The history of witchcraft is more in the spotlight in Britain now due to the recent rise in believers of Paganism, Wicca, and other belief systems and religions that incorporate witchcraft, but for the majority it’s still largely unexplored. Essex and the surrounding counties have a prevalent past when it comes to witchcraft, with the most notable event being the witch trials held in the area. This is the focus of Susan Pui San Lok’s latest exhibition, ‘A Coven A Grove A Stand’ at Firstsite in Colchester, where she explores these trials through sight, sound, and audience participation.
Artist: Susan Pui San Lok
Gallery: Firstsite, Colchester
Dates: Sat 9th Feb – Mon 22nd Apr 2019
The first part of the exhibition invites you to remember a persecuted witch by writing their name with your own on a large blackboard wall. I chose to remember Margaret Moone of Thorpe-le-Soken, a village local to me. I really love this as an introduction, as it gets the viewer to consider the impact and history of the topic before it’s even really begun. I spent some time reading the wall, and it prepared me to get the most out of what was to follow.
The rest of the exhibition is spread over three different rooms, with a striking recycled cardboard installation as the first thing you see, designed around 3D scans of ‘Old Knobbley’, an oak tree in Mistley (believed to be 800 years old) where witches were thought to have hidden. This tree is featured again in a video in the second room, accompanied by audio providing information of the persecuted – who they were, how they died, and why they were sentenced to death. Beautifully haunting folk music plays in the background of the main room, so encompassing that I had to stop and listen to it on its own. The lyrics of the music are printed on the wall towards the back left, describing the concepts of female sexuality against violence and power.
The final room showcases embroidery to honour the persecuted, as well as a hundred red ribbons tied from the ceiling to honour those without names – it’s set up in such a way that you’re able to walk through the ribbons to fully experience and digest the concept. I appreciated how Susan Pui San Lok has got the community of Colchester involved with this part, with Colne & Colchester Embroiderers’ Guild, Stitch & Bitch Colchester, and Young Art Kommunity all creating the embroideries and Mohila Shomity assisting with hanging the ribbons – it adds to the personalisation and reminds the viewer that these are the ancestors of our community. This is something from our past that brings us together, and we can all relate to it.
My Favourite Pieces
The most powerful part of the exhibition for me was the final room, which I found so poignant to experience. I spent most of my time in this room, considering how many were persecuted in such a tragic time, and how we’ve come a long way since then (but perhaps not far enough). It was a stark reminder that there is still so much injustice in the world, but at least progress is being made.
I also loved the 3D installation of Old Knobbley – although quite a strange piece out of context (and one that definitely requires an explanation to fully get it), I loved how Susan Pui San Lok had used a local feature to highlight her commentary, and it gave me knowledge of something really special that isn’t too far from me. This piece alone inspired me to go and visit Old Knobbley, as I’d love to see the real thing.
I found the exhibition to be quite emotive as I have a particular interest in the history of witchcraft, especially locally. Much of the emotion comes from within, as Susan Pui San Lok has been quite minimalistic with her artistic choices, using a ‘show not tell’ approach and allowing the viewer to build up the exhibition and its impact from their own feelings. For me, it felt personal and poignant, however for this reason it may not feel that way for someone with little interest in the topic. But for those that appreciate the history, especially of the Essex witchcraft trials, ‘A Coven A Grove A Stand’ at Firstsite is a collection of art that works just as well as a memorial and will get you thinking back to those times and what really went on.
If you liked this review please like, pin, and leave a comment! Share below what gallery experiences you have enjoyed. You can also check my other reviews for Colchester-based exhibitions here: