• 11 October 2019
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

In 2018, artist collective Project O exhibited Saved (2018) at London’s Somerset House. The video-installation featured two women of colour in swimwear and plastic robes performing magical rituals in a post-apocalyptic watery wasteland. What might such an artwork mean in the midst of Brexit? Both Leavers and Remainers have been increasingly using the occult as a metaphor to attack each side of the political divide. The press have also picked it up: from headlines exclaiming ‘Tarot revival thanks to Brexit’ (BBC News), or ‘Cults, human sacrifice and pagan sex: how folk horror is flowering again in Brexit Britain’ (The Guardian). How much are such references be implicated in – or complicated by – histories of colonialism and gender? While the supposed ‘rational’ and ‘stoic’ characteristics of science have long been attributed to imperial administration and military masculinity, many people subject to enslavement or oppression have used magical practices as a form of resistance.

With anti-racist and feminist theorists, artists, poets and activists reclaiming witchcraft as a tool of protest – from Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women (2018) to Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry (2018) – what might contemporary art tell us about the current crisis of British identity? For Rita Duffy’s artwork Soften the Border (2017), the artist collaborated with women’s groups set up with EU peace funding after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to install a collection of hand-knitted dolls and cushions across a bridge straddling the border. The work referenced histories of witchcraft in Ireland, once associated with both the rural working class and – during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – people of colour across Britain’s empire. Could artworks engaging with the occult offer an image of the UK no longer ruling the waves, without a male saviour figure promising to ‘take back control’ – and is such a historical reckoning vital today?

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait in white shirt in front of sea

    Contributing Editor at British Art Studies, Dr Edwin Coomasaru is a historian of modern and contemporary UK and Sri Lankan art. He has been awarded postdoctoral and research fellowships at Edinburgh University, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and The Courtauld Institute of Art (where he earned his PhD); he also worked as a Research Assistant on an anti-racist and decolonial resource portal for the Association of Art History. Coomasaru has co-edited a book on Imagining the Apocalypse: Art and the End Times (2022) for Courtauld Books Online and contributed to the Barbican Centre’s Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography (2020) exhibition catalogue. He has written for Third Text, British Art Studies, Oxford Art Journal, Irish Times, Irish Studies Review, The Irish Review, Photoworks Annual, Burlington Contemporary, Architectural Review, and Source Magazine.