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Tracing witches

02 May
Mon, 12am

by Hong Xinyi

A recollection —

Some years ago, amidst the harrowing toil and trouble of #MeToo, a newspaper headline may have bubbled to the surface of your screen. "Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt," it read. "I'm a Witch and I am Hunting You."

Depending on the alignment of your spine, these words may or may not have sparked a delicious chill that prickled, neatly, across your skin. This was poetry; a spell. Its precision was marred only by the choices in capitalisation. An incantation is whispered, and should be lower-case.

A confession —

All children, still, are taught about witches. For instance, the Disney canon's adapted fairytales often feature motherless girls vicariously vanquishing unmaternal figures whose villainy is, sometimes, sorcerous.

Animation adores a witch, whose powers always push the possibilities of line and form. Maleficent is all vicious verticality and cruel curves, and that's before she turns into a dragon. Ursula undulates, in full command of every voluptuous tentacle, each coiled tendril of charm. In her final scene, she bestrides the sea as a colossus, taking up space, as the kids say. You miss her when she's gone.

But these days, good witches are more in vogue, or at least those ill at ease with their own potency. That's how you defang a monster. The motherless girls at the centre of these tales are themselves witch-like now, if haltingly so, and the unsettling witches of old have been recast. The new Maleficent has been given a hidden heart of gold, and heaven knows what form of redemptive nurturing the upcoming Ursula will be made to do. Their cartoon predecessors had no time for this insipidity. They were at home in their lilac skins, and lucid about their place in the world they wished to overturn. They understood the binding force of contracts, and they crafted the clauses themselves.

A history —

There have always been witches. "The witch is defined as an abject figure in that she is represented within patriarchal discourses as an implacable enemy of the symbolic order," writes film professor Barbara Creed. "She is thought to be dangerous and wily, capable of drawing on her evil powers to wreak destruction on the community. The witch sets out to unsettle boundaries between the rational and irrational, symbolic and imaginary."

Two productions in this year's SIFA line-up prod, obliquely and otherwise, at these boundaries. In The Neon Hieroglyph, British artist Tai Shani draws on the mythology of Alicudi, an island in Italy where, for centuries, housewives made bread contaminated by ergot, a fungus that causes hallucinations.


(The Neon Hieroglyph by Tai Shani) 

This community came to believe in flying women they called maiara, who were able to soar across the water and bring food from the mainland back for the starving islanders. They could unleash curses as well as heal, say the villagers, who even today have different interpretations of what happened. Some think the legends reflect a mental escape from the crushing isolation of Alicudi; others invoke these witches as a form of local colour, good for luring tourists. And there are those who swear the stories are true. Embedded in these new and ancient fantasies is an enduring attachment to the allure of ambivalence, and shifting perceptions of what nourishment means.  

project SALOME uses the infamous title character as its inspiration. Salome is a figure from antiquity. Her mother was Herodias, who married Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, after divorcing his brother. This coupling was denounced as incestuous by the prophet, John the Baptist. After Salome performs a dance for her stepfather Herod, he promises to give her whatever she asks for. She confers with Herodias, then requests and receives the head of John the Baptist.

In this fragment of a story, the contours of a carnal and canny mother can be glimpsed, one who enforces a matrilineal loyalty. In medieval times, Herodias enters into folklore, becoming associated with a cult of witches. But it is Salome who captures the imagination of later artists.

In Oscar Wilde's 1891 play Salomé, Herodias recedes. Herod lusts after Salome, who in turn desires John the Baptist. Caught between these sightlines of curdled longing, the once-monstrous mother speaks from the margins, repeatedly asking her husband to stop looking at her daughter. She knows she is losing control, that the edge of a weapon she whetted is turning against her. When Salome demands the prophet's head, Wilde writes for her this line: “I do not heed my mother.” In this play, the witch is forsaken, and the patriarchy holds.  

A prophecy —

There will always be witches.

Weeks ago, Russian soldiers invaded a Ukrainian town, and someone held up their phone to film the troops rolling past in tanks. Off-camera, a voice shouts something. The Internet informs us that these words meant: "Do you even know where you are? This is Konotop! Here every second woman is a witch."

It's hard to tell if the voice belongs to a man or a woman. In any case, there is an anatomically-focused punchline to this pronouncement, and you can hear it elicit snatches of laughter from the crowd. "The only way to get even with anybody is to ridicule them," says comedian Mel Brooks, who is decidedly not a witch but something quite kin — a brilliant fool.

Every second woman here is a witch — more poetry; another spell. Enchantments are capricious things, and do not always bind. Their potency waxes according to the health of alliances formed with other implacable enemies of oppressive orders. So here's the question: who are these others, the ones who are not witches? What manner of monster are they?

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