Conversation between Wendy Morris and curator Pieter Boons

Conversation between Pieter Boons, curator of the Artistic Research Project, and Wendy Morris, in the studio at the Braem Pavilion, Middelheim Museum, May 10th, 2023. On Radio Hush Hush, the emergence of the Company and preparations for the Procession.

P: You don’t work alone. You are working in or as a Company. Who is the Company?

The name of the ‘Company’ refers obliquely to the Dutch East India Company, the VOC, but it is an underside of that 17th century Company. It exists in its shadow, as you can’t unwrite history nor the dominant place the VOC has taken in violently shaping parts of the world.

The word ‘company’ also relates to ‘accompany’. This means to ‘share bread together’. So, this Company is intended as an inclusive entity, one that folds in a constellation of working parts: organs (the wandering womb, the writing hand, the listening ear), meteorlogical elements (wind) spirit-beings (ancestors) and plants-as-beings.

There came a point about five years ago when I stopped wanting to make drawn films or of putting out work made by Wendy Morris. I wanted to explore different kinds of practice, working anonymously for instance, rejecting ideas of fixed or single authorship.  The first figure to come out of this was ‘Muriel’. I imagined that under this name I could share an audio or written work and invite another to absorb it into their own work. I wanted to set an idea out into the world and not control what it became. Muriel emerged out of three Muriel’s ghosting the studio – one of whom left behind a suitcase of a thousand letters, that is a part of the studio.

Then when the ‘Nothing of Importance Occurred’ set of projects was evolving I realized that I wanted to make this story through multiple perspectives and the idea of working as an interior collective started to grow. This has become the Company. Muriel is ‘Emissary to the Past’, writing from, and altering, archives. The figure of Wandering Womb emerged as I delved into histories of herbals and writings on gynecology going back to Dioscorides and the ancient Greeks. Descriptions of the female body as ‘faulty’ were ubiquitous. The womb was likened to a demon within the body, one that could not be exorcised, but only ordered to return to its rightful place. It was described as a wandering organ that would go in search of moisture if it was not serially mpregnanted. I thought, if the womb wants to travel, let her travel, and I invented the Travelogue of the Wandering Womb. Her Fantastic Encounters and Curious Utterings.  

Orlando Preternaturalist emerged just prior to the lockdown of 2020. I had a studio in the ‘t Gasthuys in Aalst and was working towards an Aalst herbarium connected to the museum’s medicinal garden. The studio turned out to link the staff offices with the museum and there was constant traffic passing through. Given the conservative political climate in Aalst at the time, I was hesitant to make it publicly known that this herbarium consisted exclusively of plants with histories as abortifacients. I realised that it might be wise to work on two levels, the one openly – medicinal plants – and the other covertly – abortifacients.  Orlando emerged as the covert herbalist. Wendy was the overt herbalist.

Orlando, like Muriel, is an amalgam of figures, literary and historical, who were already pressing into the project. There is Virginia Woolf’s gender-changing, time-traveling character Orlando, based on Vita Sackville-West. There is Jeanne Baret, (for whom we are making a banner in the Procession) the herb-women and botanist who had to disguise herself as a man to work as botanical assistant aboard the ship l’Etoile. There is a great-uncle Orlando Giddy about whose Book of English Landscapes I once made a film. There is Maria Sibylla Merien, the first woman to travel in her own name for her science. And lastly, Hendrik Claudius, chemist, plant-illustrator, map-maker, journal-keeper, who detailed medicinal plants on the 1685 Simon van der Stel expedition to the Copper Mountains.

I, the EAR was the last entity to emerge. EAR listens for the unsaid and the unheard and is attuned to radio waves and voices of the wind.

The creation of the Company has been an act of dissolving of a central ego, the artist, to allow different kinds of imaginative work. It allows fictionalising. It makes possible the imagining of a midwife ancestor as a spirit-being and the possibility of journeying with her on a return from Cape Town to Luanda. 

P: Can you elaborate a bit more on your interest to the VOC?

That ancestor midwife previously mentioned was Maaij Claasje, and Angolan enslaved by the VOC in the 17th century. She was one of five hundred captives aboard a Portuguese slaving ship sailing from Luanda to Bahia, Brazil. The captain of a Dutch East India Company (VOC), also in search of slave labour, hijacked the vessel and transferred 250 of the captives aboard its own ship and continued onto the Cape of Good Hope. The Heeren XVII insisted the strongest of the captives be sent onwards to their Batavia, now Jakarta. Of those who were left at the Cape, most were children. Claesje was 12 years old. She lived into her 80s, spending almost all of her life in the slave lodge, Cape Town. 

P: How were you able to trace back this ancestor?

Some years back I set out a plan for a project with the title Points of Departure. I wanted to investigate why my forebears left Europe to migrate to South Africa. Were they forced out? Did they choose to leave?  What were the pushes and pulls? I wasn’t interested in the individuals, so much, as in the demographics of that time. Why did these people migrate away from Europe? The first work I made in that project was ‘Heir to the Evangelical Revival’ which explored English protestant missionaries and religious settlers who migrated to the Cape 1820s. Then I followed Huguenots forebears who were persecuted for their Calvinist beliefs and who fled France in the 17th century. These refugees took the VOC offer of passage to the Cape and grants of land to farm. This work became Off by Heart and Out of Breath. 

On a family tree that traced my father’s grandmother’s ancestry back to the the 17th century, there was only one ‘unknown’ female ancestor. I was curious to know why this woman as unnamed. I knew her daughter was called Sara van Gijselen and I looked her up on online genealogy websites. She also appears as Sara van de Kaap – the ‘de Kaap’ referring to a person born in the slave lodge. Her mother’s name appeared as Maaij Claesje van Angola.

I quite quickly found three documents relating to Claesje. The first was the report of how she was brought to the Cape. The second was a notice of her death in 1731 in the journal of a VOC official at the Cape. He wrote about the day: ‘Nothing of importance occurred. An old slave woman, Maaij Claesje, died in the slave lodge’. That ‘nothing of importance occurred’ became the title of the project and I resolved to show the contrary. The third document was the most important. It revealed Maaij Claesje to have been midwife in the slave lodge, to have agreed to travel to Jakarta to assist a Dutch woman with the birth of her child and, in return, to demand and receive her emancipation for providing that service. It allowed a glimpse of agency on the part of Maaij Claesje.

P: There is a banner you made for Maaij Claasje in the procession. How important is it to have this banner in the procession?

The story of Maaij Claesje is at the heart of the whole project. This procession of contraceptive plants is an iteration of the project in Europe, in Belgium, in Middelheim. But the investigation into histories of contraceptive and abortive plants starts with trying to imagine what Maaij Claesje, an enslaved midwife in the 17th century, knew.  Because there are no narratives by enslaved individuals in South Africa – even through the country was built on slavery – researchers have to adopt a speculative lens and investigate through unconventional ‘archives’. What agency did she have? What could a midwife have known? What could an enslaved midwife be called upon to know?  Enslaved women were coerced into sexual encounters not of their choosing, that is clear.  What agency could they have had to prevent bringing a child into the world, a child that would likewise be enslaved? This is the central question in the project.

It has taken four years to make a work showing her name. It is not her kin name. She would have been given that name, Claesje, when she arrived at the Cape, enslaved to the Dutch VOC. The ‘maaij’ would have been added later when she was an older woman.  The appendage, ‘van Angola’, was given to all the captives brought with her. The context of this procession seems the right one in which to visualise her through this banner. Perhaps afterwards the banner could be used to open conversations around some of the issues in the project.

P: We’ve talked about ancestors and a quote of you is: ‘I’m interested in ancestors, not in who they are but in ancestral power and how we can use this today.’ What does this mean? Why is Maaij Claasje is so crucial?

Since I started engaging with histories of family, I have come to sense that forebears are not relegated to a time past. Rather than a linear understanding of time I have developed a sense of times-entangled. My studio is haunted with the presence of forebears in the form of letters and documents and photographs. The entities of the Company are amalgams of figures from different eras. I grew up as a white South-African and we did not attend to our ancestors. So, somehow, dissolving into the Company gives me a part-fictional way to conceiving of a relationship with this ancestor. There is the idea, too, that the spirit-being of Maaij Claasje is not at rest and presses into my present.

P: The title of your research project in Middelheim ‘A Middelheim herbal for a midwife’. We’ve talked about the midwife and about Middelheim but not so much on the herbal.  What is a herbal?  A herbal is an encyclopedia of plant knowledge that I found on Wikipedia.  Why do you want to activate ‘plant knowledge’?

I think we suffer plant-blindness, and we have such a weird relationship to plants. If you look at which plants are planted in our gardens, you’ll see that it is an amalgam of whatever has been made available in the nurseries. Plants are decoration. Gardens are fantasies. There is no serious engagement with plants, and no memory of how plants were once vital to our survival. Our close relationship to plants has been delegated to industry and we have lost any personal relationship. It’s very hard to rebuild this but this is one aim of the project in Middelheim – to counter plant-blindness. We share very long histories together. The plants that are being grown for the procession are specific plants with specific medicinal histories. I want to draw attention to these specificities.

P: How does it work to be an artist-researcher? You are setting out a field of research but how or when do you decide on an end result. At what moment of your process did it become clear that you wanted to make a procession and how does that influence the process? If you compare it to film, you already know on the forehand that the final product will be a film.  

The connection between research and making works is always very close. When I was still making drawn-films a realisation would emerge that a work could be made around a certain idea. Once I had the idea that this could be a film, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what this film was going to be, I would start drawing. So, the two always went hand in hand. The drawing would come out of the research but would also push me back into it, and so on. Researching and making a work are in constant overlap. And in the films what I thought I started out making was eventually not what the work turned out to be. It is important that the process of research and making is slow because it allows ideas to become more nuanced. I realise, no, it’s not that, it needs to be this. Slowly the focus emerges. Working on the procession is no different. There is ongoing research around plants that grow at Middelheim and have medicinal and abortive or contraceptive properties, and there is ongoing planning and conception of the elements that could become a procession. Even as I am making banners, I am continuing the research.

P: One of the main ideas to produce a procession was to bring out the work Radio Hush Hush and to create a momentum around it. So, let’s focus a while on this work. It’s an existing work. What is, in a nutshell, the history of the work? This version is also an iteration of the work, can you elaborate on this?

The work was made during lockdown for an exhibition at Netwerk Aalst. Radio Hush Hush is a clandestine radio work set in six finch cages, with female voices whispering fragments of recipés and remedies that will control fertility. The knowledge being transmitted in the work – about plants that cause abortion – is kept intentionally fragmentary. The information that has emerged from the research is often missing crucial elements – specific doses, the part of the plant to be used, the method of extraction, the time of harvesting, and narratives by those who had needed the remedies – part of the knowledge that would have been held by those cultivating, collecting, prescribing or using the plants. I wanted to bring this knowledge back into circulation, but it needed to be clandestine as there are still situations or contexts in which abortion cannot be openly discussed.

The shape of Radio Hush Hush mimics existing clandestine radio broadcasts in which information is encoded in a particular form that includes buzzes and beeps, a folktune, and sequences of numbers read aloud. In Radio Hush Hush the folktune is a South African ghoemalied, ‘Suikerbos ek wil jou hê, a song that is claimed as an Afrikaans folk tune but has its origins in Indonesia and was brought to the Cape by enslaved Asians in the 17th century.

The audio work is installed in six finch cages used in ‘vinkenzetting’ in Belgium. I have long wanted to make a work that engages with this practice in which chaffinches are held captive to take part in singing contests. The birds cannot see out of the cages – were once even blinded – and are competed for the frequency of their calls. Chaffinches have regional accents and birds that do not grow up in Flanders have a different slotzang or end-flourish to that of local birds. Only birds with the slotzang ‘suskewiet’ can compete. Foreign birds need to be taught this end-flourish. In this I saw parallels with discussions in Belgium around migration and notions of enforced assimilation. More than that, I was thinking about enslavement in the 17th century, transportation to a foreign environment and subsequent loss of language. In the Cape, enslaved individuals trafficked from Asia and other parts of Africa were labelled with their place of origin (Maaij Claesje van Angola) and then deliberately separated from others from that region so that they could not conspire together.  Out of those many ‘lost’ languages brought to the Cape Afrikaans emerged as a common language containing elements of many tongues. The finch cages function as metaphors for entrapment and lost languages.

P: If you jump from Radio Hush Hush to the procession, which elements can we recognize visually or conceptually in these 2 works?

Well, the first idea was to bring the work Radio Hush Hush outdoors in summer to Het Huis pavilion and bring it back inside in winter. This movement could be ritualized in a procession. I realize that the work is rather cryptic, though, and I thought that because there is a wide range of audiences here at Middelheim, it would be interesting to unpack elements of the work into the form of a procession. Audience, who would see Procession and then hear Radio Hush Hush, would have an easier way into the work. Oh, it’s about plants, about contraceptive knowledge, about loss of language, enslavement. They would be better prepared to engage with it. One series of banners, the Virtues, and all the living plants in Procession, are plants that are mentioned in Radio Hush Hush.

P: It took you quite some time to call the procession ‘a procession’. Is it a parallel strategy to unravel all the existing strategies and to find out how you can reclaim them?

Most people have an experience of a procession, and in Belgium that is likely to have been a religious procession. My chosen point of reference was Suffragette processions from the beginning of the 2Oth century. Then Veerle Meul (conservator and head of collections at Middelheim) suggested that Catholic processionary materials, long out of use and moulding in church towers, might be available to rework into this procession. When the first materials arrived, my chief interest was in working out how they were put together and how a banner would fit on the poles. The next concern was how to recuperate them into a new work that had an aesthetic that was not determined by their provenance. 

P: How does it make you feel when you take these sacred garments apart?

These materials don’t have a ritual value for me as I don’t connect to the religious aspect. Even in my childhood I was already an atheist and I have a deep antipathy towards organized religion and the Catholic church. I am quite enjoying taking these religious objects apart and working them into banners that carry very different messages. There is an element of pleasure in that process. Initially I wanted to work only with upcycled elements, like off-cuts of textiles from Kringloopwinkels (second-hand shops) but the church materials have an aesthetic quality that is very ‘lush’ and super nice to work with as raw material. I’m using them only in small quantities and mixing them with the upcycled fabrics.

P: What do you hope the procession will do with the audience?

This is something that we are still thinking through. There are banners that refer to plant knowledge and banners that refer to individuals, there are living plants and there are companies of Journeywomen, Scolds and Midwives. The cumulated effect should be a collaging of stories and histories that merge with the park itself. I want it to surprise and excite. I want it to draw attention to the park in unexpected ways. I want the participants in the procession to feel connected to the park, the plants and the histories.

P: So that’s why you end up in the format of a procession as it has a common thing that binds the group of participants.


P: You’ve also invited a dramaturg: Tunde Adefioye. Why did you invite him, is he part of the Company? What are you hoping to realise with him?

I wanted to work with Tunde for some time. He is interested in spoken-word performance, and spoken-word as a form of transmission of plant knowledge is integral to the project. I also wanted to work with a dramaturg who has a global understanding of the histories involved. To return to the person of Maaij Claesje, it is important to me that the dramaturg is invested in bringing such marginalised histories into the light. That is as important as understanding how plant knowledge that benefitted women has been sidelined through the centuries. Maaij Claesje is at the heart of the project, the plant project grew out of a desire to repair the lack of narrative around her.

P: It makes me think to what you said earlier that there is a whole history of enslaved people who have no traces, no archive, no representation and therefore the speculative aspect comes in because we have to think about what we can tell, do, and see about these stories.

Yes, and I also think of the fact that South Africa is built on slave labour and was a slavocracy. This is very seldom spoken about. People talk about apartheid but don’t look further back to the start of white settler colonialism there. This is something I want to keep at the front of the conversation. The wealth of Europe is based on slavocracies established elsewhere; this is a violent underside that is not often spoken about. In all my work, I try to keep this in view.

P: Talking about the 12 main banners in the procession: they are conceived as containers with seeds, which remind me of ethnographical objects like the Nkisi Nkondi, sculptures that contain a magical substance (often specific herbs) hidden behind a mirror. Often these objects are used in Non-Western societies by a traditional healer. Talking about ancestors you’ve mentioned a nurse and a midwife, so caring and healing looks like an undercurrent in some of your works.  Is the procession also related to forms of healing?

I think the banner for Maaij Claasje, which is the biggest banner in the procession, is about repair or reparation. Healing isn’t a word I would choose to use. Reparation is a more interesting term.

P: To end, I wonder looking further then the procession, if we would find a folder in 75 years with your name on, what would be in it? What is left in the archives of the museum?

I am so not worried about posterity, about things lasting. I think we need to act in this thick present we talked about. When I walk around the park I see many works that seem so permanent in form, material or idea. They’re intended to remain. I’m much more interested to make works that are transient.

P: But how does that match your habit of daily dairying then? For whom are you writing it all down?  

I think I should bury those one day as well, I do not want to leave those to anyone, that’s such a burden for someone. There’s a saying: when you’re writing in your diary, you’re writing to your future self, but I think my diaries are a way of processing thoughts and ideas. They’re not really personal diaries, and I’m always aware that someone else might read them, so I write in a way that is not harmful to anybody – or to myself hopefully. I think you can’t pretend you’re not aware of a reader when you write a diary.

The discussion took place in May 2023 at the Braem Pavilion, Middelheim Museum where Wendy set up a studio to prepare the Procession. There is a shorter version of this interview in dutch on the Middelheim Museum BLOG.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Featured image: Charlotte Schramme and Dilek Santy in the Procession June 2023 / photo by Tim Theo Deceuninck; Braem pavilion studio March 2023 / photo by Tom Cornille; Muriel, Emissary to the Past / photo Morris; Botanical Bodies Gathering with Mariske Broeckmeyer and Hendrike Scharmann / Travelogue of the Wandering Womb / Alias exhibition Netwerk Aalst 2019 / photo Morris; Banner in the Braem pavilion June 2023 / photo Morris; Procession June 24 2023 / phot Time Theo Deceuninck; Mugwort and Absinthe plants and banners in the Virtues series / photos by Deceuninck and Morris; Mariske Broeckmeyer and the Journeywomen in the Procession / photo’s Deceuninck and Aldo Smith; Radio Hush Hush installation Middelheim Museum / photo’s Morris; banners in the pavilion / photo Morris; Braem pavilion as studio / photo’s Tom Cornille; Procession various; Virtues and pockets being assembled / photo Morris