Cannibal and Witch Eat the Rich

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This exhibition of paintings and printed textiles made using earths and plant dyes, follows the colonial histories and stories of resistance belonging to these materials. It took place at Celsius Projects, Malmö, in 2021. It was part of the final exam for my PhD research project “The Peasant Paints: expanding painting decolonially through planting and pigment-making” undertaken at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

More information about the practice-based research can be found at
My thesis can be downloaded ︎︎︎here 
Printed calicos from India using plant dyes and mordants on cotton fabric were a particularly popular commodity in Europe from the 17th century, until many countries introduced import bans to support local industries during the 18th century. These European calico printers appropriated the Indian techniques, and used plant dyes from around the globe such as indigo from grown with enslaved labour in the Americas, and later India, under the plantation system; and brazilwood and logwood from the rainforests of Central and South America. These patterned calicos formed an integral part of Swedish regional costumes in the form of headscarves, aprons, and linings for bodices – thereby demonstrating that the figure of the peasant that has been used to construct ideas of nationhood in Scandinavia, was in fact implicated in global colonial forces.

Western colonialism and capitalism with its extractive approach to plants as ‘natural resources’ served to suppress alternative ways of relating with plant-beings both within Europe and outside Europe. As Silvia Federici has argued in her book Caliban and the Witch, the Great Witch Hunts, in particular, were a counter-revolutionary tool that served to supress radical movements from the peasant class, and appropriate women’s reproductive capacities by silencing their medicinal knowledge of plants. This tactic was then exported to the Americas to suppress indigenous knowledge through accusations of satanism and idolatry. The works in this exhibition use plant pigments and dyes that have particularly resonant stories, such as Mayan blue – a sacred pre-Colombian indigenous pigment made from indigo and attapulgite clay that ceased to be made during the oppression of the colonial period and has only recently been ‘re-discovered’ – and brazilwood, a tree which produces a red dye, and which gave the country of Brazil its name.

The birth of the brazilwood trade in the 16th century is a devastating example of bioprospecting which exploited the Tupi Amerindians, who were depicted as savage cannibals by Europeans and decimated the brazilwood trees leaving it endangered to this day. Meanwhile, in Europe brazilwood was very much implicated in the disciplining of a new proletariat. The displacement of peasants in the wake of agrarian capitalism meant that many moved to urban centres and became beggars and vagrants.  In response, the authorities in Amsterdam, set up a new form of prison that used forced labour to discipline and reform these vagrants of rural origin. In 1596 the Rasp- and Spinn- huis was established, and functioned until 1815. Here, male inmates were set to work rasping brazilwood for the dye and pigment industry, while women were forced to spin and weave textiles. This model was eventually copied elsewhere in Europe, with rasp- and spinn- hus being set up in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Norrköping during the eighteenth century.

This exhibition imagined an alternative history with an alliance between the cannibal and the witch to eat the rich.

© Sigrid Holmwood