Firstsite, Colchester, is delighted to present A Coven A Grove A Stand, a major exhibition by the artist susan pui san lok. The installation explores the folklore surrounding witchcraft and the history of the witch persecutions across East Anglia in the 16th and 17th centuries, including the campaign led by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witch finder General.’
Born in Suffolk and based in Manningtree, Hopkins operated across the East Anglia region between 1644 and 1646, and is believed to be have been responsible, along with John Stearne, for the execution of as many as 300 ‘witches’ – often single and elderly women. Many suspected witches were often imprisoned at Colchester Castle, just a stone’s throw from Firstsite. Hopkins is buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Church in Mistley, Essex.
A Coven A Grove A Stand, a fluid project that the artist will continue to create during its run, interweaves and examines the narratives around these ‘witches’, exploring themes of voice, place and collective remembrance and resistance.
The exhibition opens with one hundred and ten names, handwritten by the artist in chalk onto black walls, which frame the entrance leading to the main gallery. Visitors are invited to participate in the recovery and remembrance of past victims by writing and repeating their names on the adjacent walls. The centrepiece of the exhibition is an abstract structure, based on 3D-scans of ‘Old Knobbley’, an oak tree believed to be 800 years old that is situated in the woods around Mistley, where ‘witches’ were thought to have hidden from their persecutors. The 4-metre-high sculpture is assembled from recycled cardboard and set against a background of colour-tinted glass panels through which the circle of trees on the gallery’s front lawn can be seen. Evoking the symbols,sanctuaries, hearts and havens of witches, the title Sister O Sister (2018-19), is also a reference to Yoko Ono’s 1972 feminist anthem, Sisters O Sisters.
In the same space, Cruel Mothers is a sound installation that plays several versions of the folk song, Cruel Mother, echoing each other in a disjointed round, around the ‘tree’. Its lyrics are inscribed in chalk onto the wall, along with those of another folksong, Alison Gross / Alison Cross, juxtaposing familiar archetypal narratives of female sexuality, power, pain and violence. The voices of Cruel Mothers mingle with those of Seven Sisters, a sound and video loop in an adjacent gallery. Here, a circle of voices conjures the individuals who were accused and executed as witches into the present, while images circle a tree.
In the nal gallery, two hundred ribbons hang from the ceiling for the unknown victims of persecution, while the far wall is adorned with intricately embroidered hoops for the named and documented victims. Each hoop has been embroidered by members of Colne & Colchester Embroiderers’ Guild, Stitch & Bitch Colchester, YAK – Young Art Kommunity and Colchester Bangladeshi Mohila Shomity. Through seeing, writing and hearing the names of the ‘witches’, visitors are invited to recognise the persecuted, then and now, and our collective power to remember and resist.
A Coven A Grove A Stand is part of New Geographies, a three year project which aims to create a new map of the East of England based on local reflections and stories of unexplored or overlooked places. As part of the project, the public was asked to nominate unexpected places in the region that they find meaningful and interesting. Over 270 sites were identified and ten artists, including susan pui san lok, were commissioned to highlight some of those places through new site-specific work. This combination of local knowledge and world-class art seeks to create a new vision of the East of England as a place to encounter excellent art in unexpected places.
Through the installation, susan pui san lok, who was born in Essex, responds to seven of the nominated sites. Sister O Sister draws on the form of ‘Old Knobbley’ and also references the tree known as ‘The Witches’ Wooden Leg’ in the ruined Church of St. Mary’s of East Somerton, Norfolk. Other sites include Kitty Witches Row in Great Yarmouth, the Witch’s Heart in King’s Lynn’s Tuesday Marketplace and locations in St. Osyth and Manningtree in Essex.
Says Firstsite Director, Sally Shaw: ‘We are delighted to be staging this thought-provoking exhibition by susan pui san lok. In drawing on a particularly significant chapter of Essex’s history, it offers an opportunity to examine and reflect upon the inequalities in society, past and present, and in doing so, helps us to understand their legacies today so that together we can reduce their impact tomorrow.’