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

“I’m not made of sugar,” says Juri Rytchëu when I offer him a place under my umbrella. And so, his denim jacket slowly becomes completely drenched while we make our way to his residence just outside the centre of St. Petersburg. It’s no wonder that he’s impervious to a downpour. The Chukchian writer (74) was born in Ouelen, a region in the far north eastern part of Sibera on the Bering Strait. He lived in a tent made of animal hide until he was seventeen. Of the approximately fifteen thousand souls that make up his tribe, the Chukchi, he is the first and only writer. His mother tongue is Chukchi. He learned Russian in school, and his English is rudimentary.

For half a century, Rytchëu has divided his time between his area of birth and St. Petersburg. His apartment, part of a casern from 1903 that was once turned into a residential building, is full of Russian literature, arranged behind small glass doors. On his desk are ten or so paperweights in the shape of dogs and polar bears. Rytchëu is the son of a hunter. The bottle of Dutch brandy brought along as a present disappears soundlessly into the fridge. ‘Since I was born I’ve never drank anything stronger than mother’s milk.’ That cannot be said of the characters of his novels.

‘I am the only professional writer in my part of the world. Putting our imagination into words is relatively new to us. Until the nineteen-thirties there was no written form of Chukchi.’ Rytchëu wrote three novels and many short stories. In his Chukchi Bible or the Last Shaman of Ouelen, not yet translated into Dutch, Rytchëu records old and new legends from his people, following the structure of the Bible. He also elaborates on the genealogy of his own family. ‘I write the history of my people. I describe what I know, what I’ve experienced. Some thought that my source would soon run dry, but I have plenty of stories left in my head. What I write is universal. It belongs to others just as much. When I started reading classical literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekov, Dickens – I was very surprised that their characters were ordinary people. They were just like me! That was a great discovery for me. Literature might be the best form of communication. If you merely speak to someone, person to person, you never fully surrender yourself.’ All literature emerges from human life, stresses Rytchëu, from human history.

What Rytchëu writes has to be true. That’s his only literary criterion. ‘My task is to write the truth of my people. When asked about the relation between fact and fiction, Hemingway replied that what he had written was true and what he saw around him wasn’t.’

The same applies to Rytchëu, except that he takes this statement very literally. ‘You know, I used to read a great many books on our people. All of them are nonsense, and all of them are written by whites. That’s why I’ve become a writer. I wanted to put an end to those fables.’

‘What did they write, then?’

‘Maybe worst of all was that they idealised us. We were portrayed as arctic animals, sincere, pure, and free of wicked tendencies. Twaddle, of course. Lying and theft occur amongst us just the same. My kin is like all others. I wanted to testify to that.’

Through a variety of mythologies, Rytchëu arrives at his grandfather, Mletkin, the last shaman of the Chukchi, who call themselves Louoravetlan, or ‘real people’. The shaman, the wisest of all, has knowledge of medicinal herbs, assumes leadership during crises, christens the newborn and communicates, in the name of the populace, with the gods, to whom he regularly dedicates sacrifices. In his book, Rytchëu narrates how Mletkin, in his pursuit for reindeer, whales and a woman, ends up in Alaska and the United States. This happens against his will: he isn’t able to read his contract. The icy sea frozen shut, his way home is blocked off. In order to make some money, Mletkin accepts the offer to represent his tribe as part of the Universal Ethnological Exposition of 1898 held in Chicago. He is exhibited in an original jaranga (a round tent made of reindeer hide) and, by performing his rites as a shaman, becomes one of its top attractions. The chapter is hilarious, as Mletkin is pelted with paper clots like a monkey by the obtuse public. That relations would never be restored between the Chukchi and the Americans goes without saying.

Nonetheless, Rytchëu speaks mildly of those who came to his native land to exploit its resources for their gain. He doesn’t hold a grudge against his character, Mr. Carpenter, a Canadian from his novel A Dream in Polar Fog, who trades with the Chukchi, buying their hides and selling them Winchesters and liquor. ‘None of the sort, Carpenter is just a link to the rest of the world. Some say that European culture has spoiled our pure and untainted character, but that’s simply not true. If you want to belong to the human species, you’ll have to accept all its aspects, the good and the bad. It makes no sense to construct a wall between us and the rest of the world.’

(...)

What, according to Rytchëu, is the essence of European literature? ‘Let me answer you by way of a passage from Tolstoy’s journal. His maid, an elderly woman who lived in with him, asked him to remove the clock from her room. It would tick out loud, which she could not bear. With every ‘tick’ she thought she heard the question: who are you? Who am I? Who are you? Who am I? Literature serves to answer this everlasting question.’

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.

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.