UP in SMOKE is a new installation by Jimini Hignett (DAI, 2010) that links contemporary misogynist ‘incel’ groups to historical practices of the persecution of women as witches. At the centre of this installation is the bonfire. Hovering above it hangs a cloud of ‘smoke’ consisting of 365 tiny porcelain items. This plethora of objects represents all that has gone ‘UP in SMOKE’, everything lost to the flames of misogyny – women’s knowledge, women’s skills, women’s ways of working collectively – or things which incite male anger or derision. The material itself houses a nice metaphor – clay, when fired, becomes stronger and more resilient. The objects reference both historical loss as well as more contemporary, metaphoric or personal loss. They have been made in collaboration with Hignett's 85-year old mother, the artist Josephine Lewington – a contemporary witch-figure who lives an unconventional life with her animals and her knowledge of plants, her socialist ideals and her ‘coven’ of feminist friends.
"Witch-hunt: witch hunts varied enormously in place and time, but they were united by a common and coherent world view, part of a broader hostility toward, and persecution of, marginalised groups. The visible role played by women expressing dissent may have contributed to the stereotype of the witch as female.
Incel (involuntary-celibate): young men who consider themselves unable to attract women sexually, typically characterised by resentment and hatred, misogyny, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against women.
At the centre of this installation is the bonfire. Hovering above it hangs a cloud of ‘smoke’ consisting of 365 tiny porcelain items. This plethora of objects represents all that has gone ‘Up in Smoke’, everything lost to the flames of misogyny – women’s knowledge, women’s skills, women’s ways of working collectively – or things which incite male anger or derision. The material itself houses a nice metaphor – clay, when fired, becomes stronger and more resilient. The objects reference both historical loss as well as more contemporary, metaphoric or personal loss. They have been made in collaboration with my 85-year old mother, the artist Josephine Lewington – a contemporary witch-figure who lives an unconventional life with her animals and her knowledge of plants, her socialist ideals and her ‘coven’ of feminist friends.
Juxtaposition is a key term in my work, and by combining different elements I hope to open up a space that can be filled by the viewer’s own thoughts and conclusions – for me, this is the way art can function. Combined with the porcelain ‘smoke’ and the symbolic bonfire, representative of witch burning throughout history and ongoing to this day, coming from within the heap of firewood, are men’s voices . Angry, bitter derogatory voices extolling violence against women, quotes taken from various actual incel-group internet-sites – voices that are fanning the smouldering fires of contemporary misogyny.
The theoretical framework is informed by Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, and Laura Bates’ Men who Hate Women. Federici argues that the witch hunts were not so much about religion or superstition as about suppressing the rebellions of women. As women migrated from countryside to cities as part of the transition to capitalism, they lost rights. If married, their earnings were paid to their husbands. Women’s work, unpaid, and compulsory, was now to produce more workers for the capitalist system. Not carrying a pregnancy to term became a crime. (Terrifying parallels with current developments in the U.S.) Midwives facilitating birth control were witches, as well as older women no longer able to produce children, childless women viewed as unproductive, ‘loose’ women who refused to become someone’s property, and women who sold sex. Women who protested in rebellions – against food shortages, or against the enclosure of the common land as private property, destroying fences and hedgerows, burning fields –were persecuted in witch hunts fuelled by a conveniently imagined conspiracy which labelled them in league with the devil.
Nowadays, belief in a literal devil has waned, but in the wake of the MeToo movement it is women themselves being blamed by incels. Feminism is deemed responsible for undermining the ‘natural order’ of male over female supremacy. Some incel groups support the idea of violence as revenge on society, working deliberately to convince other incels that they are justified in raping women if they are rejected sexually. ‘Women are the ultimate cause of our suffering… We need to focus more on our hatred of women. Hatred is power.’ Since 2014 eight mass murders committed by men known to be connected to the incel movement, have resulted in a total of 61 deaths.
The significance of many of the objects which make up the smoke cloud is instantly obvious – the traditional witches’ broomsticks; plants such as the foxglove or feverfew with their medicinal properties; or the just-born babies. Others, such as Artemisia, goddess of childbirth and also of the hunt, transformed into a clay figurine with both multiple breasts and a stag’s head; the angry peasant women protesting the enclosure of common land for private property; or the women half way to transforming, as witches were accused of doing, into hares, are perhaps less well known. Still others are strictly personal, for example the baggy, bobbly knitted trousers, a miniature replica of those worn by my mother, or the closed piano, symbol of her mother who played at concert-pianist level but was expected to stop once she married.
We spent an absurd number of weeks of hours making all these detailed clay objects. As we worked, we talked, discussing all the ways misogyny has touched our own lives, how it affects society, and about its relationship to the market economy. Our time-consuming work – absurdly non-functional within a cost-effective capitalist system – was the antipathy of profit-making production, the work process itself like an embodiment of dissent toward that ethos of maximum profit, a distant echo of other female dissent in the past.
Art is rarely efficient, but, John Berger’s words again, “I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that often art has judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.”
Jimini Hignett, June 2022
UP in SMOKE is a large installation that will be part of the group exhibition Heks! at Artphy cultural centre in the North East of Groningen, The Netherlands. The other commisioned artists are Ayo, Remco Torenbosch, Susanna Inglada, Beth Namenwirth, Laurence Herfs, Hertog Nadler en Rose Akras. From 30-7-2022 till 3-10-2022