• 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

    Dr Edwin Coomasaru is a historian of modern and contemporary British, Irish, and Sri Lankan art; his research considers the politics of gender, sexuality, and race. Coomasaru is an editor of the journal Visual Culture in Britain. He has been awarded Postdoctoral Fellowships at the University of Edinburgh, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and The Courtauld Institute of Art (where he earned his PhD and co-convened the Gender & Sexuality Research Group). He previously worked as a Research Assistant on the Association of Art History’s anti-racist and decolonial resource portal. Formerly a Contributing Editor at British Art Studies, Coomasaru has also co-edited a book on Imagining the Apocalypse: Art and the End Times (Courtauld Books Online, 2022). He has written articles and book reviews for peer-review journals (Art History, Third Text, The Irish Review, Irish Studies Review, Oxford Art Journal), alongside exhibition essays for museums and galleries (Barbican Centre, Autograph, Jhaveri Contemporary, Saskia Fernando Gallery, Belfast Exposed, Townhall Cavan).