A major new contemporary art exhibition opens at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery Exeter

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A major new contemporary art exhibition opens at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery Exeter
Kiki Smith, Sorcery (Whole Set), 2019. Intaglio in 2 colours, 27 1/2 x 35 in. / 69.8 x 88.9 cm (9 parts, individual dimensions) This work is an exhibition proof. (TE0012283) © Kiki Smith, courtesy UALE, New York & Timothy Taylor, London / New York.

EXETER.- Earth Spells: Witches of the Anthropocene brings these artists together in a major new exhibition at RAMM that responds to and engages directly with museum collections, specifically the Dartmoor Cauldron, once owned by the self-identified ‘Witch of Dartmoor’ Elizabeth Webb. The Anthropocene epoch is a proposed definition of geologic time, describing this current period when human activity has had and is having a significant impact on the planet's ecosystems.

The works in Earth Spells express a visceral, emotional response to the climate crisis, suggesting new spiritual relationships with the land, especially in Devon and Cornwall. Dartmoor is widely known as a place for self-healing and shamanistic practices with its Neolithic stone circles and burial mounds.

Through the artist's performances, installations and provocations, Earth Spells invites the viewer to consider if the artists and the artworks could be perceived as suspicious and challenging, exuding what the curators describe as ‘witchiness’.

Artists Emma Hart, Grace Ndiritu, Florence Peake and Lucy Stein have been commissioned to create new work in response to RAMM’s collections alongside existing work from Caroline Achaintre, Kris Lemsalu, Mercedes Mülheisen and Kiki Smith.

Mysticism, myth and Celtic identity are influences on Lucy Stein's work. Based in West Penwith in Cornwall, she makes frequent visits to ancient sites, fogous (a Cornish-language word meaning cave) and stone circles. For Earth Spells Stein is creating a new Goddess pedestal and a self-portrait with her two young children in a triptych surrounded by both painted and actual objects from RAMM’s collections. Stein’s installation for Earth Spells has been inspired by many visits to the museum, its stores and conversations with RAMM curators.

Lucy Stein Said: “To a certain extent as an artist/witch, I have to stay in tune with an uncultivated state inside myself. I’m always searching for wildness and for the freedom to operate on my own terms. For this commission at RAMM, I am trying to tap into the vibe of my childhood, death, the mystical feminine and the spirit of place in the South West.”

Florence Peake will present films, ceramic sculptures and text-based fabric installations. The work will include an interactive element for which Peake invites visitors to inform part of its choreography. To research and create the work, Peake spent time in the museum including holding Elizabeth Webb’s cauldron in RAMM’s store to ‘capture its aura’. In 2022 she visited Dartmoor for a healing ceremony with a Shaman who took her to the soft moss on a granite Tor where she lay face down and sobbed before casting a spell as a list of ‘freedoms’.

Florence Peake said: “I wanted to think about Dartmoor as a portal, a cauldron even and the moor as a site that we can commune with, a site that can activate storytelling, healing practices, where we can make wishes and dreams, set intentions, engage in imagination, encounter the phenomena of geology, plant life and the wildness that Dartmoor holds. It is a site to anthropomorphise, imagine into and trick the logical mind; poetics and presence become the tour guides.”

Emma Hart is particularly interested in the power of individuals whose words are productive enough to cite change, for example viewing Greta Thunberg, whose Skolstrejk for Klimatet protest and subsequent speeches have become a catalyst for change, through this lens. Hart will show wall-based ceramic sculptures of speech bubbles that explore the performative aspect of spells as a format of speech in which words and phrases ‘make something happen’.

Emma Hart Said: “I am drawing a connection between the idea of a spell - some words that are said to change something or cause something and J.L.Austin’s notion of performative language. For example, you can’t make a promise or a bet without saying ‘I promise’ or ‘I bet’. You need to say a spell to enact it.”

Grace Ndiritu’s work draws on indigenous ideas that urge us to live and work for the benefit of all future generations and ecosystems. Ndiritu will make a circular protest carpet that will be ‘activated’ through an intimate, spiritual ceremony in the museum with pregnant participants in their second and third trimester. This performance will be filmed and exhibited with the carpet.

Grace Ndiritu said: “The performance for Earth Spells fits into my practice because I've been making protest carpets, shamanic performances and lived off-grid in nature for many years. The first carpet I made used an image of women protesting about women's labour in the 1970s and this was inspired by Silvia Federici who has also written a lot about ecology and the idea of the witch and how that is a potent term. I think this is important, to connect that with a radical reimagining of women's place in society and also within new practices in the art world.”

Other works being shown include a Jacquard tapestry and drawings by Kiki Smith, a hand-tufted rug by Caroline Achaintre, Mercedes Mühleisen’s two-channel video installation Lament of Fruitless HEN and the sculpture Baubo Dance from Kris Lemsalu.

Earth Spells curators, Lara Goodband and Gemma Lloyd describe their inspiration for Earth Spells: Witches of the Anthropocene “With the recent donation of the Dartmoor cauldron and a desire for people to reconnect with the natural world, we are aware that there has recently been a resurgence and return to traditional ecological knowledge, which indigenous communities have held. These relationships with the earth, nature and the non-human are now being applied by shamans on Dartmoor through healing practices and embedded in new philosophies and art practices in the UK and the rest of Europe. Reclaiming the term ‘witch’ for the 21st century, we wanted to reflect on how contemporary artists are attuned to their relationship with the earth and an urgent need for a rebalancing and reciprocity with nature at this time. Our readings of Rachel Carson, Amitav Ghosh, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Kathryn Yusoff have informed our approach to the selection of the works and the curation of the exhibition.”

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