Transmutations: Witches, Healers, and Oracles
Through April 30, 2021
By ALFRED ROSENBLUTH, March 2021
Now through April 30th, Buckland’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magick with guest curator, Stephen Romano, present “Transmutations: Witches, Healers, and Oracles”, featuring works by Destiny Turner, Alexis Karl, Courtney Brooke, Nahw Yg, and Lorena Torres Martell, with accompanying words by Kristen J. Sollee and a compendium of vernacular works from the collection of Stephen Romano Gallery. Titled by participating artist, Destiny Turner, “Transmutations” directs our attention to artistic expression as a means of transmuting existential strife into profound beauty. For the countless many, like these artists, whose values affix to the act of claiming their identities as sovereign women, casting off the inherent limitations of patriarchal structures alone becomes a recurring act of self-reclamation.
This necessary path will find its expression through archetypes of the feminine potency whose mythic and historic inheritance scholar Kristen J. Sollee expounds upon:
The witch is a shapeshifter.
She transforms from vixen to hag,
healer to hellion,
adversary to advocate
based on who seeks her.
Being an unfixed sign, the witch is inherently abhorrent to ideology granting her carrier a chance to resist former internalized models of hegemonic power. Sollee continues:
She’s Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of the crossroads.
She’s Lilith, the blood-drinking demoness of Jewish mythology who refused to submit sexually to her husband.
She’s Baba Yaga, the Slavic hag in a chicken-legged hut who flourishes in the forest.
She’s Yamauba, the monstrous Japanese mountain crone who feasts on human flesh in her tattered kimono.
She’s Joan of Arc, the French military hero in white armor burned by her brethren for cross dressing and heresy.
She’s Marie Laveau, the powerful Voodoo Queen of nineteenth-century New Orleans.
She’s Elvira, vamping with a crucifix in her bountiful cleavage, dishing out double entendres.
She’s Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot for her feminist advocacy and awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize.
She’s the bruja at the botánica.
She’s the practitioner of granny magic, hoodoo, and conjure.
She’s the everyday intuitive, seeing and hearing things others do not.
The witch is at once female divinity, female ferocity, and female transgression.
She is all and she is one.
The witch has as many moods and as many faces as the moon.
Most of all, she is misunderstood.
*From Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive (ThreeL 2017)
The identities Kristen presents range from the imaginal and timeless to the mundane and historic, which all can serve as potential allies to one’s expression of identity. If anything, the single consistent feature of the witch is that she “most of all [is] misunderstood” – her nature, true to a law of the underworld, necessarily recedes from any attempts to grasp through common understanding.
This unseen quality reveals itself through Nahw Yg in her self-portraits – expressing hybrid goddess forms that dwell in the liminal. When first contacted by curator Stephen Romano, Yg admitted to never really considering herself an artist – finding only therapeutic value in her photography. In commenting on Nahw Yg and Destiny Turner’s roots as autodidacts, Romano correctly places the conceptual material of their work in “their own life experiences, their trauma, their ordeals.” So this work documents the embodiment of alternative forms as a modality of healing amplified through the language of the esoteric. While Nahw Yg transmutes the difficulties of such experiences through vocabularies of the universal feminine, Destiny Turner’s work documents total immersion into the self. Turner’s feats of self-possession externalize states of vulnerability with such apparent ease, that her images become talismanic in their confrontation of the hidden – the authentic and raw emotionality of her work resists any convincing reductive analysis.
These artists cite the body as a crossroads where the presence it conjures contracts into function and movement as “The Oracle”, whose eponymous archetype director and artist Alexis Karl communes with in a verdant dystopia. She and the land extend into one another through the medium of her dress; she grips a scrying water bowl between antlers as she entrenches her consciousness within the portents of this analog technology in deepening waves of ritual. Karl’s film stills comprise a formal middle ground which preserves the minimalism of our first artists while calling in the influence of cinema, which as we’ll note, significantly influences the remaining group of works. On the subject of cinema and femme revenge, should the archaic intensity in the expressions of Karl’s muse, Hannah Fierman, have a certain familiarity, you’ve most likely already seen it in any one of the cult horror films in which she has played a starring role.
Reflecting on our last two artists, it would seem that while Destiny Turner and Nahw Yg chart the subjective interiority of the “everywoman”, Courtney Brooke and Lorena Torres-Martell’s work reclaims the image of the witch that has been coded by exoteric culture. Both artists exhibit a strong command of their craft of utilizing darkroom and digital techne to transmute photons into tapestries of the divine and the damned. Rich, matte hues of red and blue saturate Brooke’s realms in perfected enchantments of light while rituals and solitary figures populate remote sylvan landscapes, reminiscent of 60s and 70s-era psych rock vinyl covers. Brooke’s work presents an ennobled image of the witch as regent and celebrates a love for past eras and legends through a deeply original vision. The shift from “from vixen to hag” takes place in the work of our final artist, Lorena Torres Martell, who, without any doubt, of this group most directly evokes the affect of supernatural terror by which folklore estranged the witch from the safety of the commons. While the understated power of her co-exhibitors challenge by holding a mirror up to the viewer, Martell’s subjects withdraw from the shadows into full light to perform an aesthetically ruthless amplitude of horror. We are left convinced of how even the demonized wield a form of power in their marginalization, for little else could be more derisive of the status quo than the image of a sky-clad coven twisting their mutilated visages in its face.
Alongside these gems of contemporary visions hang riches of the past century. Included in this feast of vernacular works, we see original press releases and photographic documentation of traditional healers among which saunter original masterpieces of William Mortenson – a feature that should cause involuntary salivation in discerning audiences.
To step back and take in this feat of an exhibit as a totality, one is struck by how little apparent tension there exists between these multivalent works which, distinct in style, function, concept and era, nonetheless read as an integrated whole. This aesthetic coherence indicates a larger something, that has always been here and will apparently continue to be claimed by those who can channel, embody, and express its elusive nature. As the witch occupies a state of exception, bearing her identity brings one access to a self-congruence not afforded by society-at-large. To end on the import of Sollee’s words: just as her detractors find only their own limitations reflected back in her direction, her basic self-integrity and wholeness which this exhibit clearly evidences can extend to those willing able to bear open witness.
For images of the full exhibition, please follow this link: www.transmutations.net. WM