Witch Weather

Response August 27, 2020

By Lillian O’Brien Davis

There is a moment in a gust of wind that precedes a rumbling stormy sky, when I suddenly feel different. A sudden restlessness comes over me, a sense of longing for a place that does not exist, perhaps buried in the ashes of a village destroyed by merchants seeking to sell human flesh. The electric, tense change in that moment recalls magic to my skin, an embodiment of the magic of the Zabat, a Black woman’s rite of passage. For a moment I feel ancient, powerful, and lonely—as if I’ve forgotten something important and I’m on the verge of remembering it. 

Traces of the existence of Other lives are not deemed important enough to be included in the canon of Western art history and archaeology. Therefore, seeking evidence of these traces—of typically non-white histories—consists of looking for the smallest clues, unearthing the forgotten fragments preserved by sheer luck or chance from long-forgotten ancient empires.This piece of writing is about intuition; it’s about delicately pressing my finger to my lips and allowing myself to listen and recall what is lost. It’s about seeking out, holding onto, spending time with, and being in relation to, the traces that survive. 

Recently, news of a treasure trove emerged from Regio V, a site in Pompeii (in present-day Italy), that had been destroyed in the now infamous volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on October 24 in the year 79 AD. The description of the trove, also known as a “Sorceress’ Kit”, in recent accounts published about the find intrigued me. Here were stories about women, possible pasts that provided new detail into worlds previously unknown. There is limited information about the treasure trove as its discovery was only reported in the fall of 2019 and it is still under examination by archeologists on site. According to those archeologists, (1) the contents of the Kit includes: two mirrors; pieces of a necklace; decorative elements made of faience, bronze, bone and amber; a glass unguentarium (salve for soothing or healing); phallic amulets; a figure of Harpokrates; various gems; buttons made of bone; carved scarab beetles; and tiny skulls (possibly animal).

Interestingly, there are diverging accounts of the ‘Sorceress’ Kit’ published online. One account details that, due to the fact that no gold or precious objects were found in the kit, it is likely that it did not belong to the mistress of the house but it was likely owned by a servant or a slave who was not able to take the Kit with them in the apocalyptic panic. (2) Another account states that the high quality of the amber and engraving of the figurines in the box confirm the importance of the owner of the home in which the Kit was found. (3) The box of small trinkets was likely used to perform fertility and love rituals and to look for omens related to birth and pregnancy. The Kit was also believed to be used for fortune telling and for protection against bad luck. This find marks a distinct and intriguing discovery since it reveals the presence of a female community that performed ceremonies to protect each other and support fertility and childbirth.  

In several published articles, the items in the Kit were referred to as objects related to everyday life in the “female world”. (4) These objects evaded the museological archive due to the fragmentary nature of their discovery—their materiality can be sourced, but the people who possessed them remain buried. Thus, the objects offer the possibility to unearth the lost subjectivities of the women who made up this “female world”, or rather feminine communities and lineages previously excluded from the historical narrative. This proposed protective knowledge and communal power of the women animate the objects, despite the fact they are not yet permanently preserved in a museum’s archives, where they can be viewed for years to come.

Image: Detail from arriver avant moi, devant moi, 2020 by Erika DeFreitas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What may otherwise be understood as sorcery or witchcraft, the Kit proves how this female community would use ceremony and ritual to create worlds of feminine connectivity outside of the patriarchal Roman culture. The Sorceress’ Kit is also exemplative of the kind of feminine world-building contemporary artist Erika DeFreitas is concerned with. DeFreitas’ lens-based practice places an emphasis on the body, documentation, intuition and paranormal phenomena, and sometimes wades into aspects of the occult. DeFreitas’ recent photographic series arriver avant moi devant moi (2019) seeks to make a connection with two mixed-race women: the frequently painted artistic muse and former lover of French poet Charles Baudelaire, Jeanne Duval (1820-1871), and Maud Sulter (1960-2008) a Ghanian-Scottish contemporary artist who engaged with Duval through her own artistic practice, exploring the erasure of women of colour from art history. DeFreitas uses images and landmarks to trace connections and collapse time and space, bringing these women together into her own sphere, as captured in this series of photographs through maps, mirrors, excerpts of Baudelaire’s poems and the artist’s own notes. The series is made up of eight images, where the artist’s hands reach out and delicately hold photographic traces of both Duval and Sulter. In this body of work, DeFreitas traces the women’s relationships through ethos and time, seeking to hold them, spend time with them and be in relation to them.

The Sorceress’ Kit can be traced through the fragmentary lineage of “lost” women just as Duval and Sulter are traced within DeFreitas’ work, by means of studying and reanimating distinctly feminine materials within archaeological remains. This found “feminist materialism” thus act as clues that together build the story of communities that were centered around a feminist network with a collective knowledge. In arriver avant moi devant moi, the artist’s hands are depicted forming connections between images of Duval, Sulter and other “lost” women, such as Laure, better known as the unknown servant who anchors the centre of Edouard Manet’s well known painting Olympia (1865). (5) In other images, DeFreitas depicts herself observing Gustav Courbet’s painting, The Painter’s Studio (1855), positioning her body near the empty space where Duval had been painted out of the work. Some of the images feature maps, stones and blank pages—evidence of DeFreitas’ ongoing search for these “lost” women. In the final image of the series, DeFreitas is depicted drawing a line with black marker along her palm’s lifeline, which continues across a piece of blank grid paper, thus extending herself towards the traces she’s found. In this way, both the Kit and the tactility of DeFreitas’ work function as a means of channeling power and reasserting presence—reaching out to carefully sift through a history buried in ash.

Image: Detail from arriver avant moi, devant moi, 2020 by Erika DeFreitas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Kit fills me with a sense of loss, an untethering, since what remains is a faint palimpsest in the margins of history, not something easily read. Also found in the Kit was the figure of Harpokrates, the Greek interpretation of the Egyptian god Harpa-Khruti (Horus the Child) who was usually depicted as a small boy with a finger held to his lips—an Egyptian gesture symbolizing childhood, which the ancient Greeks mistook for a hush for silence. The presence of the god of Silence and secrecy (as understood by the Greeks) in the Kit seems especially significant, since what has been discovered was something private and powerful. Even though they are physically absent, the women are present within these objects, and the agency of the Sorceress is wrapped up in the objects that remain. The Kit represents their community, power, silence, secrecy and subversion. What makes this search so challenging is that we must construct their narrative from the fragments, in all it’s tiny, delicate pieces. 

Jeanne Duval was erased from Gustav Courbet’s painting, The Painter’s Studio (1855) at the request of her lover Charles Baudelaire. In the painting, a careful viewer can just make out where she has been removed: a slight discolouration is the only remaining trace of Duval’s presence. Like the fragments of information that Sulter and DeFreitas have to work with, only fragmentary knowledge pertaining to the context of the Kit still linger. The lack of physical evidence lessens the significance of the discovery, and yet a scientific inquiry also feels inappropriately sterile, since it remains a practice that has long refuted feminine knowledge, often marking it as hysterical. This piece of writing isn’t about searching for evidence—who would believe me anyway? Just as ancient Greek colonizers misinterpreted and appropriated an Egyptian god, these women, the Sorceress, Jeanne Duval and Maud Sulter, are silent—they have been silenced. The traces of these lost women, what we know of Jeanne Duval, Maud Sulter and what we now know of the Sorceresses are examples of the continuing erasure of women and their agency from canonical history. 

Image: Detail from arriver avant moi, devant moi, 2020 by Erika DeFreitas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the simplest terms, Sorceresses, or as they’re more commonly known, witches, can be understood as women who possess agency over their own bodies. They have been known to use herbs and other means either to help with fertility or to act as contraceptives, thus making sex an act of pleasure rather than a contribution to the (read capitalist) labour force. (6) In the colonial West Indies, before a racially-based caste system was established, many poor, unwed white women interacted closely with the enslaved population. It was only when race laws were enacted did white women who were lower on the socio-economic scale become distinct from and better protected than non-white and Black enslaved women. (7) The ceremonial and ritual practices of Black women were punished brutally and stamped out of communities during and throughout transatlantic enslavement, undermining feminine or matriarchal communities which either developed within enslaved communities or were held-over from the African villages from which they originated. (8)

Often times witches were non-white women whose cultural knowledge needed to be delegitimized or who could be used as outlets for societal anxieties during times of wide-spread social or economic strife. (9) In other words, the practices that women were being punished for were racialized. For instance, Tituba, a Black servant, was the first alleged witch to be convicted during the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. (10) These “witch” practices undermined the rule of colonial law and formed communities among the enslaved that often empowered women and placed them in positions of power within these communities. Another instance of the demonization of ritual practices is the history of Obeah women, who were powerful female leaders with shaman-like powers for healing and community leadership. (11) Obeah in the West Indies were thought to have the knowledge to do things like brew poisonous concoctions in their master’s food, or inspire slaves to revolt. Fears of witches and the ritual practices of women of colour were linked to the false issue of population decline (thought to be due to the use of contraceptives provided by “witches”). (12) The primary fear among white, wealthy, land-holding classes was that their social subordinates, particularly women, would sneak into their homes and kill them in order to become free. (13) The persecution of witches (like the slave trade) was a central aspect of the accumulation and formation of the modern proletariat, erasing and oppressing any agency that manifested outside of the structure of a capitalist economy. (14) North American and European progress cannibalized the ritual lives and bodies of Black women in order to build our current, (perhaps now crumbling) capitalist economy. The secrecy implied through the presence of Harpokrates and the anonymity of the Sorceress’ kit speaks to a similar suppression of female power and community in the Kit’s Greco-Roman context. 

Image: Detail of Jeanne: A Melodrama I-V, 2002 by Maude Sulter. From pages 18-19 in the artists’ exhibition catalogue, Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama (2003).

Similarly, Jeanne Duval embodied the ambient fear of Black women by white Europeans when she arrived in France at the end of the 19th century. She is said to have come from a former slave colony island in the Caribbean, likely Haiti. Most writing about Jeanne Duval describes her as a “Quarteroon”, three-quarters white and one-quarter Black—an exotic negress who enchanted French poet Charles Baudelaire with her “colonial allure” for more than two decades. Duval, also known as Jeanne Lemer or Lemaire, was likely the granddaughter of an enslaved woman from Guinea in West Africa who was sent to Nantes, France to work in a brothel where her owners called her Marie Duval. (15)

Art Historian Marc A. Christophe describes Duval not as a woman but as an extension of Baudelaire’s psyche—a Black Venus that embodied all of the dark and lascivious qualities of the tormented genius. Any history of Duval is picked out of Baudelaire’s letters to his mother and friends, filtered through his voice, his moods, and his thoughts. What is known is that Jeanne Duval and Charles Baudelaire met in 1842 when Duval arrived in France from Haiti and remained together on and off for 20 years. Often Baudelaire would live with Duval when he could not afford to live alone and Duval was known to sell her own possessions in order to feed herself and the poet. (16) The racialized and sexist historicization of Duval as “bestialized, stupefied, hated, ugly” (17) and an overall negative influence on Baudelaire is a characterization meant to depict Duval as a foil to Baudelaire’s other well known white mistress, the French socialite Apollonie Sabatier. (18) This characterization contradicts much of the fragmented information still in existence about the relationship in which Baudelaire takes turns describing Duval as either a Black Sun, “… if one could conceive a black star pouring out light and happiness” (19) or as he refers to her in his poem, “Les Fleurs du Mal” (1857), “…La Sorcière au flances d’ébène…” (the witch with ebony flanks) (20), a sexual being who Baudelaire was unable to resist nor fully control. After Baudelaire’s death, all of the letters from Duval that he had kept were burned by Baudelaire’s conservative mother who disapproved of his relationship with Duval, who she saw as a corrupting influence over her son. (21)

Most sources indicate that Jeanne Duval died during the Paris Commune in 1871, though the location of her burial site is unknown. Although she was depicted many times by well known artists such as Felix Nadar, Edouard Manet and Gustav Courbet, Duval the woman disappeared from the telling of her own history—another woman whose story, like the unknown owner of the Sorceress’ Kit, is lost in the ashes of a crumbling empire. 

Artist Maud Sulter describes her first encounter with Jeanne Duval, who she first noticed in a photograph by Félix Nadar, captioned Unknown Woman (c. 1860). “There she stared at me, willing me to give her a name, an identity, a voice…”. (22) Sulter’s search for Duval took place through her art practice, making photographic self-portraits depicting representations of Duval drawn from Baudelaire’s poems. Sulter articulates her own discomfort on the Black female sitter, writing, “Black people are still so often anonymously objectified in representation—and I do not suggest that mere naming is enough to redress the balance à la Robert Mapplethorpe or Craigie Aitchison.” (23)

Image: Jeunne modèle (Unknown Woman), c. 1860, photograph by Félix Nadar. From pages 8-9 of Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama (2003) by Maude Sulter.

There is a correlation between the anonymous objectification that Sulter identifies here, such as the owner of the Sorceress’ Kit and women like Jeanne Duval, and great artistic genius. As Sulter implies in the description of her first encounter with an uncredited image of Jeanne Duval, Black women instilled agency onto the objects they influenced, made, and helped circulate. Sulter’s attempt to redress the balance, came in the form of her inhabiting the position of both muse and artist, seeking Duval’s buried subjectivity while maintaining her own—using her body to help Duval speak. For an exhibition of her work at the National Gallery of Scotland in 2003, Sulter published her most comprehensive text about Duval titled, Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama (2003), an exhibition catalogue which contextualized some of Sulter’s research and documentation of the artist’s ongoing interest in re-presenting women of colour within historical narratives. (24) Sulter had also begun a biography of Duval, but it was never completed as Sulter died in 2008 after battling a long illness.

DeFreitas’ work, arriver avant moi devant moi (2019) similarly helps create a lineage of women of colour through time who enlivened objects with their knowledge and existence. A mirror appears within each photograph in the series, sometimes catching a glimpse of DeFreitas’ face or hair, and sometimes the mirror is empty, open and inviting. The consistent appearance of the artist’s hands in the images form connections through time, since the mirrors act as portals connecting DeFreitas with Sulter, Duval and the viewer. The artist’s touch is gentle, both Duval and Sulter’s images are carefully held by DeFreitas—an infinitely prolonged gesture captured by the photograph. In this moment, all three women are now connected across time. 

In one photograph from the series, Baudelaire’s poem, “Hemisphere in a Head of Hair” (1862), appears along with Nadar’s photograph of Duval that Sulter had been so drawn to. DeFreitas’ hair is reflected in the small, circular mirror. An excerpt of Baudelaire’s poem reads 

Let me bite and bite again your dark, heavy tresses. When I nibble your defiant, elastic hair, it seems to me the nourishment of memories. (25)

Duval literally fed Baudelaire’s creative labour, just as more broadly, contemporary culture feeds off of women of colour. In several images from the series, DeFreitas physically positions herself in relation to Sulter, Duval and Baudelaire, joining Duval in being observed, her own hair captured in the mirror’s reflection, re-embodying the elastic defiance that Baudelaire observed in Duval’s hair. Like Sulter, DeFreitas does not disappear in order to look, but appears along with Duval, placing herself in relation to her remaining fragment. While DeFreitas is a beneficiary of this legacy, she is still an object of consumption for the engine of the white male genius, a devouring she resists through the defiant elasticity of her own hair depicted in the mirror.

Image: Detail from arriver avant moi, devant moi, 2020 by Erika DeFreitas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Written in the margins of DeFreitas’ work are notes from her research, and words from Baudelaire’s poem: “tropical azure, downy banks, blend of tar, musk, coconut oil, defiant elastic.” This list seems to embody the artist’s thoughts on Duval and Sulter as the search for these women unfolds. Like the Sorceress who used the objects in her Kit to perform rituals for her female community, DeFreitas performs a similar world building from the feminine lineages she utilizes through her art making and research. As delicate pieces are picked up, pointed to, and dusted off, DeFreitas’ gestures also sift through the volcanic ash, restoring these women to a history and legacy they had been robbed of by the machinations of patriarchal narrative hegemony, having disappeared from historical time, in its own magical disappearing act.


Burned letters, painted out of history, hidden grave stones, buried under ash, lost to illness. Fragments of these stories remain, activated through touch and connected across time. The Sorceress’ Kit is one of these fragments, a series of delicate objects that holds the knowledge and presence of the women who enlivened them, and suggests new ways to think about how magic functions in society. DeFreitas’ work documents the action of unearthing the threads of interconnectedness of lost Black women across time and space, reaching out particularly to Sulter and Duval to help unearth a buried female history. DeFeitas’ work traces a careful lineage; a branching tendril that flows softly through time, connected yet diverging. All these objects of protection and community, all of the delicate, ashy, time-worn pieces not wholly legible that have been lost, are only now being held again—but this time, for the world to see.

  1.  See Smithsonian article: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sorceresss-kit-was-discovered-ashes-pompeii-180972907/
  2. Ibid.
  3. A Press release from the Pompeii Archeological site: http://pompeiisites.org/en/press-releases/the-luck-and-the-protection-against-the-bad-fate-in-the-jewelery-of-regio-v/
  4.  See Frieze article https://www.frieze.com/article/pictures-miraculous-treasure-pompeii-sorceress and also Smithsonian article, quote from Massimo Osanna director of Pompeii Archeological park: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sorceresss-kit-was-discovered-ashes-pompeii-180972907/
  5. See this Smithsonian article on the recent exhibition at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris: Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/what-black-maid-manets-olympia-tells-us-about-modernisms-models-180970708/
  6. Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York : London: Autonomedia ; Pluto, 2003. P. 75.
  7. Ibid., 88.
  8. Ibid., 115.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 217.
  11. See selected trails for Obeah practice in Caribbean: https://www.caribbeanreligioustrials.org/
  12. Federici, 87.
  13. See: https://www.caribbeanreligioustrials.org/
  14. Ibid.
  15. Christophe, M. (1990). JEANNE DUVAL: BAUDELAIRE’S BLACK VENUS OR BAUDELAIRE’S DEMON? CLA Journal, 33(4), 428-439. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44324912
  16. Sulter, M., & National Galleries of Scotland. (2003). Jeanne Duval: A melodrama. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland. Exhibition catalogue. Print.
  17. Christophe, M. (1990).
  18. Ibid.
  19. Baudelaire, C., Shapiro, N. R., Schorr, D., Barnstone, W., Baudelaire, C., & Baudelaire, C. (1998). Selected poems from Les fleurs du mal: A bilingual edition.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Christophe, M. (1990).
  22. Sulter, M., & National Galleries of Scotland. (2003).
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Baudelaire, C., Shapiro, N. R., Schorr, D., Barnstone, W., Baudelaire, C., & Baudelaire, C. (1998). Selected poems from Les fleurs du mal: A bilingual edition.

Feature Image: Detail from arriver avant moi, devant moi, 2020 by Erika DeFreitas. Photo courtesy of the artist. Commissioned for and originally published in C magazine, Issue #144, “Deja Vu,” Winter 2020, Toronto.

This article has been published in collaboration with CARFAC Saskatchewan’s Critical Art Writing Mentorship Program, supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and SaskCulture.