May 2019

Queer Heresies: Witchcraft and Magic as Sites of Queer Radicality

This project is in many ways about illuminating hitherto unexplored dimensions of history and how to use it to shape our present and our futures. It is an intervention into the contemporary art world as a queer artist, an art historian of the African-diaspora, and a practicing occultist implementing the performative rituals and myths of witchcraft.

By Kevin Talmer Whiteneir Jr.

Defining queerness is in many ways an insurmountable task. At once bizarre and strange, uncanny and unnatural, taboo and heretical, the word “queer” seems to say so much, prompt so much response, and yet still be so nebulous. And that is part of what constructs queerness. The ambiguity. The fear of uncertainty in a system that understands its participants through sanctioned ritual and cultural dogma. In many ways it is an occult science, one that is often unknowable when you aren’t a participant, a heretical art when you cannot govern, police, or constrain it from the outside. One that must be rooted out whenever possible in order to maintain an order constructed by those who risk losing power when different viable modes coexist. And that is why the witch is an exemplary figure of queerness.

The myth and history of witchcraft is one of persecution, the quest for empowerment, and the utilization of unsanctioned knowledge and rituals. As an assumed disciple of an unsanctioned god, the witch is viewed as dangerous to the Christian state. They control infernal powers that threaten their neighbors, children, and the immortal soul. The queer and queered body follow a similar trajectory. Like witchcraft, sexual queerness is considered dangerous in that it disrupts familiar and accepted behaviors and boundaries of gender and sexuality. Because of this shared history, many have sought to reclaim the witch for its queer potential today. Much like witches, queerness exists in a liminal space, one which blurs accepted social boundaries and is considered by social gatekeepers as a threat to religious and civil order. Witchcraft and queerness both represent forbidden knowledge and power in practice. This knowledge and power can mobilize marginalized peoples to disestablish restrictive cultural systems and, in their place, manifest realities that extend the borders of prevailing hegemonic ideas.

Through Queer Heresies I seek to do exactly this. This project is in many ways about illuminating hitherto unexplored dimensions of history and how to use it to shape our present and our futures. It is an intervention into the contemporary art world as a queer artist, an art historian of the African-diaspora, and a practicing occultist implementing the performative rituals and myths of witchcraft. Through this work I encourage resistance to restrictive cultural practices in their different incarnations, one of which is the way histories are told. History is inherently biased, as it is storytelling from a subjective perspective. The perspectives and biases of the historian shapes the way events are told, and my work is about recognizing how the way histories are told can be broadened to include more experiences. It is undeniably necessary, in times like ours, to illuminate these threads of queerness and rebellion.

Queer Heresies began with my exhibition Visualizing Queer Heresies in 2016. Displayed in four exhibition cases outside of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s John Flaxman Library, the exhibit brought together visual and audio works pertaining to themes of witchcraft, queerness, and the disruption of indigenous global spiritualities by European colonization (figure 1 & 2). La Segunda Conquista (2014), Pauly Ramirez’s perspective on the impact on indigenous religion as a result of interaction with European settlers, is made clear through the decay of Aztec spiritual wear into Roman Catholic vestment. Lorna Simpson’s III, a wooden box filled with three ceramic, rubber, and bronze wishbones, serves to remind us of the impact of a wish. That in many ways, all magic, all rebellion begins with a wish. Alfonso García Tellez’s Historia de una vivienda para hacer ofrenda al santo tecuil (1981) provided a glimpse into the practices of Native American brujos and brujas, and linked the creation of books to the practice of traditional ritual.  Historia therefore embodies the significance of books as not only archival documentation of historic tradition, but also how books provide access to magical thought.

Figure 1: Visualizing Queer Heresies Installation detail,
Kevin Talmer Whiteneir Jr. 2015, The Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Figure 2: Visualizing Queer Heresies Installation detail, Kevin Talmer Whiteneir Jr, 2015, The Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Working alongside Parra’s Le Segunda Conquista and Simpson’s III, Historia’s inclusion exposes the violence perpetuated by colonialism as a consuming force. While the Aztec Sun head is cannibalized by the vestment of the Catholic pope, the indigenous home blessing metaphorically reemerges from the bowels of colonialism. Historia and Visualizing Queer Heresies, more broadly, works to help viewers consider the frameworks that influence how they experience the world, and rouse within us the ability to visualize what once was, what is now, and what can be through change, resistance, and intent.

To reinforce this, it was critical to create a symbol that reflected the interwoven nature of queerness and magic. Using one of the most common methods of creating magical symbols, I broke the words “Queer” and “Heretics” into letters and shaped them into an abstracted form.[1] The Queer Heretics sigil became not only a symbol that reinforced the themes of empowerment through queerness, artistry, and magic, but one that could also psychically bring together all those who found resonance with this project. Being a witch is understood as an individual and collective occupation, whereby one worked alone or with fellow witches to actualize new realities. Once “initiated,” we learn and are given access to knowledge and power to fulfill our desires. The Queer Heretics series is built upon this premise. Through the metaphor of witch as radical, and witchcraft as a tool that simultaneously destroys restrictive old realities and generates more queer ones to supplant them, it is through art, ritual, witchcraft, and a more queer worldview that people can begin to formulate their own means of expanding the shape of our cultural worlds.

In addition to my curatorial work, this is manifest in my art, which I practice as an extension of scholarship. Alongside Visualizing Queer Heresies, I designed the performance piece, Queer Heretics: Witches’ Sabbath to serve as ritual embodiment of the project’s themes. While designing this series, I drew on various, seemingly disparate threads to successfully attend to the many communities I believe it benefits. In European and colonialist witch mythology, the Devil is regularly described as the “Black man” who seduces women and men away from the world of moral uprightness to a world of social and religious iniquity. While some historians have attributed this to his being clad in black garments, the predominating theory is that he often takes the guise of a man or human-animal chimera with dark skin.[2] Thus the understanding of the Devil inextricably ties propriety and the idea of civil and religious threat to race through skin color, a link which to this day holds far-reaching consequences for people of color, especially Black men. As a Black man, my subject position within American society is fraught with associations including but not limited to hyperaggression, a higher likelihood of criminality and incarceration, as well as economic and political disenfranchisement within a system that does not perform comparable acts of violence against its European-descended constituency.[3] Coupling this with the stigmatization of Black bodies as hypersexual and devoid of sexual propriety, my queer Black body reflects the historic association of dark skin with the Devil’s own abominable sexuality. [4]

In  the performance, I embody the Black Devil in a way that attempts to operate through the lens of José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of disidentification. Muñoz defines the term as:

recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits it to account for, include, and empower minority identities.[5]

Figure 3: Queer Heretics: Witches’ Sabbath performance shot. Jean Stevens, 2015.

As an avatar of this Black Devil, I direct the ritual and create a space where queerness gains authority within the context of the mythic witches’ Sabbath (figure 3).[6] Ultimately, by embodying this archetype I utilize it not through its colonialist lens, but rather the lens of a queer person of color attempting to garner power within an unbalanced social system through cultural subversion. Consciously operating within the definitions of dark skin created by European concepts of the Black Devil, my goal was to activate them not as destructive signifiers, but rather queered signifiers that work in opposition to restrictive modes of social propriety within American society.

Contemporary issues facing communities of color, queer peoples, peoples with disabilities, and other marginalized communities range anywhere from societal erasure in visual representation, to a lack of generative political representation, to physical violence perpetrated by American citizens and law enforcement, violence that accounts for the disproportionately high mortality rates of trans and Black individuals, Indigenous Americans and other vulnerable populations in America and internationally. So, by creating a “coven” of three queer heretics from Filipino and African-diasporic ancestries touched by nuanced instances of colonialism, and who carry traditions of witchcraft and magical-spiritual practices, I intended to embody and venerate the mysticism that comes attached to our intersecting histories (figure 4).

Figure 4: Queer Heretics: Witches’ Sabbath performance shot, Jean Stevens, 2015.

While I do not believe that art nor spirituality alone can solve these problems, I do believe in our ability to encourage visibility, discourse, and affinity. It is critical for us to challenge rituals — be they mundane everyday tasks or spiritual actions — because they often authenticate and authorize particular ways of thinking and being, and can create gaps where customs assumed as innate or natural can be exploited. They can legitimize particular myths or beliefs and create realities through repetition, thus it is crucial to recognize that even if they mean something permanent for us, that there can always be so much more. And as queerness can operate as a way to “imagine new temporalities that interrupt straight time,” so too can it operate to imagine new spiritual and secular rituals, concepts, and behaviors.[7] Together, we can imagine a world where the autonomy and radicality inherent in witchcraft and queerness converge. We can envision and manifest queer spaces and realities that disrupt dangerous, normative spaces too narrow for us to coexist within, even ones that exist within our own communities. Through Queer Heresies, I want to showcase how we can expand the narratives that currently construct our perspectives of the world. We must continue to provoke, refine, and queer the ways we look at ourselves, our communities, and our position within these spaces, these histories, and these narratives. Not as victims, but as heretics, who are vilified by dominant discourses, but reframe their vilification to disassemble the structures of power that would continue to subjugate us.

Further Reading

[1] In Western occultism, these magical symbols are often referred to as sigils: glyphs used to manipulate the mind through which they believe magic is possible to manifest their wills. Popularized by Austin Osman Spare in the early twentieth century, sigilization appeared in Spare’s text The Book of Pleasure: Psychology of Ecstasy published in 1913. Spare instructs that intent can only be actualized if one’s will is unhindered by consciousness and concentration, thus he suggests creating an abstract representation of what a person desires. It can therefore seep into the unconscious mind and be actualized through magic and action:

Magic, the reduction of properties to simplicity, making them transmutable to utilise them fresh by direction, without capitalization, bearing fruit many times. Know deliberation, over consciousness and concentration to be its resistance and sycophancy, the ultimate acquirement of idiotcy [sic]. Whether for his own pleasure or power, the fulfillment [sic] of desire is his purpose, he would terminate this by magic… This free entity of belief and his desire are united to his purpose by the use of Sigils or sacred letters. By projecting the consciousness into one part, sensation not being manifold, becomes intensified.

Symbology as a means to produce spiritual and magical effects exists in various incarnations across time and space, including medieval talismans to conjure spirits, veves in African spiritual traditions, and Icelandic and Germanic runic symbols.

Austin Osman Spare, The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy, (London: 1913), 26.

[2] Julio Caro Baroja, The World of the Witches, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 85.

Lyndal Roper Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 87.

Lewis, Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico.(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 128.

[3] In a breakdown that compiled U.S. Census statistics, policy analyst Leah Sakala reported that despite making up 13 percent of the American population in 2010, people who identify as Black made up 40 percent of the United States incarcerated population. This number is compared to white populations (64 percent of the American population; 39 percent of the incarcerated population) and non-white Hispanics (16 percent of the American population; 19 percent of the incarcerated population).

Leah Sakala, “Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity,” May 28, 2014 https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html

Further, the U.S. Census Bureau released an infographic reporting that between 2007-2011, U.S. poverty rates for African Americans came in second (25.8 percent) only behind American Indians/Native Alaskans (27 percent), with whites and Asians figuring at 11.6 and >10 percent respectively.

Suzanne Macartney, Alemayehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot, “Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place,” February 2013. U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-17.pdf.

Finally, in 2016, federal justices in Richmond, VA who oversaw a case regarding voter disenfranchisement in North Carolina found the state’s voting law targeted the African-American voting population with “surgical precision,” as a means to impede their constitutional right to vote. Additionally, the unforeseen decision by the Supreme Court’s majority to strike down fifty-year-old protections for voters’ rights stemming from decades of disenfranchisement particularly in the American South, which historically thousands of African American voters, suggests, if not outright reveals, a fundamental disconnect in the valuation of non-white American citizens as compared to their white peers.

[4] Danielle M. Wallace, ““It’s a M-A-N Thang”: Black Male Gender Role Socialization and the Performance of Masculinity in Love Relationships,” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 1, no. 7, March 2007, p 17.

[5] Jose Esteban Muñoz Disidentifications Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2015), 31.

[6] Witchcraft historian Lyndal Roper writes that sex functioned within demonological treatises as a ritual which sealed the witches’ pacts with the Devil, and these acts included coupled and orgiastic, non-reproductive vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse.  Roper, Witch Craze, 84.

[7] José Esteban Muñoz, “After Jack: Queer Failure, Queer Virtuosity,” in Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 171.

Kevin Whiteneir Jr. is an interdisciplinary artist and art historian whose work discusses the relationships between gender and queer experiences as they relate to race, the effects of (neo)colonialism, and its parallels with magic, religion, and witchcraft. Whiteneir holds a Master’s Degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism and a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History and Anthropology from Ripon College.

As a performance artist, Whiteneir designs and enacts performative rituals that draw upon historic and contemporary manifestations of magical practices and the occult while illuminating their parallels with queer identities and experiences. These rituals comment upon the consequences of colonialism that continue to impact contemporary communities, manifesting desire and intention through choreographed figurative ceremonies. His creative writing practice utilizes the mythology of historic witchcraft to create fictions set within a contemporary setting which propose reflection, introspection, and methods of addressing anxieties of the present-day. For more information visit:queerheresies.com

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