My current body of work examines witch trials and witch-persecution, in European history, and as a metaphorical lens through which to explore some of the fears and prejudices of our own time. 

I know that the absolute truth of past events is inaccessible. All I am doing is reflecting my own fantasies, attitudes and prejudices, using whatever shards of information I have managed to gather. Sue Rowley writes, in her introduction to ‘Reinventing Textiles: Tradition and Innovation’, that in these times, ‘[t]he authority of history [is] challenged; histories are understood now to be partial, constructed narratives which cannot substantiate a claim to be disinterested, unified or conclusive.’[1]

There is something about a series of flimsy narrative threads being pulled together into a compositional whole, being knotted firmly into place, as it were, that is at the heart of what I am trying to do. The further I progress in researching and making work on this subject, the more I know that I am just grasping at the edges of something. ‘Witch-hunting’ can be viewed from a historical, but also psychological, political, or even theological point of view. I end up working with scraps of folklore, mythology and often legal documentation reflecting the history of witch-persecution, in England and across Europe.

A number of the works in ‘The Witchcraft Series’ commemorate individual women, tried and condemned by English courts in the Early Modern period. The tapestries, made using a hybrid of knotting and woven tapestry technique, illustrate testimonies from witnesses or the accused, and sometimes from their young children. My source material is the trial documentation of these individuals. Does it represent the accounts of the women themselves? These were mostly illiterate, poor women, and their testimonies were recorded by literate, male court officers. The ambiguity of these voices, and the question of whose stories were actually being recounted, is part of what interests me. 

I use primary historical text whenever possible. This can involve a kind of archeology, as I try to decipher lines of print in court testimonies, from ancient books, facsimiles or faded photocopies. In her book The Witch in History, Diane Purkiss writes, ‘[w]hich stories sound likely?…Why accuse this woman and not that woman? The fragmentary narratives of witchcraft are already absurd; they are torn even where apparently most whole.’ [2]

These fragments of narrative are like shards of pottery I have unearthed, which might be pieced together to give an indication of an individual story or larger discourse. Flashes of dramatic storytelling emerge. People accuse each other of making milk curdle, of harming children and consorting with the devil. I respond to these dramas by slowly shaping each letter of a printed phrase, translating it from my design cartoon into warp and weft. 

The history of witch-persecution provides numerous examples of humanity’s inhumane behaviour, and I’m making these pieces at a time when widespread peace and prosperity feel less than assured. Incidents of hate-crime are being widely reported, and outsiders are being treated with hostility and aggression. The willingness to turn on the “other” when times were difficult was a fundamental aspect of historic witch-persecution, and the shadows of such events fall directly over contemporary discourse. The sense of powerlessness, uncertainty and fear arouses echoes of the past.

Why I should then feel compelled to create something visually arresting, even sometimes beautiful, reflecting on brutality, fear, oppression and negative aspects of human history, is another question. I do believe that textiles can provide a powerful means of drawing the viewer in, with seductive materials, colour and composition, perhaps encouraging them to pause and read a deeper meaning into what is being presented.

I also sometimes introduce references to modern science, as a comment on the way it is depicted as strange, dark and sinister ‘witchcraft’ in modern-day thinking.

My work has always been concerned with breaking out of the convention which associates textiles and woven tapestry with a sense of cosiness and comfort, the domestic and the ‘feminine’. From the beginning of my career I have made work which introduced elements of irony, or made the viewer think about the issues I was raising, while also presenting an object which was visually arresting.

My current practice also includes writing, curating and public speaking.


Text revised from ‘The Witchcraft Series: I’ll just leave this here…’ in A. Jackson, Witch, Hexe, Sorciere: Works from the Witchcraft Series (2017)  

Sources

[1] S. Rowley, ‘Craft, Creativity and Critical Practice’ in Reinventing Textiles, Vol. 1: Tradition and Innovation (Bristol: Telos Art Publishing, 199), p. 6.

[2] D. Purkiss, The Witch in History (London: Routledge, 1966), p. 62.


by Anne Jackson

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