Months ago, I ran an idea by curator/artist Katya Grokhovsky, describing the costume I wanted to make for an upcoming exhibition and festival. Art In Odd Places takes place every year on the streets of New York City. The festival pulls art out of the gallery, into the public realm – to interact with those who might not normally be exposed. It is the brain-child of Ed Woodham and has enlivened 14th street since 1996.
Katya said, “Yessssss. Make it!!!” A classmate from grad school, Kathy Halfin and I then collaborated on a performance and accompanying sculptures for the exhibition.
The idea was for the two of us to respond to the current political climate, bursting with the histrionics and chest pounding of power-mongering men, whose disrespect for and desire to control the female body has flooded news and media for the last year. The #metoo campaign exposed the near-universal experience of sexual assault and harassment of women. Our president continues to illustrate a systemic lack of accountability and the ease with which blame can be flipped onto survivors. Kavanaugh perpetuated the notion that if you’re a white man, efforts to uncover truth can and will be thwarted by a brethren of con artists and thieves - who also fear the spotlight of inquiry.
Since both my collaborator and I had been sexually assaulted, we wanted to expose the public to the trauma it causes, bringing its effects out of silent hiding places, onto the streets of New York City, while creating an opportunity for us and others to heal.
I based my performance on becoming the Irish Creator-Goddess Cailleach - a symbolic reclaiming of my divinity. It is thought that the statuary and relief carvings of the Sheela na gig, found over doorways of 14th century churches and castles in Ireland, represent this Goddess. Sheela na gig is a fear-evoking, grimacing, old woman, holding open an enlarged vulva. The Sheelas are thought to be an homage to pagan traditions that revered the feminine divine, the earth mother and the unique ability to create and sustain life. The vulva also represented the flow of life between planes of reality - pre-birth, life on earth, post-death. Hence the placement over a doorway.
My costume became a hybrid of the Tree Goddess and Cailleach, drawing on my connection to the Irish landscape, the sacred Oak groves of Celtic Druids and 3 years of training as an Herbalist, wherein I developed a keen reverence for plants.
Kathy’s costume pulled from the Hindu Goddess Kali. A powerful goddess of death, time and doomsday, Kali is associated with sexuality, violence and the creator/mother.
Our performance started in the gallery, where we stepped backward in our minds to the moment of our assault, remembering the fear and confusion that accompanied it. We vocalized our thoughts around this pivotal moment and moved physically through those memories. When done, we covered our palm with green paint and placed it over our mouths, marking ourselves.
We moved to the street outside of the gallery. Kathy chanted a rhyme in Russian, (the language of her childhood), meant to frighten children. Placing our hands back over our mouths, we screamed in silence.
Keening and ululating, we moved in procession down the street, away from the gallery, mourning the death of innocence and lack of reparation.
As we approached a grove of Oak trees on the corner of 8th Ave and Jane Street, our cries transformed into a rumbling anger. Reaching the grove, we wiped our faces and bodies with the scent of sage, lifted from the plants growing beneath the trees, cleansing. Speaking loudly while Kathy echoed my words, I recalled a waking dream, where I traveled down through the center of the earth, across a body of water, into a forest, down a long path where I came upon a giant tree in a clearing. I walked into the tree and found my ancestors. They turned to greet me saying, “We have been waiting for you.”
Oak groves represent a sacred place of transformation for the Irish and Oak leaves resemble hands. In this ceremony, hands were converted from something traumatic to hands that held and supported us. We remembered and embodied our Divinity, buoyed by our ancestors.
Then our anger was unleashed. Like the Wild Woman or Irish myth, we released our unbridled rage, daring people to “grab” us, chanting “Beware the wrath of a woman scorned.” and “I am a maaaad woman.” We jumped off of fences, tree surrounds, hung from scaffolding. Then, like bears, we pawed our anger into trees that lined 14th street. Bands of young men somehow found and taunted us. They were rebuked by our power. Staring them in the eye sent them running.
Anger is difficult to sustain and after the trees, we tired. Feeling release, we transitioned into a place of calm energy, walking in this energy for another block, humming and singing lightly. Coming to the Salvation Army building, we turned our backs on our audience, in defiance. We waited in silence before reciting the inscription written in large letters on the wall inside the gate. It is the voice of a General who stated his intent to continue to fight for those who suffer. We created new meaning, in feminam vocem.
Arriving at the intersection of 6th Avenue, we lit Mugwort smudge sticks. Smudging uses the smoke of sacred plants to lift negativity and trauma out of the body and the spaces around it. Mugwort is also used in dream work and is very calming. We continued our healing by smudging ourselves. Inviting others to participate, we smudged them as well.
After crossing 14th Street, we headed west, towards the Hudson River. Standing in front of the YMCA, we cleansed and smudged more who chose to participate and then continued walking slowly.
Our next stop was a dance of reverie. This symbolized our contentment, free from anger, fear and suppression. We stopped in front of a pre-arranged building and danced beneath the tree that grew in front of it. Kathy had decided to add ritualized mud-cleansing to this part of the ceremony, referencing a lake near her childhood home where locals and visitors retreated to heal with mud baths and body-wraps. She pulled a small bag of moistened soil out of her costume and washed her face with it. This removed the green hand print that had been placed over her mouth at the beginning of the ceremony. It also left a bit of dirt on the sidewalk.
During our dance, the doorman of the building, (whom we had spoken with a few days earlier, telling him about our upcoming performance in front of the building), came running out saying, “Ladies, you can’t do that here!!! Ladies!!” Engrossed in our ceremony and not wishing to engage with negativity, we ignored him, finished our dance and proceeded slowly down the sidewalk, singing and smudging as we went.
50 yards or so from the building, a police car came to a screeching halt next to us. A police man and woman exited the vehicle, walked in front of us to stand on either side of us. They looked angry. The woman was putting on black gloves.
Surprised, I asked, “Are you here for us???” And the man replied, “Yes, someone complained that you left a mess in front of the building back there.” I told the policeman that we were part of Art In Odd Places, an art festival, doing a performance on the street. The police woman told me to put out my smudge stick. I did and then explained that my collaborator had rubbed some mud on her face and some of it must have spilled on the sidewalk. He told us not to do it again. We agreed and walked on. They returned to their car, turned around and drove off.
A few minutes later, they were back, yelling out the window that we needed to go back and clean up the dirt. We told them that we were in the middle of a healing ceremony and promised to go back when we finished. The police woman told us we had to, “GO BACK NOW!!!”
As they stood watch...we used our feet to kick the dirt into the area around the tree. Then the doorman came out with a broom. I took the broom and looked him straight in the eye, no expression on my face. He ran back into the building. I asked Kathy to hold my smudge stick and said ironically, in a calm voice, “I want to make sure I get every last bit of dirt.” Sweeping widely around in front of the building. “Because, you know, New York is so clean. Especially, this part of the city, where there’s no trash, no homeless people, no cars. It’s important that no dirt is left on the sidewalk.”
At that point, the Policeman said “I think that’s good enough.” I walked back to the door of the building, handed the broom to the doorman, told him to have a nice day and walked off, never looking at the police. This building exists on a filthy, tourist filled, car packed, loud, smelly street in downtown Manhattan. The doorman had told us a few hundred square feet could be purchased for $1.5Mil - $7Mil.
In front of this building, a man was ignored.
So, he called the police.
And they came.
Later, while reviewing the documentation of our performance, I saw that the policeman had his hand on his taser when he stopped in front of us. The policewoman had attached a can of pepper spray to the front of her belt. That is why she was putting on gloves.
I can only imagine what the doorman said about us that incited the police and put us in danger of being assaulted again … this time by police.
We finished in 14th Street Park, a green oasis nestled between 11th and 10th Avenue, where we performed a limpia ceremony. Using fresh Mugwort and Fever Few, we swept our bodies of any remaining negativity and pain. Visitors to the park told us how beautiful this part of the ceremony was.
We repeated the performance the next day, taking another route.
In the week since the performances, I have felt lighter. I found myself responding differently to challenges. Instead of my hackles going up, jaw clamping tight and voice quivering when speaking, my mind went to peaceful solutions, body calm. I hadn't been aware of how much anger lived right below the surface. This year has been trying, to say the least. There was something about crying, wailing and yelling angrily in public - releasing emotions into the universe - that healed me.
A few days after the performance I was sent the images from the interaction with the police. I felt vulnerable and angry again. But it did not last.
trained to hear angry men
signaled by a whistle