Nisha Ramayya on craft, creation & ritual

Nisha Ramayya is a poet and lecturer in Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London. Her recent book, States of the Body Produced by Love was published by Ignota in 2019. She has kindly allowed Decorating Dissidence to feature a ‘ritual selection’ of her poetry, which resonates with the rituals of craft, creation and this month’s theme of witchery. Jade French speaks to Nisha here about her process of crafting poetics, the ritualistic elements of language, play, and creation. 

What do craft and the decorative mean to you?

I’ve never fully shaken off my teenage/emo dreams, and the first thing that springs to mind about ‘craft’ is – embarrassingly – The Craft and all those midnight experiments alone and with friends, candles, dried herbs, and heavy-breathing ghosts. The second thing is craft in the context of poetry and literary tradition, and the ways in which it is turned against poets who emphasise sound and performance (‘not enough refinement’), or who experiment with traditions that do not emerge from Europe (‘not enough relatability’), or who tend towards conceptual and procedural writing practices (‘not enough natural talent’). Will Harris has a great thread on Twitter about this.

How you approach the craft of poetry?

I like thinking about writing poetry as creating and entering into a ritualistic space – an early poem ‘Ritual Steps for a Tantric Poetics’ outlines different practices, methodologies, and feelings about writing poetry that I still find helpful. There are so many contradictory impulses/drives and so many internalised obstacles/enemies that can prevent you from getting anywhere in writing, and so lots of the process seems to be about ‘writing through’ until you find yourself somewhere else, maybe outside yourself or in a make believe space. Tantra refers to mythical and ritual traditions as well as the act of weaving, which is something I explore – over-indulging in the metaphorical possibilities – in Threads (a creative-critical pamphlet co-authored with Sandeep Parmar and Bhanu Kapil) and in States of the Body Produced by Love.

Can you speak to the way ritual informs your work and the ways in which you work with language?

Approaching poetic practices as ritual practices can be really generative and fun. For example, setting up particular rules or rites (such as time of day, or finding your voice via quotations from others, or listening to a piece of music on repeat); meditating on a symbol or image (in my book, it’s yantras/mandalas and goddess iconography all the way); or focussing on something you want to transform (like an emotion or a relationship or a social/political situation). Also, ritual can provide a safe space in which to dwell on, respond to, and even perform violence, fury, revenge. Not that I think those things should be defanged in language according to some distinction between art here and life there, but that poetry can be a place to try on and sharpen those fangs! For example, writing my antinationalist poem that’s really a diatribe against right-wing Hindu ideology and rule really helped me to identify and articulate my feelings and my political position, and then to channel it outside myself into the world.   

Tell us a bit more about ‘States of the Body Produced By Love’ and working with Ignota Books…

Ignota first published Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry and have gone on to publish an amazing catalogue, including the Ignota Diary, which is intended as ‘a tool for discovery in the practice of everyday life’. Sarah Shin, one of the editors, has been – quite literally – a dream come true. She has encouraged and supported me and my writing, read my work more closely than anyone and helped me to say what I’m trying to say, organised events and done the sort of promotional work that is anathema to many poets, and helped me to reach so many different people and readers for which I am endlessly grateful. It was important to me to work with a woman of colour (somewhat uncommon in poetry publishing) and with someone who understood and shared my twofold approach to spirituality and politics. I didn’t actually think I’d meet that very person and am so glad that I waited as long as I did to publish my first book – in that way, it’s been pretty romantic!

Could you tell us a bit more about your work in creating a ‘rackety bridge’ between Tantric poetics and black studies?

This bridge – oscillating between safe crossing and descent into the depths, set to the music of Alice Coltrane – is how I am trying to get across the many holes in my research interests and poetic practices; there are many bridges crossing back and forth, like weaving, like suturing wounds. I’m currently thinking about performance as sacrifice, the poetry reading as ritual space and as bloody offering, which will hopefully lead into a research project on Fred Moten’s discussions of blackness and non-performance, the correspondences between legal language and spellcasting, and the fascistic shadowlands of Tantra…

Check our Nisha’s ritual poetry here

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)

Jane Fairhurst: Wands, Fetishes for Uncertain Times & Women’s Work

Art and Ethnography

Jane’s approach to the production of art that refers to ancient or other cultures comes from an intention to firstly understand something of those cultures and this she does through reading. Sourcing books and information in various outlets including the internet, those books in turn referencing further reading, thus she gathers information to inform her artwork. She describes her work as “like an iceberg with two-thirds of it hidden, the research, and one-third on display, the art”. Through research Jane aims to gain an understanding of the cultures of the past and the role of the female within those cultures.

Such is the case with her Wands for Fryr. Here she read of the Ancient Norse wise women the Volva who used their wands to weave the fates of humans and particularly to influence the outcome of battles by accompanying their warriors and observing the fighting from higher ground they could determine the fates of those in the battle using their wands. The wands were distaffs, a tool of weaving regarded as magical and so deeply connected to women that the word is used to describe people related through their mother as the distaff side. 

So significant was this connection that Jane determined to create her own wands. Collecting ash staves, making the connection with Yggdrasil the mighty Ash tree of the Vikings, she wound each one with strips of cloth then added found objects, animal bones, beads, bells, plastic toys, oak galls, nazars, small mirrors, shiny buttons, coloured threads, each addition giving totemic power to her wands and imbuing each with apotropaic magic.

There is significance to the found objects Jane uses in her work, each one is carefully selected from pieces she has collected over the years many of which have come to her as gifts from female friends or items left in her studio by fellow artists and visitors. Some have been collected from flea markets and bazaars whilst travelling and others she has gathered whilst walking in the fields and woodlands near her home. Each object carries with it a person or place remembered.

She imagined the wand carriers waving their wands, the light flashing from various shiny objects, the banshee wail of ululating women calling upon their goddess Fryr all gathered on a hilltop creating an awe inspiring and powerful female presence.

Wands for Fryr detail
Wands for Fryr  (various heights to 2.5 metres)

Following a timeline from the Ice Age Venuses of the Paleolithic, the goddesses of Minoan, Ancient Egyptian, Old Norse and Ancient Greek cultures of the Neolithic Bronze Age to the present day Jane observed the diminution of the female in the human story. Her response was to create a series of textile sculptures including 

Women’s work is never done…. a vitrine filled to overflowing with knitted Venus figures that she continues to make, each with a safety pin for a mouth to signify the silencing of the female story and Matronae, (Three ages of woman) three female figures made using orange felt and representing the wise women of Celtic and Ancient Germanic origin. The significance of the three ages of woman reflects Jane’s recent status as grandmother with a daughter and granddaughter, the lineage of the distaff side.

Women’s work is never done…(70 x 40 x 25cm) and detail (24 x 20 x 4cm)
Women’s work is never done…(70 x 40 x 25cm) and detail (24 x 20 x 4cm)

Matronae (50 x 60 x 29cm)

Following a decade of research into age old belief systems and folk magic Jane created her own objects of agency, Fetishes for Uncertain Times, as textile works that challenge form and function in a shifting world where previously held certainties are no longer in place. 

Created from randomly shaped fabric off cuts sewn together in no particular order their asymmetry a device that serves to confuse the evil eye. The shape only emerges as wadding is forced into the fabric shape whose surface Jane then decorates with amulet devices in the form of twisted threads, shiny buttons, sequins, nazars and beads, embroidered knots and wavy lines all serving to avert any negative forces. 

With the creation of textile works Jane acknowledges the enduring association of the female with the production of cloth and is grateful to the generations of women who have passed on their skills for her to employ. 

Throughout her research Jane came across the phrase Mysteries of Women and seeking to uncover its meaning she eventually came to understand that pregnancy, childbirth, spinning, weaving, knowledge of healing plants and herbs, complimentary medicines in the form of clay figures and chants and incantations spoken in relation to the phases of the moon are some of those mysteries. She had discovered a deeply rooted female power that has never been completely eradicated by monotheism.

As sacred objects and to give them a sense of animation her textile sculptures Fetishes for Uncertain Times are elevated on metal stands to form an omnipresent installation.

Fetishes for Uncertain Times
Photographer Matylda Augustynek

With these textile works Jane confronts the viewer and asks them to reflect upon their own relationship with cloth and our current disassociation with the deep history of global textile production and its importance and intimate relationship to all people. The production of cloth is as ancient as ‘civilisation’. It has protected, decorated and defined us as clothing, been taken as treasure-trove after battles and cherished for its qualities.  However, mass production has brought us to a place where we no longer value cloth, we have become detached from its production and large amounts of cloth and clothing end up as landfill.

In her work Jane has chosen an individual, anti-formal direction that co-exists alongside the mainstream, making available useful strategies for negotiating meaning into objects. She circumvents the idea of ‘progress’ and by referencing nature and ancient ritual opens up rich areas of content. Producing objects that mimic the timelessness of authentic ritual objects, which follow a set pattern and remain unaltered over generations creating a reality that is timeless and independent of circumstances.

Jane Fairhurst studied at Liverpool Art College in the early 1970’s and gained her Masters in Fine Art with distinction from John Moores University, Liverpool in 2010. She established Cross Street Arts studio group in Standish, Wigan from 1999 and is a studio member and trustee of the group.

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.

A Doorway In: My Own Way In

A Doorway In

As I settled into my new routine, I began to explore the country, visiting Loch Lomond and the Hebrides, the Highlands and Orkney.  While I felt such joy in each new place, I still had trouble connecting to the place-specific energy of the land. And so, I developed A Doorway In as a way to reflect upon my relation to this new place and also to experience more deeply the land around me.

My artistic background is primarily dance based.  Therefore, I began by finding quiet places to improvise dance.  This developed into a regular practice in which I would find small subtle ways to dance in new environments.  I noticed that the movement was different in each place because I needed to respond differently to the landscape.  This was my doorway into the energy of the land.

Video: A Doorway In Land

When I was not travelling, I began to explore different artforms as doorways inward.  I began with my long-time fiber art practice, knitting, spinning and weaving. These are slow and methodical, therefore meditative, artforms and thus provided me with an opportunity to center and ground into my own energy.  To this I added a new artform, sculpture. I picked this up in order to give form to the archetypal character, The Figure at the Gate, who stands at the entrance to ritual space and asks the participant to release all things but the true self before entering in.  Working with the shaping of the clay and forming a relationship with each statue as my hands worked helped me to enact that letting go. Finally, I turned my focus to the processes of felting using locally sourced wool and naturally dying fabrics.

For the felting, I took inspiration from the waulking traditions of the Hebrides and created large felted wool pieces.  For the natural dying, I used recycled materials and food scraps to impart designs and colors. These crafting traditions all felt like ties to the past, using slow processes and materials at hand to create lasting and useful works. Little has changed in the form and function of each tradition and the magic(k) associated with them over centuries of time. The process of creating something with the hands links the crafter with the creation and reflects the inner and outer landscapes experienced by the artist, making them tangible. 

Into the felted pieces I incorporated the use of a symbol from Celtic stone carvings, the triskele, a three-armed spiral pattern.  The triskele opened yet a deeper doorway into discovery of the land, bringing the practice full circle. One of the many modern mythological associations with the triskele is to the concept of the Three Realms of Celtic myth: Land, Sea and Sky.  These are a form of the elements of life, most often seen as Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, also including the Spirit in many traditions. In the case of the Three Realms, they relate more specifically to the landscape of Britain and Ireland which is mountainous and windswept and high cliffs connect the sky and the sea to the land.  The process can be used with any symbol but the use of the triskele which has more localized links allowed me to explore in a more connected way. I began to focus my improvisations on the connection to Land, Sea and Sky and I found within that practice my own link to the land and to myself.   

Video: A Doorway in Sea

After a year of this creative operation linked so closely with my spiritual practice, I began to notice the patterns of the year and the seasons and felt a deeper connection to the new place in which I found myself.  The early stages of this project, as it is still ongoing, culminated in an exhibition of examples of work and videos of the improvisations in a gallery setting that I transformed for the purpose of ritual. Now the process continues and is likely to for a long time if not forever.  Endlessly changeable, I have found this intention-driven practice of self-discovery through art to be a perfect way to create while looking both outward and inward seeking connection.          

A Doorway In is an artistic ritual practice that developed from a long-term project in which my goal was to connect to the land through my spiritual practice of Paganism and magic(k).  Having recently moved to Scotland from the United States and from rural to city living, I struggled to find satisfaction in a new and different landscape. As incredibly beautiful and exciting as I found my new surroundings, I had much more difficulty connecting with the unfamiliar land than I expected being that I wanted to live in Scotland for many years particularly for the landscape.  Much of my eclectic spiritual practice was derived from the folklore that inhabits the area and I, mistakenly, believed that the transition from my old home to my new would be a simple and straightforward one. How wrong I was.


Christopher Croucher is an artist, dancer, and long-time practicing Pagan currently living and working in Massachusetts in the United States. Having lived in Scotland for an extended period and hoping to do so again, he is a recent graduate of the Master of Letters Program in the pathway of Performance during which he developed for himself the process presented in A Doorway In. With a background in classical and modern dance technique, fiber art and other eclectic media, and particularly in nature-based spirituality, Croucher’s artwork is an amalgam incorporating all of these in varying degrees to create experiences for the viewer. His aim is to make work that acts as a Doorway into…

To see more work and to contact the artist, Christopher can be reached at:
Web: http://www.ccroucherpointe.com
Instagram: @manenpointe
Facebook: /manenpointe

Machina Incantatii (Spell Machine) by Anna Nolda Nagele

‘Machina Incantatii’ (latin for ‘Spell Machine’) was conceived to explore the question of how digital tools can be used to create and introduce spiritual experiences by emulating a magical ritual of spell writing. Creation of individualised texts can inspire users to explore their thoughts and find answers within themselves through interpreting the short texts. By associating the output with a request by the user to the machine, trying to find meaning in the relation of  the output to the input, it can help the user to find an answer to what they are looking for. Written words can make up things and thus create new meanings and thoughts.

‘Machina Incantatii’ is a wall hanging made of conductive yarns and fabrics that combines physical and representational materials into an interface for a magical ritual. Each individual is encouraged to select one element and one planet for their personal incantation by touching the conductive patches on the cloth. Based on the assigned powers of the selected items, the digital shrine generates a spell.

A combination of ‘old’ periodic alignments (the stars) with ‘new’ periodic alignments (the Markov Chain) leads to a poetic generation of texts. The outcomes are unique and personal non-linear verses. The Markov Chain is a statistical model often used in natural language processing (the automatic generation of texts), where sentences are generated word for word. The sequence is based on the likelihood of all possible words which could follow each previous word. All possible words are based on existing texts which have been written for and assigned to each planet and element.   

The work was knitted and stitched from different fabrics, threads and e-textiles. E-textiles are able to conduct electricity while having all properties and form of normal fabrics. To use soft materials for the interface and crafting it by hand was chosen to present a contrast to stereotypical images of mass-produced technology being cold, rigid and slick. Soft and textured surfaces are inviting to be touched. The physical activity of having to move the arms to reach out to the selected patches, which is necessary due to the size of the wall hanging in relation to a human, can be observed as ritualistic movements.

Similarly to the Markov Chain which stitches word for word to form a poem, the fabric is embroidered and stitched together, layering different fragments of information. Conductive yarns hold the piece together and thus its visual information, textiles, the user’s choice and the algorithm. Information flows through the piece, which is reassembled into new information through the algorithm and the output is displayed as the magic spell back to the user.


Anna Nolda Nagele is an experience designer and PhD candidate in Media and Arts Technology at Queen Mary University London, where she is researching human-machine communication and the identities of digital subjects through storytelling. Her practice evolves around the creation of narratives in new media that imagine different realities. Most recently she has worked on an Audio Augmented Reality experience research project for BBC R&D; and on the development of wearable technology for female intimacy and sensuality. Anna exhibited projects at Ars Electronica Festival 2019 (Linz, Austria) and Cuntemporary EcoFutures Festival 2019 (London, UK). She graduated from the MA Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins in 2016 with a thesis on storytelling for change.