The exhibition opened on Ash Wednesday. That wasn’t intentionally planned, but simply how the gallery schedule worked out. Regardless, it did seem fated, for as you entered the gallery, the hand-painted words “Flesh to ashes…ashes to flesh” stood out on the bare white wall.
As you walked further into the space, you came face to face with small mixed media pieces. Diminutive in scale, they pulled you in to show you quotes and images of torture and related devices from centuries ago. They were joined by smokey etchings and monotypes, and monochromatic paintings that mimicked skin and hair, layered with biting words. The opposite wall was filled with many sheets of semi-burned parchment paper, each containing the silkscreened image of a woman being burned at the stake. Handwritten next to her on each page was a name, cause of death, and the year. Lastly, in the center of the space was a large pile of unfired ceramic bodies that appeared to writhe and twist, placed in a pile of ashes.
The show was entitled “The Burning Times” and it was my senior solo exhibition at RISD. The name of the body of work is an early 20th century reference to the period of time where many people (particularly in Europe) were burned or otherwise executed as witches.
The show itself took on a second life for quite a few years starting in 2001, becoming part of a resource website that focused on documenting news, fighting discrimination, and acting as a living interactive memorial via Crescent Magazine. Alas, Anja (the EoC) and I had more great ideas than we had the time and hands to work on them. After a few active years, it fell into the black hole of internet (though you can still see parts of it via the wayback machine).
I have been thinking about that show again lately. Half because of people referencing “The Burning Times” (TBT) when expressing their fears about the current political climate. The other half I’ve seen used in other random places, often coupled with derogatory expressions about uneducated or ungrounded practitioners. I feel like both are missing the point entirely.
I was a young, passionate woman and dedicated public witch when I created that body of work. But it wasn’t meant to be a specifically a feminist statement or a Pagan sentiment about lost culture and knowledge. Rather it was a statement on society’s crimes against itself, that it continues to commit today.
I’m not sure how many art shows come with bibliographies, but mine did. The show idea was seeded by a social studies class I took at RISD on women in the middle ages. The reading and research for that class coincidentally merged with countless feminist writings from the 70’s-80’s I was immersed in via my religious studies. At that time, a bunch of new books looking into the “witch craze” had just come on the market, so I was eye-deep in books.
“X amount of witches were killed from Y-Z centuries”
– and –
“X amount of people were killed as witches from Y-Z centuries.”
Do you see that subtle difference? The latter one is the only one we can prove, and gets to the heart of the matter.
The following is a quote from the TBT website archive: “The victims came from a wide background of cultures, social statures, and religious beliefs. They were killed because they were different, unpopular, unwanted. Old widows with land were accused of Witchcraft so that the town could take over their land and acquire their wealth. Young women were accused by jealous wives whose husbands who had wandering eyes. If there was a problem with the animals or the crops, the latest newcomers to the town were held suspect. And as the years progressed, midwives and healers whose practices rivaled that of male doctors and the Church were brought forth on charges of Witchcraft and heresy….the truth of the matter is this: It doesn’t matter how many people died, or when they started dying, or what religion they practiced, or what sex they were. It’s the fact that they DID die — they died simply because of who they were.”
My main change to the above quote now would be simple. I would add to the very last line “and because their neighbors and/or local governments were assholes.”
The heart of the lesson of “The Burning Times” isn’t about P-words being persecuted – then or now. It’s about scapegoating and discriminating against any minority or marginalized person for your own self-interest – being it financial, political, spiritual, or personal. Just exchange “witch” out for “transwoman” or “Muslim” or “Latino” or “queer”, etc. Witch has long been a placeholder for “the other”, “not us”, “them”, “what we fear.”
“Never again TBT” isn’t a cry to fear for your own neck, nor does it harken to a disconnected myth. It IS a call to stand up for those around you. It’s a challenge to be brave, to be prepared, to fight for what you believe in, and to protect the best parts of humanity against the worst. No one is “safe” unless everyone is valued. This isn’t a history lesson exclusively for our leaders – it’s one for every single person in every community. It means speaking up when you know something is wrong, helping out when you see someone in trouble, and seeking understanding when possible. None of that requires you to be wearing a pentacle or cloak either when you do it.