a Tool of Her Own Fashioning (2016), a woman operates a loom that churns out female legs. She is power-dressed with painted fingernails, and the manufactured limbs are pre-shod in high heels. In this surreal factory scene, female power is infectious—a “cootie,” vernacular for a playground germ. Fingernails are often the subject of Wood’s paintings, such as the Halloween costume fingers depicted in Hideous Rash (2016), or the sharp claws in Body, I'm Under Your Curse (2016). Wood’s paintings suggest that capitalism does not suppress the rebel female body, but rather that the factory can be appropriated to fashion it en masse.
Artist, writer, and educator Stupart has a very different approach to the pagan, exploring the relationship between queerness and witchcraft, as seen in their (Stupart goes by non-gendered pronouns) exhibition “Coven”—a meeting of witches at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow earlier this year. For the show, Stupart collaborated with the artist Travis Alabanza to create a safe space for the LGBTQ community, offering a series of workshops, guided meditation classes, a charm bag, and spells to fend off ‘cis male artists.’ Stupart is also a seasoned spell writer and author of Virus (2016)—a posthuman sci-fi novella punctuated by hexes, such as the spell to bind male artists from murdering you, in honor of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, who is thought by many to have been murdered by her husband, the artist Carl Andre.
Papadopoulos creates anthropomorphic sculptures of women in debaucherous states—romping, revelling, and drunken. The figures in her installation The Great Revel of Hairy Harry Who Who: Orgy at the Onion Cellar (2015) are made from wood splashed with self-tanner and synthetic hair. Papadopoulos describes them as “over-jeweled and made-up women who’ve become bedraggled while cavorting in a rather nefarious fashion.” If The Great Revel of Hairy Harry… signals a hangover, it also contains the cure with ingredients to aid digestion—milk of magnesia, hair of the dog—as the women’s nefarious activities and healing practices converge.
Papadopoulos has also created canvases from painted bedsheets and tablecloths layered with red wine, lipstick, henna, and milk of magnesia, and sculptures that suggest a butcher’s shop display. In the latter, what resembles rotting flesh, cartoon wounds, and amputated legs are piled up, echoing the recurring stereotype of the witch as either foul and bestial or as a predatory cougar exercising her sexual powers. Female pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, has long been associated with paganism, and these dishevelled women revel in exactly that: extravagance and carnal excess.
At a recent show at Hester in New York, Jung performed the work I wuz born this way. WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE? (A Miss Spell to Free Yourself from the Bonds of Patriarchal Undermining in the Workplace) (2016). In it, she plays the role of a goofy office worker who, while biting her nails, tells the audience about her bullying boss and the spell she has devised against him. She stands in front of a sculpture that contains the ingredients for her spell: Venus clamshells, a pot of fool’s gold, a Starbucks cup, and a t-shirt. Mid-monologue, Jung changes her clothes and transforms from a shy secretary into something of a maverick, pacing the room and chanting her spell: “Fuck yourself, you fucking fuck, fuck yourself, triple fuck, double fuck yourself…” It’s a speech act that stages a shift in power, one that leaves Jung’s audience startled and a little spellbound.