Currently exhibiting at Firstsite, Colchester, is a solo show by artist susan pui san lok which explores the folklore surrounding witchcraft and the history of the witch persecutions across East Anglia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Entitled A COVEN A GROVE A STAND, susan pui san lok was commissioned to create the work as part of New Geographies, a three-year project which aims to bring awareness to local reflections and stories of overlooked places. We sat down with susan to learn more about the commission and her new exhibition.
Your new exhibition, A COVEN A GROVE A STAND, explores the folklore surrounding witchcraft and its history in the East of England, and comes at a time where witchcraft and magic has become quite popular in the art world and wider culture. What is it about this subject that is so captivating to the general public?
Yes, the timeliness in terms of a wider cultural resurgence is quite striking. The start of the project coincided with the unveiling of a memorial at Colchester Castle last summer, dedicated to “the victims of the Essex Witch Hunts… in the hope of an end to persecution and intolerance.” The Castle is just a stone’s throw from Firstsite, and you can see the cells where many local suspected ‘witches’ were imprisoned and interrogated. In the autumn, I started noticing posters for a new drama, A Discovery of Witches (whose title is clearly a reference to Matthew Hopkins’ 1647 account, The Discovery of Witches), and I think the Netflix remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch started airing around the same time; I watched a couple of episodes out of curiosity, but I’m more of a Buffy fan… And then there’s the convergence of popular and political culture in the countless times a certain orange-tinted, hate-inciting misogynist bully has tweeted WITCH HUNT in the last couple of years, claiming victimhood from the actual victims and survivors of violence and persecution, and offending those who identify as witches…
I think the enduring fascination and fear around witchcraft and magic reflects the need to make sense of seemingly inexplicable, ‘irrational’ or supernatural forces, malign and benign – to seize power or ‘take back control’, in the face of all sorts of economic and political uncertainty, and cultural anxiety. I also think the seductive and terrifying figure of the witch reappears across cultures and centuries, precisely because s/he is a figure of and for power, resistance and revolt.
During the Essex witch trials, eighty percent of the hundreds of accused were women – often single, elderly and widowed. Malcolm Gaskill argues against the dismissal of witchcraft as bygone superstition, and for understanding the continuing prevalence of magical belief and practices. Silvia Federici suggests that what the persecuted women had in common were poverty and sexual transgression, and asserts that “they were not only victims… but women who resisted their impoverishment and social exclusion”. I’m interested in how persecutions in the past resonate with the present, and how we might bear witness to their traces, beginning with the names of individuals collectively dehumanised as witches and victims. Who do we blame for our personal misfortunes or society’s ills? And who gets to be included or excluded from that ‘we’?
You were commissioned to create the work as part of New Geographies, a three-year project which aims to bring awareness to local reflections and stories of overlooked places. Did the brief dictate what elements needed to be included in the project, or were you given free reign to create? How did you find this journey?
The brief invited artists to respond to sites nominated by the public across the East of England. I noticed that seven of the 270 nominations made references to witches. So rather than focusing on a single site in isolation, I wanted to think about how these disparate sites across Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk might be connected through their associations with witchcraft, and the intersection of folkloric and historic narratives.
The project evolved in close conversation with the Firstsite team, who were very open to different processes and possibilities – there were no preconceptions or presumptions about the modes or forms that the work might take. Engagement was an important dimension, and I was interested to explore how this might be embedded into the making of the work, rather than as post-exhibition add-on or afterthought. So, there are onsite and offsite strands to the project – in the form of the current gallery-based exhibition where some beautiful elements have been made with local communities – and an offsite walk devised with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), with an online and app-based alternative audio-guide, which will hopefully go live in May. This dual approach allows questions of place to come to the fore – who owns it, how do we inhabit or occupy it, how do we come to know or forget certain histories.
Much of the exhibition was realised on site across four gallery spaces: there are blackboard walls covered in handwritten text, two multi-channel sound pieces looping with a video piece, embroidery hoops and ribbons, and of course, a 4-metre high, 8-metre wide inverted ‘tree’ constructed from recycled cardboard… They’re individuals works but also very much interweaving and related, as their names suggest – SISTER O SISTER; CRUEL MOTHERS; GROSS LOVER/CRUEL MOTHER; SEVEN SISTERS; ONE/HUNDREDS; SCORE FOR VOICES. There’s the cumulative effect of encountering in different forms and registers the same 110 names of persecuted individuals, as you move through the spaces – handwritten, spoken, stitched, printed. The sound creates two circles of voices, singing and speaking, overlapping harmoniously or disjunctively, depending on your view. I want there to be a sense of place and displacement, to both respect and demystify the mythological, and in a way, reactivate history.
You have researched into many local stories such as ‘Old Knobbley’, an oak tree believed to be 800 years old situation in the woods around Mistley where ‘witches’ were thought to have hidden from persecutors. What other fascinating stories have inspired the work?
Well, there’s another ancient oak tree, the Witch’s Wooden Leg in the ruins of St Mary’s Church, in East Somerton. The story here is that a woman was buried alive as a witch, and a tree sprang from her wooden leg, destroying the church. So these trees connect two of the nominated sites as a particularly evocative symbol, both of sanctuary and power. There’s also Kitty Witches’ Row in Great Yarmouth, whose name is said to refer to badly-behaved ‘women of ill-repute’; and the Witch’s Heart in King’s Lynn’s Tuesday Marketplace, where a woman named Margaret Read was burned as a witch for using witchcraft to kill her husband, a crime of petty treason. There are also several locations in St Osyth, Manningtree and Mistley in Essex, where numerous women were accused and executed as witches.
As part of the exhibition you have included local communities such as members of Colne and Colchester Embroiderers’ Guild and Colchester Bangladeshi Mohila Shomity, as well as asking visitors to write the names of victims of the witch hunts with chalk on a black wall. Do you hope to bring these local stories to life through community engagement? What has the response been so far?
The exhibition features unique and beautifully stitched embroidery hoops made by members of the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers’ Guild, Stitch ‘n’ Bitch, and YAK (the Youth Arts Kommunity), each bearing one of the hundred and ten documented names, while the Bangladeshi women’s group helped with the looping of two hundred red ribbons, for those who remain nameless. I was moved by the sympathy and empathy of the many makers (mostly but not exclusively women), who actively sought out, rediscovered and shared between them the stories and histories behind the names. There’s something incredibly powerful about this collective yet individualised making and sharing, as a kind of collective witnessing, an active commitment into memory.
You describe A COVEN A GROVE A STAND as a fluid project, how do you anticipate the exhibition and project will evolve over time?
I see this as the first stage of an ongoing project. The second stage will take the form of the new RGS walk and sound work in May. It’s fluid in the sense that there are distinctive works and elements that could be reconfigured or recomposed in different ways. It’s also fluid in terms of the many possibilities for development. I would love to move or transpose the ‘tree’ to other locations and reassemble or remake it in other materials. I also want to develop a seven-channel moving image piece that responds to the seven sites, which I still haven’t managed to visit! Then there’s the collective, performative and folk music dimensions, which I’d like to explore further… So, while there is already a body of work here, I feel that I have only scratched the surface.
Do you have any exciting new projects coming up?
I’ve been working on (and off) on an essay film – which is perhaps more an epic poem film – called Re Moves. This has come out of another three-year project, called Black Artists and Modernism, which was led by Sonia Boyce and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It was filmed over a year, from February 2017 to 2018, and it moves between collections, exhibitions and studios to reflect on the movement of particular artists and artworks in and out of visibility and history. The film features the work of Keith Piper, Lubaina Himid, David Medalla, Jananne Al-Ani, Sanderson/Conroy and Phaophanit/Oboussier, among others. I’ve been a bit side-tracked by witches lately, but I’m hoping to finish it the summer.
A COVEN A GROVE A STAND will run until 22 April 2019 at Firstsite, Colchester. For more information, visit: https://firstsite.uk/whats-on/coven-grove-stand/
Image: Installation view, susan pui san lok, A COVEN A GROVE A STAND, 2019. Photo Douglas Atfield, Courtesy Firstsite