The Witching Power: Pop & Protest in Occult Art and Fashion

Posted on September 29, 2016, 8:45 am
12 mins

Behind her desk, Ghost Gallery curator Laurie Kearney looks dazzled by the crowd. This gallery/boutique is often busy on the second Thursday Capitol Hill Art Walk, but the opening reception for The Art of The Tarot is swarming with new faces. They dive eagerly through decks of tarot and divination cards, featuring limpid goddesses, spiky runic lines or digital designs. They’re buying prints, jewelry, paintings, all occult-themed, all wildly variant. This is not only the witching hour, but the resurgent witching power of occult art and fashion.

“The response to this open call for art was huge,” says Kearney. “My September exhibition fell through last-minute, and I’ve always wanted to do a tarot show. So, I put it out there. I received over 100 submissions extremely quickly.”

And, once she made the event on Facebook, it garnered over 1,500 follows. Kearney had tapped a serious vein.

Occult-themed fashion, jewelry and art continues to trend mainstream, emerging from the fringe where it has lain dormant in recent decades. It’s particularly popular among the young, queer, urban and net-savvy. It’s nearly impossible to search for jewelry on Etsy and Insta without coming across chunks of crystal, or pendants incorporating bones, skulls and antlers. Pentacles, ankhs, evil eyes and sigils adorn clothing, accessories and skin. Flowing, regal side-slit skirts and wide-brimmed black hats nod simultaneously to The Wicked Witch of the West, Stevie Nicks, American Horror Story and Beyoncé a la Lemonade.

Based on what’s popular in the Instagram and Etsy-verses, I half-expected the exhibit at Ghost Gallery to focus on younger artists riding the #witchesofinstagram hashtag. Instead, the exhibit has two distinct camps: Those who used tarot cards and symbols as a jumping-off point for their own interpretations, and true believers in divination.

“I purposely aimed for a mix with this exhibit,” says Kearney. “I wanted to show the newer, more kitsch style that’s popular right now, but also honor artists who are old-school Wicca. Many of the latter had never worked with a gallery before.”

I asked local illustrator, comics artist, and friend Pam Wishbow to accompany me to the opening. Wishbow created her own Urban Divination Deck in 2013, and is working on a followup. Though this occult resurgence has been going strong for at least the last three years, it seems to be peaking now. I asked her from where she thinks it stems.

“It’s a lot of things. Organized religion is on the outs right now. Personal interpretation is in. And, you have all of these people who believe in science and know that traditional medicine works, but they can’t afford healthcare. So, you get people turning to holistic practices, and gemstone healing, not necessarily because they think it will work, but because they don’t have another option.”

Certainly, there’s serious allure about the illusion of control and prognostication, especially in an election year. Among those who experience physical and political oppression, the fierce and forceful witch aesthetic is not just a way of expressing power, but seizing it. Queer, urban millennials seem particularly drawn to the fashion—if not the practice—of witchcraft. Wishbow agrees.

“Historically, magic and the supernatural were places where outsiders were accepted and could make a living. In the Victorian era, if you were female, if you were an immigrant, you could find work as a medium, doing seances. It’s still a place for outsiders today.”

The Witch is Back

Interest in the occult—and the desire to predict, avenge and control our circumstances—is ever-present, but seems to trend cyclically more widely. The last time witchcraft was ascendant in pop culture was in the mid-1990s. (Coincidence that the 1990s are showing up in nostalgic force right now?)

Witches were everywhere—in The Craft, Practical Magic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hocus Pocus, Charmed—and New Age-fashion reached new heights at Lilith Fair. But, even counting Nancy’s spiked dog collar and Willow’s big-bad meltdown, the mainstream depictions of witchcraft in the 1990s circled around sisterhood, positivity, working against evil, and romance. It was tame—not to mention apolitical, and heteronormative—compared to the take-no-prisoners, queer and trans-friendly version we’re seeing today.

What we see today is more akin to the 70s, when witch style resurged as part of a larger, rebellious, bohemian subculture. (Cf. Stevie Nicks.) Most of the artists creating tarot decks and power pendants at Ghost Gallery were not yet born then. They are neither emulating that era nor are they reacting to the Hollywood witch of the 90s, who had her edges rubbed off and spikes dulled. What’s trending online and filling galleries today is creator-made, with agenda and agency. The makers are part of a larger cultural cycle that goes back much further and is unabashedly aggressive.

Seattle artist Eliza Gauger is slinging hexes to protect victims and curse abusers. She designs custom black and white glyphs in response to people who send questions and problems to her site, ProblemGlyphs. Pulling from Norse, Greek, Hebrew, early Christian and other mythological sources, Gauger blends her influences into custom sigils. Their recipients often draw, embroider, or tattoo the sigils to activate their power. Some glyphs are supportive. Others are empowering, with an undercurrent of rage.

In 2015, Gauger received a cry for help from a trans person. “I’m beset with many enemies”, began their submission. In response, Gauger created the Hex of Obsolescence. She then wheatpasted it around Capitol Hill as a larger warning and piece of public art. The Hex opens with the sentence “Warning: This Image is a Curse,” and continues “this sigil protects trans kids,” targeting “those who refuse to mind their own fucking business.” The mix of malice and glee in her words is clear, as she finishes: “Be nice to us and you’ll survive. Continue being assholes, & we will bring this hex h o m e.”

This is witchcraft as a method of empowerment and as a verb, going far beyond the lookbook and into a state of feminist, queer protest.

“There is a generational cycle of how much bullshit an oppressed people can tolerate,” says Tracy Cilona, owner and curator of Twilight Gallery in West Seattle. “Each generation moves forward and then there is a backlash and we start again. We are seeing that now, with so much more work to be done.”

Cilona is prepping for the exhibit Our Daily Armor II: HEX and the Monstrous Feminine. The first iteration of Our Daily Armor focused on woman-as-warrior, but this October brings the spotlight onto the coven. The show was partially inspired by The Monstrous Feminine, a 1993 film theory critique by Barbara Creed. In it, she dismantles the idea of woman-as-victim in horror films. But Cilona also cites a more urgent issue: the mass hex brought by witches against convicted rapist Brock Turner.

“I thought, ‘It’s come to this.’ We have to harness all our precious monster-fire ferocity and magic, and start hexing rapists because the law can’t protect us. The justice system is so flawed, so racist, so misogynist, that we have to resort to hexing to protect ourselves.”

Cilona’s gallery focuses unapologetically on women artists and a female clientele, with particular emphasis on works by people of color and the LGBTQIA community. The jewelry and accessories shown in the boutique section of Twilight are often heavy, hard, spiky, raw: armor and armament. They are part of a larger genre of statement pieces made to negate the male gaze, proclaim empowerment and confidence.

“[Witchcraft has] always been about women’s empowerment,” says Cilona. “A dangerous women has always been the target of violence. In art, in music and in art. She’s a witch, a bitch, an emasculator.”

Over email, I asked Cilona if her clientele were following or leading the occult leanings in the gallery. Was this interest already bubbling under the surface, or is it a trend to jump on? Cilona sees it holistically.

“As far as commerce, trends make money. I am happy to see a trend if it furthers the cause and moves girls to the front. But, make no mistake, we’ve always been here and will continue to be so…My collectors are deeply interested in occult, supporting women’s work and having a place where they can come and be themselves. I have many, many spiritual women as clients. Lots of queer boys, too!”

For HEX, Cilona will show jewelry, accessories, art and design by local and national artists. Local artists already on the roster include Shannon Koszyck, Jordan Christianson, HoodWitch, Gritty Jewelry, Siolo Thompson, and Lisa Myers Bulmash, with many more to come.

Gird yourselves.

Lead image: “Queen of Pentacles” from Dark Days Tarot (Wren McMurdo, Seattle)


The Art of the Tarot at Ghost Gallery

When: Through October 9

Where: Ghost Gallery (504 E Denny Way, Seattle, WA 98122)

Phone: (206) 832-6063

 

Our Daily Armor II: HEX and the Monstrous Feminine

When: October 4 – November 2nd

Where: Twilight Gallery (4306 SW Alaska Street Seattle, Washington 98116

Phone: 206.933.2444

 

See work from Pam Wishbow at http://pamwishbow.com/

 

See Eliza Gauger’s ProblemGlyphs project at http://problemglyphs.org/

Sarra Scherb an arts writer, gallerist, curator and graphic designer in Seattle. Her writing has appeared in The Stranger, The Toast, Stackedd Magazine and Weave Magazine. She has worked with five Washington museums and four Seattle art galleries, and none of them have caught fire or flickered into a different dimension, so she must be doing something right.She runs around town as Brass Archer: https://brassarcher.wordpress.com/

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