Anne Jackson: The Witchcraft Series

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

Follow Anne on Facebook (Anne Jackson: The Witchcraft Series) and @knotgirl1 #CertaineWytches on twitter)

Review: Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities Symposium

The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium, held at the Royal College of Art, was a day brimming with rich discourse on what the focussed study of personal and organised belief systems can provide to the expanding understanding of the literary, arts and social movements of modernity. Despite the seemingly niche nature of the symposium’s guiding theme, the research presented was notably broad, inclusive and varied in content, with subjects ranging from modern yoga practices and retreat movements to esoteric Christianity and chemical enlightenment. 

Appropriately set in London’s illustrious borough of Kensington, where institutions such as the Natural History Museum house some of the most important scientific collections in the world, the Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium presented a strikingly consistent consideration for the place of empiricism in varying spiritual practices. Jules Evans (Queen Mary, University of London) initiated this exploration on the first panel of the morning, presenting on ‘Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and the rise of “empirical spirituality.”’ This paper explored the way that developments in the field of psychology were utilised to bridge the gap between science and mysticism. Integrating such theories as Gerald Heard’s five stages of humanity, which predicts the movement from our current humanic individualist state to a more expansive collective consciousness through an advanced form of spirituality and the practice of meditation, as well as Myers psychical psychology of the ‘subliminal self.’ These concepts were used in conjunction with Aldous Huxley’s work on perennial philosophy, all of which hoped to hold experience of a spiritual nature empirically accountable. 

Directly following Evans and corroborating this exploration was Alana Harris (King’s College, London), who presented research on Letitia Fairfield and ‘Rational Religion’, a study of a female experience of the physical – metaphysical interface particularly through interest in politics and public health. Harris provided further examples of a modernist intent on complicating the divide between materialist science and religious or personal spirituality. 

A third paper in this trend of investigation of the interaction between modernist scientific movements and spiritual studies was from Leigh Wilson (University of Westminster) on C. K. Ogden’s co-authored pragmatist approach to linguistics The Meaning of Meaning and the way in which he comes to collaborate with James Joyce despite their differing considerations of ‘word magic.’ Leigh contributed a semantic study of the balance and tensions between theories of purely referential meaning and the magic potential of linguistic devices, further unravelling the moments in modernity where occultism comes up against methods of material science. 

Other examples of research of this specific nature revealed themselves throughout the day from a variety of subjects across the four panels. Aren Roukema (Birkbeck) spoke on the relationship between Christianity and occultism and the nature of heresy in modernism. Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton) presented on enchanted ancient and modern objects through the pacifist social group, Kibbo Kift, who assimilated new works in biology to support their beliefs in material and cosmic energies. Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths) spoke on what modern studies of and on psychedelic substances can elucidate about the expansion of consciousness that mystic thought so often necessitates and the way these studies can provide further insight into the relationship between empiricism and mysticism, culture and counterculture.   

Even those whose research was farther removed from empirical consideration, particularly those papers which shifted the focus from Western-centric modernists to Eastern modern spiritual activity, for example Suzanne Newcombe’s (Open University) presentation of yoga in the early 20th century and Jamie Callison’s (Nord University) paper on modern retreat movements, still maintained concerns of an empiricist nature in their periphery. Newcombe touched on the role that yoga played in movements of mental and physical health culture while Callison proposed spiritual retreat as an embrace, rather than an escape, of modernity through the modernist tendency of ‘self-critique.’ One might get the impression that new work in modernist studies is embracing the often seemingly contradictory nature of modernity, both in ways that emphasise these contradictions and attempt to reconcile them. 

That the intersection between the empiricist component of modernism and alternative systems of belief emerged as a central theme of the day might be indicative of one of the defining tensions of modernism: Eastern and Western aesthetic, social and spiritual practice and the ambition to justify such practices in locations of prevailing scientism. 

The increasing useful quotation of Tim Armstrong was referenced at this symposium, where he asserts that modernism is ‘both a rejection of the past and a fetishisation of certain earlier periods; both a primitivism and a defence of civilisation against the barbarians; both enthusiasm for the technological and fear of it; both a celebration of impersonal making and a stress on subjectivity.’ The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium facilitated what felt like an important discourse, one that continues the exploration of intellectual and ideological tensions within modernist studies. 

by Aoiffe Walsh


Sources

Tim Armstrong, Modernism: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 5.