25 August 2020

Brexit politics and feminist prophecies: Candida Powell-Williams’s tarot deck by Edwin Coomasaru

Brexit politics and feminist prophecies: Candida Powell-Williams’s tarot deck by Edwin Coomasaru

Brexit politics and feminist prophecies: Candida Powell-Williams’s tarot deck

by Edwin Coomasaru

In the run up to the 2019 UK General Election, when competing visions of both the future and the past were shaped by endless opinion polling and press predications, Candida Powell-Williams exhibited The Gates of Apophenia (2019) at Bosse & Baum, London. The sculptural installation reimagines tarot cards with a feminist politics to explore the longstanding associations between women and magic. The project also reflects on speculative ideas of feminist or queer time, which challenge Enlightenment narratives of liberal progression, which have long been used to justify empire and oppression.

While fourth-wave feminist activism and art has taken up witchcraft as an image in recent years,1 as a magical practice tarot puts pressure on normative ideas of time. The card game originated in sixteenth-century Italy before transforming into a divination tool in eighteenth-century France, where it was infused with Egyptian symbols at the same time Napoleon was invading the country and looting their artefacts.2 Tarot then crossed the channel to the United Kingdom, a country that has long held the mainstream view that occult belief is the sole preserve of ‘primitive’ people or of ‘feeble-minded’ women, even while practices such as Spiritualism have enjoyed popularity in Britain (including among scientists) for centuries.3

Candida Powell-Williams, The Gates of Apophenia, Bosse & Baum, 2019

The First World War, which saw a massive upsurge of interest in and use of magic amulets and divination, threw up profound problems for the idea of British ‘rationality’ and ‘modernity’.4 At stake was a narrative long used to justify racism, misogyny and homophobia both within the UK and throughout the empire: the claim that such subjects were hysterical or mentally ill and in need of control and containment from a strong paternal hand. The English traveller William Hepworth Dixon, for example, claimed in 1876 that ‘if we wish to see order and freedom, science and civilization preserved, we shall give our first thought to what improves the White man’s growth and increases the White man’s strength’.5 Indeed, during the war science took on a particular association with manliness, while the British Association for the Advancement of Science considered how the discipline could increase the ‘efficiency’ of empire.6

This worldview seems to have entered a profound crisis after the 2016 referendum, as fears and fantasies of British superiority on the world stage have struggled against the reality of negotiations with the European Union. Leavers and Remainers have often used the occult as a metaphor to attack each other as ‘diabolical’, possessed by ‘dark forces’ or ‘unleashing demons’.7 Remainers such as the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown complained, notably, that ‘our country turned its back [. . .] on our once globally renowned traditions of pragmatism, rationality and evolutionary progress’.8 A narrative of national decline can be found among Brexiteers such as journalist Douglas Murray who claims the UK is ‘going through a great crowd derangement’ as waves of feminist, anti-racist and queer activism over the last decade meant ‘people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish’.