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

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Charioteer of Delphi

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

A Great Love

Nobody controls the intoxication of love that catches you off-guard like a terrorist, to tie you up and take you to sweet places. In this immersion, the ache of desire and total pleasure alternate. A great love might function as a tipping point, an experience that transforms the world for good. Across me sits Femmy Otten, in a conversation that is prompted by her recent installation (New Myth for New Family, 2011) at the Rijksacademie, in which love vibrated and triumphed, and the viewer was left feeling timid by the gazes surrounding him. Between us on the table lies the book by Pierre Klossowski, which is full of erotica and voyeurism. In Klossowski’s crayon drawings the classical merges with the temporary, and also the violent side of love can be recognized in the work; sometimes even literally, as in the photos in which he ties up his wife Denise.

Otten relates the moment on which she first made, or could make, her first relief after a very intense experience of love. ‘After a stable and pleasant seven-year relationship, I got into an unprecedentedly intense romance. Something has since stuck with me and not gone away, whilst there was also something that had been destroyed. Not before did I know that one could desire so extremely. That surrender, real letting go, is what accompanied this love. To be able to free myself from it I have inscribed his story, as if he were the one writing it, I am him, and I made a sculptural relief about it. This allowed me to give the experience a place and move on. I have continued to use that switch of perspective: every time I make a work I write from the perspective of the person that the work is a reaction to. It gives me a strange kind of freedom.’

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

Somewhere in the book by Klossowski I encounter the line: ‘Then I married Denise very quickly. Denise represented reality while I was metaphysical.’ The reality of the body embraced his mind and took him along. That is what love does.

In the installation, a woman in low relief on the wall wears a medallion with the portrait of her beloved close to her. It is a realistic portrait, he even wears glasses. Above her head floats a halo in various light colours. Her cheek has been slightly grazed. Her body is squashed like in some strange flowered corset and her hands dangle clumsily downwards. Opposite the relief, the two lovers stand on a peak with earthly attributes such as a bag, blue trousers and a beer bottle. Two As.

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

‘I was so obsessed by love that I couldn’t not make a work a about it. But who possesses who, does he possess her amulet or the other way around? With the arrows and the halo, it is almost a sanctification of love. I have made his portrait, but I feel it is about all loves that I had to part from. While I am in the middle of love’s ecstasy, strangely enough it foreshadows the end.’

Klossowski speaks somewhere of a faltering moment, a wavering moment in which the jolting gestures give the impression of being possessed by unknown forces. The strange hands in Otten’s installation seem to contradict the directness of the facial expression, to push something away, a helplessness. Or the facial expression confirms that which the hands reject, renounce or deny.

A former writer, Klossowksi spoke of his drawings as ‘the art of the deaf and dumb who are painters’. Standing in Otten’s installation, this silence breezes around you. It is mainly the silence of her experiences that is present in this installation, which, as a viewer, you can touch with your fingers in the air. A condensed moment that gathers everything that leads up to it and prefigures the gaze of the viewer. The viewer is caught between the gazes, locked in and locked out.

Otten tells how in summer she made a bike trip with her boyfriend across Italy, as a religious pilgrimage past the murals of the Early Renaissance. How her loved one grew in beauty with the exercise, tanner, more muscular, and how she would find herself red and sweating, trying to follow him. Love survived. The frescos of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca were a honeysweet catalyst.

Otten: ‘The Madonna del Parto of Piero della Francesca, in the church in which his mother is buried, is free of sentiment, pure painting. So moving. When I saw a fresco of Fra Angelico I was reminded of Henry Darger. I recognized that level of detail very much, he works per square millimetre; a peculiar devotion speaks from it, an almost autistic passion. I relate to that, it is what I am always searching for, short moments in which you are sure it is just right, that things will work out in your work. A destined feeling. During the realisation of the work I am very slowly looking for that precise form. Total devotion, that is what it is about too. It has to do with oblivion, that enchantment that leaves you in a sort of hypnotised state. A frenzy in utter silence and concentration.’

The same sometimes occurs to me when I am listening to a concert. Once, during a Schubert piece, my body seemed to grow, my body members felt very long with large warm feet and hands on the far ends. When your body relates to you differently, it is intoxication too. You can also get that when you receive a very pleasant massage from someone, but it is much more intense when it surges up from within yourself, much grander.’

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

At the exhibition at Art Association Diepenheim I saw her adding the final touches to a relief; she put on headphones for isolation and in uttermost concentration she finished the painting with a few strokes of the brush. ‘Working is a great ecstasy. Unfortunately I cannot reach it every time; sometimes I idle all day in my studio in order to work for a mere twenty minutes around eleven. I then need the whole day to do that. That makes it very frustrating sometimes, and it makes art a time-consuming affair. I can speed up the process just by drawing or making something, which will set things going, and yes, it then becomes meditative.’

‘Francis Alÿs finds this rush in hiking, in its repetitiveness. The rhythm of the footsteps makes you part of a larger whole. Everyone has his own rituals to reach a state of ecstasy.’

‘It is a specific beauty that has its hold on me. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it makes me very happy. It might happen just on the train, when a young girl obsesses me with her beauty; I enjoy that, it is most exciting, the adventure of looking. I want to hold onto that so badly. The feeling that something can disappear so easily is hard for me to bear.’

Femmy Otten - New Myth for New Family

‘My work is always about the ones close to me, but also there do I have that very specific feeling of beauty. I often use the face of my youngest sister because she has that specific, magical beauty that I’m looking for. It has always been very clear what I found beautiful, the archaic, the simple, powerful shapes, free from emotion. But it is more than that, it is also something primordial, something ancient, that tells no story but is visual, a sublimation.’

As a 13-year old, Femmy and her mother walked into the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. She saw the charioteer of Delphi and started to weep. A museum guard took her by the hand and she was allowed to climb the partition and stroke his foot. ‘To touch that statue seemed an almost sexual experience, so strong and all-encompassing.’ The charioteer, originating from the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi (470 BC) is a stately bronze sculpture of 1 metre 80 tall. A tall man whose heavy tunic falls down in folds. An open glance, set in coloured eyes, a slightly open mouth. An experience that already started to tilt the world.

Charioteer of Delphi

Video still from Théâtre de poche by Aurélien Froment

Video still from Théâtre de poche by Aurélien Froment

This is a excerpt from a lecture for a Studium Generale on Systems. In her talk, she speaks of the difficulty of using language to describe systems because it, too, is a system.

I played a game this weekend:countless square cards were laid out onto a large glass table covered in a grid, the compartments of which were sized to match the cards. There were always two corresponding cards like in the game “memory.” The player’s task was to find the pairs. But unlike memory, the cards were never identical. Pairs belonged “together” for different reasons. The reasons for their compatibility differed: the partner to a yellow card might be a painter’s brush dipped in the same colour. Or two cards pictured different components of what was obviously the same machine. My fellow player and I searched for pairs while we argued why two images matched. Ultimately, it wasn’t the person with the tallest stack of corresponding cards who won. What was more important for winning was having the best arguments for why two cards matched. This game was about image, about how we relate, how write systems, tell stories, and how we write histories.

This game, an artwork by the French artist, Aurélien Froment, was based on a magic trick by a Flemish magician, who in turn, had learned the trick from his English colleague, Arthur Lloyd. During his act, Lloyd asked his audience to name an object, after which he conjured the corresponding card out of his jacket pocket. At the end of his career, Lloyed carried 1600 cards in his pockets.

After the show, as we discussed this “théâtre de pôche/pocket theatre,” we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t only this magic trick that had inspired this game as art/art as a game. In fact, the technique of the magic trick also recalled how travelling bards and troubadours memorised their songs and poetry during the Middle Ages. Because of the customised nature of their performance, it was inevitable that the delivery of their song would never be identical in any two places. It was undisputable that disparities in delivery such as the trill of voice and the omission of certain passages were part of the act. Inherent within their act was a newsworthy element, something which now leads to controversy – an artwork must be a closed entity, referring to itself. It was a given that the poet actively include daily life, in other words what we now would call society. The game shows that language, too, is capable of making this connection. To play this game of language, one had to wander, to sing, sit silent, guess and gamble, look further, to not follow the fixed markings of the grid but to find one’s own path instead.

Tourist in Holy Mud, Chimayo, New Mexico,
Tourist in Holy Mud, Chimayo, New Mexico,

Mud flourishes where cold and warm meet. Travelling through the American Southwest state of New Mexico – in a time where adobe only referred to a local building technique involving sun dried clay – we arrived at El Santuario de Chimayo, a mud sanctuary. In a Spanish colonial church, Indians erected an altar behind a small, inscrutable hole: just lke Anish Kapoor’s hole at the Museum de Pont . But there’s one difference, the hole in Chimayo contained Holy Mud, as healing as the water of Lourdes. How this came to be? In 1810, a New Mexican friar discovered glowing earth on a hill.

He began to dig and found a crucifix that he brought the next village, Santa Cruz. But it disappeared from there three times, only to be found in the same old mud hole. The message was clear. The crucifix was to stay there. And thus, the chapel rose around it. It turned out that the mud was holy (not to be confused with Holy Mud, a Dutch chocolate mousse dessert) and healing. Crutches left abandoned at the wall of the church testify to the healing power of the sludge. On a miracle website I find a story of a girl who was cured of fifteen tumours in her leg after applying Holy Mud mixed with her own saliva. She’s now plays cello in a Philharmonic orchestra.

Elegguan, the mediator made from mud, vodou Santeria, Cuba.

Mud seems to be the catalyst of transformation. In Vodou rituals, packets of clay and earth are made to influence events (like putting your nemesis on the wrong track, for example.) Eleggua is an egg-shaped pointed head formed from clay, with shells for eyes. The evil Humpty Dumpty is part of the Carribbean pantheon of Santeria and acts as the guard at (muddy) crossovers and mediates between the upper- and underworld.

The Golem as a character in the first German expressionist 1920 film adaptation, by Carl Boese and Wegener Pauil.

Likewise, in other ancient tales of animism, an inferior being rises from the mud. A figure in the Jewish Kaballa is the Golem: a soulless, formless mass. During the 16th century, Rabbi Juda Löw ben Betsabel of Prague documented a number of Golem stories. Extremely holy persons in close proximity to God were given the wisdom and power to create life. But what they were able to create from mud remained a shadow of His Creation. After all, Golem, the mud figure, couldn’t speak. In later literary versions, the rabbi Rabbi Juda Löw is credited as having shaped Golem himself from the muddy banks of the Moldau. The creature would help the poor, similar to the robot that Karel Capek, also Czech, would later invent. Of course, his tale ended badly. This is where the Jewish idiom “olem golem” derives from: man is the golem, man is a machine. Or, in other words, the world is an evil place. In the latest postmodern, post-historical, post-religious incarnation, Golem is a malevolent turtle-like character in the Japanese game of Pokémon.

Sadhu´s, holy yogi´s covered with mud.

Catedral de la Almuneda. It was in this church that I first came across ex-votos without knowing what I was looking at. Fascinated, I stared at a wall where dozens of beige coloured shapes were hung. Forms made of paraffin wax that seemed like they’d been moulded straight from a human body. I could discern eyes, a liver, a heart, limbs, breasts. I took a few photographs.

When I looked back at the photos, I realised this was the first time I’d ever witnessed such an exceptional presentation of blind faith. A faith in a higher power that could protect, heal, and that one could show thanks to. That is if you, as a faithful believer, were given the opportunity to hang an object of the sort on the great wall of the church.

Upon my return to The Netherlands, I asked the curator of the Catherijne convenant in Utrecht what’d I’d seen in Spain. He told me they were ex-votos, which literally means: to offer out devotion. Ex-votos are usually small objects, sometimes casts, other times paintings, drawings, or photographs. But essentially, they can be anything, as long as the're offered with the immense faith that someone or something in the heavens above is peering down with compassion.

Ex voto painting from Italy, bought in Venice

In the old days, the very rich could grant the church a candle as large as their weight in wax. As long as the candle burned, their existence was ensured.

Years later, a friend and I took a trip through middle Europe in search of ex-votos. We came to chapels where we found hundreds of wooden legs stacked in piles by grateful believers who might have re-grown a leg, or had otherwise regained their powers of mobility.

Unbelievably beautiful and naively painted images depicting the rescue of a loved one from a fire, or surviving a serious illness. Often in a corner of the painting there would be a saint who lovingly looks down upon the scene being carried out underneath him

Art work on the basis of ex votos
This trip led to an artwork in the courthouse in Groningen. A place where worldly power prevails, but where truth is still verified by swearing on the bible. You never know. A place where the air of the visitor room is pregnant with a sense of justice, protection, and mercy. Where each object might possibly be used as evidence, which is precisely the opposite of faith: attempting to convince the believer without evidence.
Along the way I came across ex-votos everywhere. Sometimes they were needy: pleading letters in a Cuban church and at a place of pilgrimage in Wallonia. Others were placed out of gratitude, like the long row of motorcycle helmets or the altar filled with photos of car accidents at a church in Padua. Or photos of fishermen in a small chapel on the Flemish coast.

Even in The Netherlands, with its ceaseless religious wars, there are places where ex-votos can be found. Of course, the grand St. Jan’s Church in Den Bosch is one of them, where countless metal trinkets are hung, as well as the St. Bavo Church in Haarlem. Here, a number of exceptional, carefully crafted little ships hang motionless—no , they float motionless—under the great arches. They are a testament to the faith in a higher power that will keep the fishermen safe until homecoming.

We’re all familiar with the search for protection or the desire to express our gratitude to someone or something. All of us hope for a higher power, for someone or something to see us. Maybe each one of us has our own, private ex-voto, hidden away in a secret spot of devotion. And maybe it doesn’t matter who you thank or who it is that protects you. Maybe all that matters that this object exists, and that it's you that knows it's there.

Various ex votos, including ex votos of wax from Fatima, Portugal