A Nordic Witch’s Revival of Female Solidarity

Hanna Blom

 

Out of the depths of the Norwegian woods, a siren-like ethereal sound emerges over soft synth and transcendental instrumental tones. On a bed of dried leaves, dried figs, and dried period blood, we find our enchantress, Jenny Hval, the Norwegian artist, softly singing us anti-capitalist lullabies. A philosophising nymph with a white-bleached geometrical bob, her experimental folk leading us on journeys through dark worlds, her voice guiding us as it pierces through inky fog and her poetry, like the mantra of a witches’ circle, confirming the supernatural and questioning our convictions.

 

“leading us on journeys through dark worlds, her voice guiding us as it pierces through inky fog and her poetry”

When it comes to album themes, she reigns the territory of satanic offerings, making art out of menstruation, rituals for the dead and criticizing societal structures. Meshes of Love invites you to become the third member of an Artemisian cult together with fellow Norwegian artist Susanna, a sisterhood of fairies found on the bottom of a lake, producing unearthly harmonies. Apocalypse, Girl mocks the notion that all the questions have been answered, that all the battles have been fought, and that we live in post-revolution times. 

Blood Bitch is an ode to gory horror classics, with a sharp focus on the blood that is shed naturally. Jenny Hval has used her music to blend eerie experimental synth sounds with gloomy poetry which tackles both earthly and celestial existential questions, ones that are not usually found in pop music. But with her new album, The Practice of Love, Hval for once goes where many have gone before. She touches on an almost mundane topic, considering the body of work that exists trying to explain, relate to, and emulate love. However, it is not romance between two starstruck lovers that entices Hval, but rather the abilities of love and the multitudes of intimacy that we experience, namely in platonic friendships and solidarity among women.

The titular song of the album contains a conversation between Jenny Hval and Australian musician Laura Jean. Hval and Jean discuss the roles that they thought to come to play in life, and how to cope with not fulfilling procreative duties, thus being left a supporting character in a performance they assumed to be headlining. It is not the absence of a child that matters here, but rather the childless woman. Hval talks coming to terms with not being the exceptional being she had been told she would be, but Jean takes it further with this topic. Not being a mother at the age of 30 can be quite the exception, but if you are “not spreading the virus” of humankind, for whatever reason this has become your faith, you are left out of the major narrative. You can be a whimsical side character, at best.

 

“a supporting character in a performance they assumed to be headlining.”

The choice to not express these revelations in her usual poem format, but to use a recording of a warm and trustful dialogue between two women, seems to be a testament to what it means to love, what true intimacy allows us to do and become.

The Practice of Love does not necessarily have to be read as Hval completely breaking with her witch ways, when the album is placed aside of the newly published Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women by Silvia Federici, the Italian Marxist scholar. In this collection of essays, Federici builds on her earlier well known work Caliban and the Witch, to link the rise of capitalism in Europe with accusations of witchcraft, and the history of demonizing feminine knowledge and community building.

As she traces gender oppression in its functioning and reproduction, she observes the words which are often used to define and degrade women. She arrives at ‘gossip’. Though the term would at first be used to indicate close female friendships, it was redefined in the Middle Ages to label this companionship as something vindictive, sowing discord rather than solidarity.

The tight-knit communities that women in lower classes formed, provided a source of strength in a way that they could lean on each other instead of being dependent on the men in their lives. Within these communities, women would cooperate with each other in every aspect of their life. Federici traces the shift in connotation of ‘gossip’, from meaning female friendship to a woman engaging in idle talk. This development occurred simultaneously with the increase of attacks on women, together with witchcraft accusations in the sixteenth century.     

 There is no specific reason to believe that Hval too preaches to the church of Federici, but when taking Hval’s inclination to witch ways into consideration, her new project of building and celebrating companionable relationships, mainly among women, seems to fit right in with her former otherworldly content.

 

“the shift in connotation of ‘gossip’, from meaning female friendship to a woman engaging in idle talk.”

The Practice of Love is a testament to the rituals and occupations of loving and being intimate with others. It is not simply the act of being close to others that is described, Hval is both intimate with the many other artists who have collaborated on this album, but also she herself is intimate with the listener, confiding in them in a very honest way. When read to the backdrop Federici’s historical analysis, a defiant act is identified in this album. The witches have come back to create the communities that were originally broken up. The solidarity from which strength and love could flow is being built back up. Hval’s work is extremely referential, and she seems to almost make it a point to be inspired by female artists.

To this album alone, links are made to Kathy Acker, bell hooks, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joni Mitchell and Jenny Holzer, to name a few. Importantly, she also references the women she works with, like filmmaker Zia Anger and musician Vivian Wang, making them both collaborators and muses to her work.

Silvia Federici provides us with the historical context, Jenny Hval takes this and puts it to practice, so what about us? How can we too be apart of building on a formerly suppressed lineage of potion-brewing and collective functioning magical sisterhood? Well, for one, bringing a hint of the occult into our close relationships. A séance can be as simple or fancy as you want it to be, with a group of three friends, candles, objects representing the four elements, an amulet, and a designated person through whom any spirit can communicate with the rest. As long as you assure the spirit that a loving and supportive community is awaiting them, you should be well on your way.

 

First published November 2019. Volume 15, Issue 1. Album cover of Jenny Hval’s album The Practice of Love, artwork by Esra Røise