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Issue 217

What Can We Learn from a Return to Witchcraft?

At Kunsthall Charlottenborg, a group exhibition aims to draw connections between witch trials and colonialism but fails to grapple with their continuities 

BY Steven Zultanski in EU Reviews , Reviews | 12 JAN 21

The premise the group exhibition ‘Witch Hunt’ at Kunsthal Charlottenborg is a reckoning with the history of colonialism in the Nordics. The show proposes seeing the persecution of witches as a metonym for the history of land-grabbing, misogyny and forced conversion in northern Europe. As the wall text starkly announces, over 50,000 people in Europe were sentenced, tortured and murdered for alleged witchcraft between 1450 and 1750 – thousands of them were women and Sámi people in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Despite the violent history that serves as the basis for the show ‘Witch Hunt’ avoids sensationalism. Thankfully the artworks were not chosen to illustrate or dramatize the torture and murder of women and Indigenous people. However, this careful curatorial approach fails to remember the horror of the witch trials or conjure the depth of Renaissance Europe’s religious intolerance and cruelty. The theme of witchcraft here mainly functions as an exercise in research and context-building.

Keviselie (Hans Ragnar Mathisen), Various Maps with Sámi Place Names, 1975–ongoing, works on paper. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: David Stjernholm

In the first gallery, Keviselie (Hans Ragnar Mathisen)’s Various Maps with Sámi Place Names (1975–ongoing), a series of 28 maps of northern Europe reimagined with Sámi names, is pinned to the wall. Though straightforward in concept, the work offers a complex implication by presenting both an alternate history – a vision of Europe without colonialism – and a respectful proposal to keep Indigenous names alive. Placed at the beginning of the show, it suggests that the curators would like to connect the history of witchcraft to struggles over territory. However, there are only a few other works in the exhibition that explicitly engage with land theft or extraction.

La Vaughn Belle, Strange Gods Before Thee, 2020, installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: David Stjernholm

A number of pieces celebrate resistance, healing and magic. La Vaughn Belle’s two-channel video Strange Gods Before Thee (2020), for instance, depicts the artist calmly performing acts of obeah, practices developed by enslaved people in the Danish West Indies in the 18th century. Youmna Chlala’s She Holds the Wind in a Bag that is Her Power (2020) is a hanging flax linen sculpture that references magical practices of knotting ropes to influence the weather. In a pitch-dark room Cecilia Vicuña’s two songs, Ballena Azul, Oro De Oir (Blue Whale, Hearing Is the Gold) (both 2012) and Melinko Lauen (Medicine Mist of the Waterfall), are dedicated to glaciers destroyed by a mining company in Chile, which led to the displacement of Indigenous communities.

Sandra Mujinga’s works are some of the only pieces that strongly evoke historical violence. Ghosting (2019) is a large red sculpture that suggests both a structure meant for shelter, like a canopy, and a body turned inside out. It looms over the show, as if it’s either offering protection to those who suffer from cruelty or taking revenge on their behalf. In Mujinga’s video Amnesia? Amnesia? (2019) the comedian Joe von Hutch delivers short, disjointed lines about disappearance and forgetting. While his delivery is comic, there’s also an undertone of despair at the irrecoverableness of what has been lost. 

Sandra Mujinga, Ghosting, 2019, soft PVC, denim, acrylic paint, oil paint, glycerine, threaded rods and rod coplings. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen, Vienna; photograph: David Stjernholm

‘Witch Hunt’ tries to do a lot at once: it attempts to reflect on the relationship between colonialism and the persecution of witches in the Nordics through contemporary art that engages with ideas of decolonization, feminism and care. That’s an undoubtedly worthy goal, but it also results in touching on many subjects only briefly. It’s an ambitious exhibition that’s unfortunately a bit murky: not quite rigorous enough to treat its historical material with depth, nor courageous enough to explicitly address the present-day political implications of the subject matter.

Witch Hunt’ at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, is currently closed due to Copenhagen Department of Health guidelines to protect against COVID-19. A reopening date has yet to be announced. 

Main image: Carmen Winant, The neighbor, the friend, the lover, 2020, found double-sided images on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Stene Projects, Stockholm; photograph: David Stjernholm

Steven Zultanski is the author of several books of poetry, including On the Literary Means of Representing the Powerful as Powerless (2018) and Honestly (2018). He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.