Poring over seventy or so books that I checked out from the library this last month, I came across many examples of magical notation hidden in folk art pieces from my European cultures of origin (Scandinavian, Slavic and Celtic). The hypothesis that I’m operating on is that pre-christian pagan symbolism has been cleverly folded into more recent versions of traditional crafts that exist currently in much diluted form. There are whole industries predicated on the production of faux-heritage kitsch, but what if we’re missing the fact that all of the symbolism being re-hashed in popular culture originates in the pictographic languages of a few root cultures going back to the Neolithic age, when these glyphs would have been applied with much greater labor and purpose.
These findings were exactly what I was hoping to find, albeit that the accompanying text in many cases did NOT validate my theory. That the adjacent narrative didn’t corroborate a direct line to pagan predecessors was no surprise, however, as the truth has been so thoroughly buried over the course of a millennium. There is enough agreement among anthropologists like Marija Gimbutas and practitioners of art forms like Polish Pisanka Eggs in acknowledging the magical origins of European folk arts to extrapolate that the same would be true in other corners of the continent. Nordic runes have been found inscribed into furniture and built into the structure of homes. Russian ethnic costumes use embroidered ribbons as protective agents against malevolent forces. The evidence of folk-magic is everywhere if you look carefully.
So, now that I have all of this proof in hand, all these raw ideas to work from, I go on to produce the series of paintings included in this post. Fantastic, I’m ready for the opening! But then a gnawing thought begins to grow out of another line of inquiry that I’ve been investigating, one around cultural appropriation and issues of social justice. I become really concerned about these pieces (although I’ve cited their sources as every good folk artist should) being construed as cultural appropriation due to the gaping chasm that exists between how my life is lived in the present and how far removed these antiquated pieces of culture are from my reality. I end up initiating multiple conversations the night of the opening with white women who fall on either side of that argument, and so my conclusion is ‘yes, and also yes’.
Yes, as a white American my European cultural heritage has been greatly depleted. I don’t have the same formative experiences as my distant relations overseas, as the continuity of my line has been broken through generational traumas. No, I cannot say that I have been handed down precisely these cultural pieces directly from an elder that lends credibility to my usage of them. As an American, I am borrowing them from another land and can’t say that they are truly mine to use as I like.
But also Yes to the fact that I didn’t come from nowhere, that culture is a system of values, beliefs and symbols that exist below the surface as well as above, and that I couldn’t NOT be Irish/Croatian/Scandinavian if I wished it. Traditions within my family around language, food, craft, spirituality and the relationship to nature have all been material to the formation of my worldview. In addition, whichever side of the argument we align with, that white Americans have no culture anymore is a problem to be remedied, not a terminal diagnosis.
Reclaiming heritage helps us reconnect to ancestral ways of honoring the land – which we need to catalyze if we’re going to survive into the next century. Restoring cultural identity is at the core of personal anti-oppression work, as it allows us to see ourselves again as Europeans of varying origins instead of as a construct of Whiteness. We respect other cultures more deeply when we understand our own and we recognize the trauma of racial oppression more effectively when we can identify where there has been trauma in our own cultural roots. In conclusion, I feel that we are STARVING for this kind of healing, and that the benefits of exploring this path far outweigh the risks of overstepping in the use of creative license.