CALIBAN & THE WITCH(ES)

Exhibition/performance Caliban and the Witches by Hélène Hulak, Lux Miranda and Johanna Rocard, which recently took place in Prague's Berlínskej model Gallery, disentangles the archetype of the witch from its negative patriarchal connotations of a cunning, evil and manipulative woman and turns it into a collective rebellious, utopian and hopeful vision. Curated by Céline Sabari Poizat.

SWARM interviews Céline Sabari Poizat

The exhibition you’ve curated and were part of this year’s Prague Art Week festival is a tribute to Silvia Federici’s essay “Caliban and the Witch”. Could you elaborate on how Federici’s work has influenced the theme and content of this exhibition, and what message you hope to convey through it?

Silvia Federici’s work is part of the ecofeminist research of the 1980s, which builds bridges between the domination of nature and the domination of female and marginal bodies. Her book Caliban & the witch demonstrates historically that capitalism and patriarchy were not the only possible paths out of the Middle Ages, and that this economic and social system is the product of a relentless process of domination of lands and female bodies. To establish capitalism, it was necessary to create private ownership of land and assign women to the role of reproduction in order to produce workers. It’s Fordism before its time! And the genius of his research is to have linked this observation to the witch-hunt, and to have demonstrated that the witch-hunt was just one of many tools used to distract and bring women and land into line. It’s this whole narrative that runs through the exhibition, with works that speak of “witches”, i.e. women who scare, who speak out, who rebel, who don’t endorse rationality, the distancing of emotions, the division of labour, gender assignment. The message of the exhibition is also to say: no, feminism isn’t about wanting to be the equal of men in a capitalist world where you have to make a success of your life; feminism is about demanding another model of society, another sensitive way of looking at the world because other paths were (at the end of the Middle Ages) and are (today, at the ecological turning point we’re living through) still possible.

The exhibition is described as political, ecological, feminist, and anti-capitalist. How do these interconnected themes manifest in the artworks and the overall narrative of the exhibition?

For me, the exhibition began when we left France. It’s a whole conceptual bias: we travel by train, the works are light and transported in a group, and the artists are properly remunerated for their work and the production of the works. All this is political because it’s rarely the case. Secondly, I only present women artists whose practices are sometimes relegated to the background because they are less common: fabrics, carpets. The overall narrative of the exhibition is based on a dripping mural that represents the whole story: here, we take back possession of the space, we assert ourselves with joy and desire, we externalize our emotions, we speak out and we challenge. It’s a reversal of the institutional posture of the white cube.

Feminism is another central theme explored in the exhibition, particularly through the figure of the witch and woven media. Could you delve into how these themes are represented and what they signify in the context of the exhibition?

Aesthetically, the use of fabric and thread in these works is a political statement. It’s a reappropriation of a so-called “feminine” medium by strong women. Two generations ago, women were assigned to cook, have children and sew nicely. Here, we’re reclaiming this discourse and turning it into a strength. The works tell us: “yes, we manipulate fabric, yes, we feel emotions, yes, we take care of others, we nurture, we care, we raise, and it’s a knowledge that makes us strong and that you (the patriarchy) are afraid of”. So Johanna Rocard and Hélène Hulak work with vintage fabrics, in flashy, sometimes poor-quality colours because they tell the story of intertwined sexist and class violence. You can’t call yourself a feminist and play along with the capitalist model of life because all the living, the marginalized and the environment suffer as women have suffered and continue to suffer. This also ties in with what I said earlier about Silvia Federici’s work: the witch is herself an anti-capitalist figure. Johanna has created a collective monster out of the sticks brandished by the rioters of the Paris Commune, while Hèlène demonizes images from perfume ads that manipulate the image of the sinful woman with warm tones and hooked fingernails.  Lux Miranda’s work is a link between these practices, as her work is based on an anti-rationalist approach that lies at the heart of ecofeminist texts.

The exhibition touches upon the symbolism of the witch as a rebellious and free woman. How do the artists featured in the exhibition interpret and portray the archetype of the witch in their works? 

Artists play on stereotypes. For Hélène Hulak, it’s hooked nails, green skin, red eyes and devouring mouths. For Johanna Rocard, it’s the famous witch’s staff, the long skirt, the ever-clawed hands. For Lux, it’s the general imagination of these esoteric forms, the colorimetry of the red and black works, the idea of sorcery that emerges from these shapes.

The use of dress and costume as mediums of resistance is mentioned in the context of the exhibition. How do artists incorporate clothing and attire to convey their messages or challenge dominant norms? Is it linked to the concept of “absent referent” and its connection to the exploitation of women’s bodies is discussed in relation to the exhibition. 

It’s the subject of a full-fledged research project I’m conducting for the next (5th) issue of NONFICTION: joy, celebration, costume as a possibility of resistance. Costume is a way of challenging the established order and reversing roles, along the lines of the Carnival of the Middle Ages. It’s also an affirmation of the power of life in the face of a society that shuts down feelings and emotions. Costumes allow us to assert our existence without waiting to be authorized to do so, and to explore our own flaws with fewer inhibitions. It’s also based on the drag show model. You give yourself permission to exist, and tell a story that’s different from the norm. The entire 5th issue of NONFICTION will be dedicated to this subject, to be published in January 2024. 

The “absent referent” is rather the idea that the patriarchal order and carnivorous capitalism work in the same way: we cut up the subject into parts to forget that behind it there’s a living person. We eat a steak, not a cow’s muscle, to forget that we’re eating a cow. In the same way, advertising only shows a breast or a buttock to eroticize and make us forget the woman. This is one of the foundations of rape culture: the desire for disembodied flesh. Hélène Hulak’s work goes against all this: in her work, each part is like a character in its own right, a whole living thing that refuses to be eroticized and asserts its own desire.

To conclude, could you share your thoughts on why it’s important to revisit and engage with the themes presented in Silvia Federici’s work, especially in the context of contemporary society, as highlighted by her quote in the conclusion of the provided information?

Silvia Federici’s texts are essential to understanding today’s world, because they unravel the mechanisms that explain the lock-in of contemporary society and its inability to renew itself. Federici also makes it clear that her analysis is not confined to the Middle Ages, because the arrival of capitalism in Africa in the 20th century used exactly the same technique: expropriation of land, a “witch” hunt that exploited ancient and religious beliefs (e.g. women carers, albinos, women free of their bodies, etc.). It’s important to be aware of these processes, so as not to blindly adhere to progressive rhetoric. Starhawk (Californian ecofeminist author) said it best: “Beware those who hold up the Light without embracing the shadow side”. That’s exactly it: “progress” is a lure, so don’t let yourselves (nature, women, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, etc.) be fooled.

Are there any specific artworks or artists within the exhibition that you believe particularly exemplify the themes and messages you aim to convey? Could you describe one or two notable pieces and their significance? 

All the pieces in the exhibition touch me deeply. Perhaps I could tell you about the performance that activated the exhibition during the opening, because it was ephemeral but at the heart of the whole process. Johanna Rocard’s performances manage to pull off a very difficult exercise, namely to be pleasant, joyful, easy to access and at the same time extremely referential, intelligent and conceptually sound. Here, “J’avoue, il y aura du sentiment” is a striptease tribute to Louise Michel, the famous anarchist rioter of the Paris Commune. She was put on trial, hence the title “J’avoue”, and known for her fiery speeches in excellent prose. She was a visionary political tribune who spoke of anarchism, marginality and freedom. This tribute performance blends a range of references: the 19th-century dress, popular fabrics such as the sports shirt characteristic of clothing worn by the working classes, striptease evoking the liberation of the female body, the performer Mila, a professional stripper of Brazilian origin who embodies marginalized, dominated and racialized bodies, the witch’s staff, the black flag of anarchism etc. The whole thing is set to a declamation of parts of Louise Michel’s speech at her trial, and electronic music characteristic of spaces of marginality and contemporary utopias. That, in a nutshell, is what is being discussed in this piece of rare intensity.

PAW / The exhibition we are discussing was part of this year’s Prague Art Week. How do you perceive the uniqueness of this festival in the contemporary art field and what highlight or exhibition/artist from it would you highlight?

Prague Art Week is one of the few festivals that manages to bring a new city into the contemporary art scene, far from the expected London, Paris, Berlin, etc. Big cities tend to standardize, whereas I find that Prague has some very specific and atypical projects. I love coming to this city with its rich history, and you can tell right away that artists love this atmosphere, which is both rich and less oppressive than in the bigger capitals. What’s more, the network of galleries in the city taking part in this week is of the highest quality. Also my job is to keep a fresh eye on young creation, so I need more confidential and less expected events to discover new works. 

I didn’t have time to see everything, but I heard that the exhibition at Garage Gallery was great, and I noticed Eliška Konečná’s work at Polansky Gallery by East Contemporary. This work is incredible. I have a sensibility for the woven medium but usually more in 3 dimensions. Here it’s smart and fine. I already knew the artist’s work, but this shift to figuration, which no doubt has to do with her maternity, gives it incredible strength. It’s a touch of myth. And I think it’s vital that we have stories and imaginaries of a nurturing, healing and maternal femininity that is strong and creative.

CURATORIAL TEXT FOR CALIBAN AND THE WITCHES BY CÉLINE SABARI POIZAT /

This exhibition is a tribute to Silvia Federici’s essay Caliban and the witch. The author describes how the sixteenth-century witch-hunt was an instrument of domination of the female body, in the service of capitalism’s control over the reproduction of labour power. Like the work of the Italian-American researcher, this exhibition is political: it is ecological, it is feminist, this exhibition is resolutely anti-capitalist.

Ecological, because we are convinced that content and form can no longer be in contradiction. The exhibition began in Paris when we left by train, which expresses the standard of welcome given to the artists and the production of the works. It will end with the return of the works by grouped transport. The significance of the story we are telling here is fundamental. However, at a time when the living world is in its death throes, there is no reason why human stories and creations should diminish the life capital of our cohabitants.

Feminist, because this exhibition explores two aesthetics of gender assignment: that of the witch and that of woven media. A visit is paid to the figure of the witch as a cunning and dangerous female character, rooted in our collective unconscious. The witch is this manipulative woman with ancient knowledge who uses black magic to lead us astray. For Johanna Rocard, the witch is a riotous woman who rebels against the established order and refuses to be silenced. She is a free woman who raises the banner of revolution and refuses to accept life if it is reduced to domination. A whole lineage of women is woven through the artist’s installation and performance. A lineage of women who speak out and swear not to be silenced: from the witch of the late Middle Ages to the most famous rioter of the Paris Commune, Louise Michel and her black banner. If the French Revolution was probably “bourgeois”, the Paris Commune was certainly anarchist and utopian, in tune with the historical moment we are living through in the 21st century. The performative device and the installation, featuring the black flag and costumes in a time of resistance, could easily evoke the W.I.T.C.H in Wallstreet in 1968, or those in Portland in 2017, against Donald Trump’s white-hetero-patriarchal order, the red ‘handmaids’ marching around the world in 2018, the Iranian women brandishing the veil in 2022.

 

Dress is at the heart of the approach, a medium of resistance, a therapeutic staging of the body whose movement clashes with the rigidity of the dominant rule. The witch is also a collective imagination to be reclaimed: that of hooked fingernails, green skin and a devouring mouth. Hélène Hulak makes them the core of her visual grammar. By working on the aesthetics of the monster, the artist’s works speak to us about the manipulation of images and the marginality of the feminine. The devouring woman who pulls all the strings manifests herself here in two forms: a selection of fabric pieces and a mural. The fabric pieces are part of an effort to reclaim sewing as a feminine medium. As for the painting, it extends and devours the space, with no apologies for taking its place. Hélène Hulak’s works are also fragments of the body, a body cut out, coveted, desired, devoured. Her work might remind us of the idea of the ‘absent referent‘ of the author Carole J. Adams who studies in the Sexual Politics of Meat how, in carnism, the cutting up of the animal into parts is a necessity in order to make us forget the living being that is being consumed. To go further, this concept also tells us that this same mechanism is used by the patriarchy on women’s bodies to better justify their domination and exploitation. From then on, a thigh, a breast, a mouth are eroticized for the benefit of male desire and in the absence of the person, the woman, to whom they belong.

To speak of witches is therefore also to speak of a form of capitalo-patriarchal cannibalism of the images close to what Jacques Derrida called “carnophallogocentrism”. In line with this idea, Lux Miranda’s work attempts to free itself from the imaginations and postures of domination. The forms are the fruit of an impregnation of the world and long mediation. The artist’s body of work tends to create what she herself calls a large “library of ecofeminist images”, in other words an imaginary world born of attention, care, the experience of the body, the experience of the margins, outside the well-trodden paths of contemporary rational capitalist society. Lux Miranda’s work embraces what Starhawk, the Californian witch and author, calls “the power-from-within”, the power that comes from the heart, the truth that emerges from our darkest fears. The carpet as an artistic medium is a stand against a postural approach to art. Here, the works will be on the floor, will be turned over, will be both pleasant and demanding. The work encapsulates its know-how and the time devoted to it. To conclude with the words of Silvia Federici: “We would be deceiving ourselves if we thought it didn’t concern us (…) as soon as we strip the persecution of witches of their metaphysical trappings, we realize just how close these phenomena are to what we are experiencing, here and now.”

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Bio

Céline Poizat‘s critical work takes an ecofeminist, degrowth, radically ecological and anti-speciesist approach. She initiated the eponymous annual publishing house NONFICTION, which questions how young artists, through their conceptual and aesthetic proposals, disseminate the collective imaginaries of an era. Céline Poizat has written the “Jeune création” column for the magazine l’ADN, served as editorial director of artistic content for the magazine CACTUS SS22, and directed the documentary “Solastalgia” on the ecological transformation of cultural players. In 2022, she launched NONEWS: a monthly media newsletter with a post-internet aesthetic, dedicated to the most cutting-edge young creation and the most relevant critical concepts for thinking about our times. Céline Poizat develops editorial formats and critical projects in which content and form make sense, in the service of a pleasurable approach to the challenges of creation.

Johanna Rocard: 1988, lives and works in Rennes, France.

Hélène Hulak: 1990, Lives and works in Lyon, France.

Lux Miranda: 1990, Lives and works in Paris, France

NONFICTION: is a multi-space curatorial project of critical artistic prospective created by Céline Sabari Poizat. NONFICTION is a printed exhibition space that appears once a year, as well as a digital media newsletter called NONEWS, which appears once a month, and a bi-annual site- specific artistic intervention space called LA VITRINE.

Credits

Curator / Céline Sabari Poizat

Interview / Markéta Kosinová

Photography / Berlínskej Model

Prague Art Week / https://pragueartweek.cz/en/

WORKS FEATURED:

J’avoue il y aura du sentiment.

performance
Johanna Rocard
Performer: Mila Furie – 20 September 2023

1 / J’avoue il y aura du sentiment

Fabric, second-hand clothing, Britney Spears flag, jewellery, party accessories, wood Johanna Rocard

2 / Shhhhhhhh
Fabric, padding, machine embroidery, chains Hélène Hulak

3 / Hypnotic Poison (Mila Jovovitch edition)

Fabric, padding, machine embroidery Hélène Hulak

4 / J’adore

Fabric, padding, strass, machine embroidery Hélène Hulak

5 / Clotho

Fabric, padding, machine embroidery Hélène Hulak

6 / Soulmates

Diptyque, carpet Lux Miranda

7/ Ego,

Carpet
Lux Miranda 

Names of the performances :
Weaving mutation, by Rose-Mahé Cabel in Silencio Club Paris (performance dressed in black as a spider) / credit Jagna Ciuchta (@JAGNA_CIUCHTA)
La Grande Folie, by Johanna Rocard (with the performer dressed with a colorful dress) at 3537Paris crédit Valentin le Cron (@valentinlecron)

PHOTO CREDITS:

Images from the exhibition Caliban & the witch(es) (credit : Tomáš Souček) 
Images of books (NONFICTION 04, published in January 2024) credit : Gaby Huneau

images of the performance « J’avoue il y aura du sentiment » Photo credit is: Eva Rybarova

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