241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

A lecture at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague on good and evil closed with a ritual performed by Winti priestess Nana (Marian Markelo). A few weeks later, I went to meet her to find out more about Winti.

What is Winti exactly?
It's a way of life that deals with the balance between yourself, nature and the people around you, your ancestors and your spiritual mentors. You can turn to Winti for support at any given point in your life.

Is it a religion?
Not when you compare it to Western religions: there is no leader, there are no writings, and it’s not institutionalised. If you consider religion to be about connecting, you could call Winti a religion. The word religion has many meanings.

Where do you find Winti?
Winti originated in Suriname, and it’s comparable to Santeria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil.It deals with nature, living people and the people on the other side of life (in Winti they are with us). Nature is the main focus, it's about everything that is a part of nature but also about the people that no longer posses their physical bodies.

The western world is completely reliant on rationality, on facts measurable through clear cause and effect. Scientists have led us to believe that things exist only when they can be measured. Because of this way of thinking, we have lost sight of so much. People have grown estranged from nature and from who they truly are. They focus on everything around them, but not on themselves and nature.

Winti is a model for harmony, it ends contradictions: people who are here have to communicate with people on the other side.

What does nature mean in Winti?
The Winti see humans as advanced beings of nature and if we start with ourselves we'll be able to set the right examples for others. When I perform my rituals I make sure the waste material is dealt with properly, in the garbage or in the forest. It starts with the little things: like not dumping your rubbish just anywhere, not spitting on the earth, keeping yourself and your property clean. Otherwise the gods will be reluctant to approach you, they wouldn't visit a dirty place.

People are too involved with the superficial, think that nature is theirs, and that they posses the material world.

How did Winti come to originate in Suriname?
Winti is truly Surinamese. It finds its origin in the time of slavery. In Suriname different groups of people were mixed and Suriname succeeded in creating a whole out of all those African elements: Winti. Until 1979 the practice was prohibited by the Dutch, which meant that many elements of Winti were lost.

What made you get involved with winti?
I wasn't raised with Winti, my mother was a member of the church and my grandfather was even a preacher during the time of slavery. Winti has always been with me: when I was thirteen years old I had to clean the chicken shed, I sat down there quietly. I heard a voice inside me say: 'you already know everything you need to know, you're still a little girl, but we're going to make sure you'll know everything. The supernatural is inside you.'

I went inside and told my mother: 'I won't be going to church anymore.' My mother and father supported their children to do what they wanted to do and to focus on the things they were good at. They accepted our individuality.

One day, my mother sent me to the market to buy fish. I wore nice American clothes that I had picked myself. Yes, I like to show off a little. A man paid me a compliment, 'O little girl, you look so beautiful.' 'It's none of your business,' I answered. I didn't accept his compliment. He kept on repeating his words. It bothered me. I had a nice bike with a little bag on the front, I collected stones thinking if the man would bother me again I'd throw those stones at him.

But right when I wanted to throw a stone at him, the man suddenly stood at the other side of the river. This was not good! I biked home as fast as I could and when I arrived my mother told me I was rude and impolite: you shouldn't throw stones at old men, you should say thank you when someone gives you a compliment.

Later in life, I decided to move to the interior of Suriname to work as a nurse. Three days before I let I was asleep and had the following experience - it was not a dream, but an observation. In my sleep a man approached me, he was made out of bronze, he looked beautiful. He told me: you're going to Stoeli [an island deep within Suriname] and I will introduce you to all the people you need to meet.

People were waiting for us all around the shore and the man would say: this is the one, this is her! In a big wide-open field men and women were circled around an iron pot, cooking. The man said: I'm going to put my hand inside and you should do the same. I put my hand inside the pot. That man took hold of me, I looked at him, at his smile, and saw he was the man from the forest.

That dream put me in a trance and I screamed so loud that the neighbour came and forced the door. She recognised that what was going on was Winti. When I came to, she had arranged all kinds of things around me: pimba (white clay), gin, a squash. She told me: ‘Girl, you need to do something, you have Winti, you have to tell your mother.’

Who is this man?
This Winti is a god of war, he very manly. It means that I'm not afraid of anything. As a kid these qualities made me rude and strong-minded. You see, you can’t ever really choose your way, it was always in me and in my destiny. You receive skills and insights to be able to do what you are supposed to do, to reach your destination and on the way, the Wintis will find you. That's how you reach faith, or your destination, with help of the Wintis, the Jorkas, and the spirits of your ancestors.

My guide is a Kromanti Winti and I love him—he’s a beautiful sculptured bronze man, and he’s strong. Although I am a woman, his power gives me a masculine strength.

But a god of war sounds frightening to me, does he contribute to the good in the world?

This Winti is a Kromanti, a god of war, a thunder god with knowledge of herbs and rituals. Although this might sound negative, one must keep in mind that during slavery the power of the Kromanti was necessary—they were fearless and heroic spirits. Where battle is necessary they come, they take action and they clear up the mess.

When I'm in need, he will take over. In Amsterdam, I was attacked by two men and the Winti took over. I call him god of war because of those qualities. It's a force that was given to me by my enslaved grandparents.

And through the Kromanti you became a Winti priestess, how did that happen?

We performed rituals in the outback of Suriname to properly initiate me and give me tools. I know what to do with them. As an initiation you marry your Winti, I receive energy from within, also to help others.

How do you see, from the perspective of Winti, the role of the artist?

In the west, spirituality is on the sidelines. The emphasis on the material has not only brought prosperity, but also an imbalance between it and the immaterial, which is vital to society. Where we stand today, the artists’ role is to revive the immaterial and spiritual to bring society back to balance

Katy Horan, When the Moon is Full, 2008

1836, in the countryside of Salento in Puglia, Italy. A farmer is found lying outstretched and pale-faced in the bushes after having eaten wild blackberries and falling into a delirium. It’s near the Dolmen of Caroppo, in the vicinity of Galatina. Her hands and feet are black. Musicians with tambourines immediately rush to her from the village. They assemble themselves around her and begin to play.

The woman, initially motionless, begins to move to the rhythm of the tambourine, her feet kicking and her body spasming. She dances for hours, overcome with ecstasy. Members of her family surround her and present her with colourful pieces of fabric. She picks the colour she hates the most.

Meanwhile, the priest has joined the congregation and offers her St. Bruno’s prayer cards. Deliriously dancing, she places them into her mouth and chews on them. She eats them.

Finally, after hours of mania, she vomits water through her nose and mouth into a well. Her face regains its colour and her sanity has returned. Her family takes her home to the village where she lives.

Where I come from, superstitious fascination for pagan ritual is interwoven with Catholic-Christian doctrine. Symbols overlap or are compounded; the Catholic Church has encapsulated pagan rituals and translated them into Catholic interpretations. This bizarre trans-religious scenario, further stimulated by changes in rural life and the modernisation of South Italy, has led to a need for spiritual transcendence. This renewed interest in the trance, in the voluntary loss of consciousness, is a reaction to, and perhaps compensation for, the loss of one’s role within society.

I’ve always wondered when the function of a symbol’s significance ceases, and I’ve noticed that significance is determined by an individual’s interpretation. The religious symbol emerges as exceptionally strong because it contains contradictions. I think an artwork functions in a similar manner, and is the engine for many different connotations. A quiet engine that harbours contradictions with in it is like a spinning wheel. It spins and spins until it transcends and exceeds itself. It dances to the rhythm of the cosmic drum, and the two polar opposites are reconciled on the axis of possibility.

A woman, a vagabond, repeats the same actions over and over. She falls in love with objects, she hates their colour. She asks if she could be dressed in mirrors. She lives near a landfill and sometimes she’s heard singing a mantra. She likes to repeat herself and remain absent, to miss herself for eternity. She lives in a large European city.

Her attempt to lose consciousness, to release material status, is a well-known technique applied in esoteric religions. With the necessary sacrifice, anyone can reach ecstasy. But in South Italy and elsewhere in Europe, reaching ecstasy becomes a shelter against social decline, the loss of traditional roles in society, the redemption of the minorities. It justifies the personal inadequacy to live up to a collective and productive model. To cease acting and become a living symbol, and if possible, one that others wish to see.

In a state of bliss, S. Giuseppe da Copertino, and more recently, Padre Pio, have both succeeded in flying and have appeared in two places simultaneously, like the electron... As real as double.

On my way to Italy last summer, I had to think continuously about the Stendhal-syndrome, which was recently identified by the Florentinian psychiatrist, Prof. Dr. Graziella Magherini, in about a hundred people. These people had gone mad after an overwhelming experience of art, as had once happened to Stendhal. After a visit to Florence the French writer described how the divine beauty of the city caused him severe palpitations, and a fear of collapsing with each step he took. In reality, of course Stendhal retained his self-control, which distinguishes him from the patients of Prof Magherini, who were each and every one ripe for the institution.

The longer I thought about it, the better I understood that Stendhal did not lose his mind under the influence of that experience of beauty, but wanted to. What could be, in his time, a more elegant proof of human refinement and sensibility than to faint in the face of a work of art? The nineteenth century had barely began, the psychiatry was yet to be invented and it was still in vogue to take pride in one’s psychosomatic afflictions.

Why all this came to mind on the way to Italy I do not know, but in each case, it wasn’t because I was underway to whichever Italian art attraction. On the contrary, my aim was isolation, the peace to read for a couple of weeks without being disturbed.

I lodged in a cottage near the city Macerata, in the province of Marche. The cottage offered a view on a valley, which could effortlessly compete with the most beautiful landscape paintings in the world. I installed a long chair on the roofed porch, sat down and started reading. Motionless I sat in my chair for days, enjoying the world, as I enjoyed being in the shade of the sun. I forgot time and thought everything would stay like that forever.
I read gripping Italian fiction by the likes of Luigi Pirandello, Cesare Pavese and Claudio Magris, as well as an in-depth study of the life of Francis of Assisi by the Dutch Helene Nolthenius. But I was most taken by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the brawler, vain as noone else, the great mind with the short temper, who did not recoil from retaliating for the slightest mockery with premeditated murder.

Such a contagious character! The sixteenth-century goldsmith and sculptor demonstrates the art of lying as no other. After every page of his autobiography I understood better how to narrate: some true occurrences are to be related in detail, and additional verisimilitude is provided by adding some untruths.

I was about halfway in Cellini’s life story when I experienced a reader’s block. My uninterrupted sitting had made my body stiff as a board and it longed, incited as it was by Cellini’s continuous boasting of his physical courage and energy, for movement. The moment I laid down the book my hero had just been thrown in jail by the Pope. ‘He will stay there for a while,’ I decided, ‘it’s about time to immerse myself in Italian life. To Macerata!’
In Macerata, there appeared to be an open-air theatre where Carmen was performed that same night, the opera by Bizet. There was still space among the gods, a high-up room with an open wall. There were six seats for me alone.

The directors and designers of the spectacle managed to almost completely erase the 120 years the world has been revolving since Bizet's death. Everything was of a nineteenth-century authenticity. Real horses appeared on stage as well as real tilt-cars, and there burned real fires. The populace was portrayed by a mighty throng of real lower-class people, as have not been painted in the 120 years since Gustave Courbet. There was also a real cricket in the orchestra pit, which gave off a real rural atmosphere, especially during the campfire scenes. But the most real of all was the bat that lived in a crack in the wall of my little arcade.

During the whole performance it flew on and off, shy and beckoning at the same time. It was pitch-dark up there and my already increasing melancholia threatened to deteriorate into a genuinely grave gloom. That became too much for me, and so I tried to combat the pestering bat, with my rolled-up programme for a sable. I hit and stabbed, mowed and slapped. But when, during a slaloming movement between my six chairs, I lost my shoe, which I could barely save from falling down to the hall below, I began to recognise the slapstick character of the situation. I refrained from further battle and, a few minutes later, I was sitting on a terrace on the opera square with relief. After some Sambucas, I was fully back in the now.

The next day I awoke with a swollen right foot. It hurt, but enjoyed being bound to my cottage, my terrace, my valley and my books. I limped to my lying chair, dropped myself in it and, as if I were the jailer myself, opened Cellini's book to see how our prisoner was doing.

I could not believe my eyes. Not the fact that he escaped surprised me, but how. Especially two details in the description of his flight brought my heart to a standstill.

Cellini is imprisoned in a castle led by an amiable and intelligent chatelain, Messer Giorgio. The two get along fine and lead wonderful dialogues. It turns out that the chatelain has the bad luck to entirely lose his wits every two weeks. The one year he thinks he is a frog, the next that he is a cruet. Shortly before Cellini's breakout it starts again: this year, Messer Giorgio has made up his mind, he will be a bat!

I broke out in sweat, but by itself I could have still borne the bat, if it would have stayed at that. The worst, however, was still to come.

Some pages later, the escaping Cellini meets with an unexpected setback: the chatelain appears to have built two extra walls around the castle. This provides yet another chance for Cellini to display his heroism, because of course, after a daring feat of clambering, he stands outside. On this very moment (and only then, as if he had held it in) he loses consciousness. When he wakes up he feels a bone fracture, 'about eight centimetres above the right heel.'

I swallowed, looked at the ridiculous swelling in my right heel, slammed the book shut and hurled it into the valley as far as I could.

For three days I struggled with ice cubes wrapped in dish towels, and peered at the landscape. Then I could walk again.

In a neighbouring village I found the house of Dr. Italo Seminterrati, doctor and psychiatrist. He opened the door himself and welcomed me while whistling, as if he had been waiting for a patient for weeks. In his consultancy room he offered me ice tea with honey, which was brought in by a maid in a nineteenth-century nurse outfit. Then I had to tell my story.

I told him everything as precisely as I could. Eventually the doctor said: 'You are undoubtedly sensitive to symbols and there's nothing wrong with that. But Italy is teeming with bats, just like 500 years ago. That you have encountered one on paper as well as one in real life, shortly after each other, does not immediately strike me as a miracle.’

‘That has nothing to do with it, I did not feel the least bit of pain that evening! Do you really disbelieve that this can be a case of vehemens imaginatio, the intensified imagination that, amongst others, your compatriot the Holy Francis suffered from? He awoke one day to suddenly have these crucifixion wounds, and not just on one foot!’

‘That’s what I meant exactly,’ the doctor laughed, ‘the Holy Francis did not have any shoes!’

Then Dr. Seminterrati stood up and said: ‘Sir, I believe you are completely healthy.’ He shook my hand in a friendly manner, accompanied me to the door and wished me a good time for the rest of my holiday. ‘Go see some art,’ he added, ‘it will do you good.’