Yes, I’m a witch too: rituals, plants and forgotten practices in Gaia Fugazza’s work
Article by Laura Rositani
Gaia Fugazza, “Datura stramonium”, 2017. Scatto di Giovanna Silva. Courtesy Gaia Fugazza
The witch-hunt was one of the main causes for which thousands of women in Europe and America were executed, tied with iron chains in the village square and burned, and thousands of women were educated and disciplined for their new social roles. Not only they wanted to destroy the witches' body, but also an entire universe of knowledge and relationships related to women's social power. Keepers of knowledge transmitted from mother to daughter through the generations, the "witches" held a deep knowledge about the use of herbs, useful means for contraception or abortion and an ancient wisdom regarding medical remedies to sentimental problems , treatable with magic filters. Female sexuality also was considered diabolical and a valid reason to accuse of witchcraft. In many pre-capitalist societies, women played an occupational role and had managed to obtain a certain type of power: they were healers, herbalists and carried with them the deep secrets of nature that made them creators of love potions and able to determine life and even death. The knowledge and use of plant-based contraceptive techniques are among the examples of the crimes against reproduction they were accused of.
This explains quite obviously why they became the main targets of the new world that forced them to submit to patriarchal control and to abandon all natural medical practices acquired and handed down.
How can we regain this archaic knowledge today? The visual artist and performer Gaia Fugazza brings us back to this ritual atmosphere and inserts this magical knowledge related to nature and to the feminine into her research. Fugazza explores in her works the altered states of consciousness and she is interested in the intrinsic value of other species, systems and natural processes according to the ecological expression “deep ecology”, coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss.
The performance’s title "Mimosa Pudica” takes the name from a plant, also called “shameplant”. This plant in fact, as soon as it is touched, retracts making rapid movements of the foliage, acquiring almost animal-like characteristics. Another particularly interesting aspect is characterized by its contraceptive and aphrodisiac properties which are effective on both men and women. Fugazza involves the audience by creating a ritual according to which people are invited to hold small porcelain sculptures in their mouths. The sculpture replicates the size of contraceptive pills, supporting the idea of a personal but at the same time, shared sensory experience in which everyone takes awareness of one's own body and sensations in relation to time while witnessing the artist's action. The small ceramic mouth sculptures covered with crystalline are easily associated with the contraceptive pill due to the specific shape and size that requires special attention so as not to be swallowed.
The artist explores the themes of nature and ritual, female fertility and sexuality through an interest in knowledge acquired and forgotten throughout history: she interacts with a Mimosa Pudica plant by touching its leaves with her mouth and she produces sounds through the metal bracelets that she wears, carrying the audience in this magical ritual. As the sound of the drums causes a sort of trance, so the rhythm of the bracelets repeats that of the percussion in this dance that ends with a last sharp noise: a porcelain egg falling from under the artist's wide skirt.
The figures of Gaia Fugazza's imagination are women with animalistic aspects, they are plants with healing properties, they are figures that seem familiar to us but then escape the laws of rationality and transport us to another possible world according to dreamlike and mysterious visions. The approach to the pictorial plane is physical and ritual: Gaia carves the wood, scratches it, fills it with beeswax, porcupine needles, mineral and natural pigments and rubber frames are the continuation of the scene that she puts in place. Fugazza plays with the iridescent and chromatic variations given by the iron, copper and aluminum oxide that allow variations of red, blue and green. “Quelli che si allontanano" (2019) is a work that requires a long observation due to the simultaneity of actions that take place: it is day and night at the same time, a figure drinks from a pool of water in which the moon is reflected, another figure gives birth, yet another defecates, while in the foreground there are those who leave their community.
In this work there’s also a plant drawn with iron oxide: it is the "Mother of thousands" (other common names are crocodile plant and devil's backbone due to its morphology), because of the several “sons” it presents along the edges of the leaf, a distinctive feature of this plant native of southern Madagascar. These little sprouts, once the root system is formed, fall to the ground and develop new plants that propagate eternally. The reproductive capacity of this succulent plant is surprising as it does not need to produce seeds but it replicates itself through its leaves. Among the medical uses of the Mother of thousands, there is the ability to avoid premature birth and to treat infertility.
An important part of Gaia Fugazza's research is focused on the alterations of perceptions and the creation of these new dimensions, due for example by the use of psychotropic substances.
Taking into consideration this perspective and the use of plants for this purpose, we return to the ancient belief that witches could fly thanks to magic potions, hallucinogenic ointments whose preparation derived from specific knowledge of herbs and fruits. It is clearly a flight in its most metaphorical meaning and the intake of some of these plants led to a delirium that, depending on the dosage, could in some cases last for days.
In particular, I would like to write about two photographs by Fugazza that deal with plants with these properties. The first is "Atropa Belladonna", whose name (in Greek: Ἄτροπος, that means the immutable, the inevitable) comes from Atropa, one of the fate that in Greek mythology cut the thread of life, due to its lethal effects. The epithet Belladonna instead derives from the use that Renaissance’s noblewomen made of it to stand out and give shine to the eyes by dilating the pupils with a few drops of the fruit extract. An effect due to atropine which acts directly on the nervous system. In homage to the psychotropic flora used for spiritual practices, in this photo Fugazza holds a fruit in front of her right eye while her left pupil is dilated following the use of a few drops of "Atropa Belladonna"’s extract, creating a similar effect between the fruit itself and the effect of its use.
"Datura stramonium" is the name of another plant, called also devil's herb and witch's herb with reference to its narcotic, sedative and hallucinogenic properties, used both for therapeutic purposes and in magical-spiritual rituals by the shamans of many Indian tribes.
The use of Datura stramonium for this type of purpose is extremely dangerous as the active dose of hallucinogenic alkaloids is very close to the toxic dose. The seeds or flowers of the plant are used, sometimes together with the leaves. The photo has a strong reference to the iconography of the witch or befana depicted riding a broom. A common practice called "flight to the sabbath" consisted of the use of an ointment with hallucinogenic powers that women spread by adding pork fat on wooden sticks that, in contact with the vaginal mucous membranes, produced states of dreams and hallucinations.
Gaia Fugazza's work allows some of this knowledge to be back to the surface and invites us to rediscover and reflect on the past to get to know the present.