WITCHfest North 2017: Out of the Broom Closet

By: Luke Elisio

The inaugural celebration of Witch pride in Toronto brought together Witches, Wiccans and Pagans to bring visibility to one of Toronto’s most unknown communities.

In Canada, it used to be illegal to fraudulently pretend to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration. Strangely enough, this law isn't from 1692 as most would expect. It’s from 2017.

This unusually specific law, listed in section 365 of The Criminal Code of Canada, was repealed this past summer, sparking a wildfire of celebration amongst practicing Witches across the country. One of the brightest sparks of celebration was right here in Toronto.

Monica Bodirsky is a practicing Witch and founder of the Dark Moon Coven. She is also the program director and founder of WITCHfest North, a city-wide arts festival that wrapped up its inaugural celebration this past Sunday. The idea behind a festival that celebrated Witch pride grew out of Bodirsky’s desire to breakdown stereotypes and misconceptions that have surrounded Witch culture for decades.

“I thought, ‘let’s just jump onto this,” Bodirsky said. “I will bring a lot of women in the art forward so not only are we going to showcase talent, but let people know that we’re not so horrible and scary and we’ll show our diversity.”

Co-ordinating with the cycles of the moon, WITCHfest North held events throughout October and into early November. These events celebrated women in the arts and created a safe space where the Witches of Toronto could come together and be seen as a visible group. To kick off the celebration, an introductory meet-and-greet was held at Wonderworks, a metaphysical supply store that served as the central hub of the festival. Rochelle Holt, the owner of Wonderworks volunteered the shop’s services based on their long-standing relationship with Bodirsky.

 Wonderworks, located at 25 Baldwin St. (D. Dejene).

Wonderworks, located at 25 Baldwin St. (D. Dejene).

“We’ve known Monica for years and she in the past has taught many courses at Wonderworks on different Pagan practices and has also done Tarot card readings and workshops,” Holt said. “She talked to me a long time ago about this and I fully encouraged her, I loved the idea.”

Other events included oracle and Tarot card readings hosted by the Lucky Divination Parlour, a panel discussion entitled “The Legacy of the Witch,” The Witches Attic Antique Sale, a pop-up shop where crystals, literature and spiritual supplies could be sold, and even a masquerade ball which included a dark art exhibit.

The main draw of the festival however was the WITCHwalk held on Halloween night. A crowd of Witches, some festively sportingpointy hats and broomsticks and others dressed simply in black, gathered outside Wonderworks to begin their march through the city streets. An entirely peaceful outing, the Witches paraded through the city, not to protest or argue, but simply to gain something that their community has been sorely lacking: visibility.

 Stephanie Dayes, representing the Dark Moon Coven on the WITCHwalk (D. Dejene).

Stephanie Dayes, representing the Dark Moon Coven on the WITCHwalk (D. Dejene).

Real-life Witches share zero similarities with the otherworldly beings that have been portrayed in popular film and television series such as The Wizard of Oz, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and American Horror Story: Coven. Green skin, talking cats and the power to raise zombies from the deadare nothing more than imaginative works of fiction. Bodirsky’s personal definition of a Witch is a woman who is empowered and uses traditions of herbalism and energy to heal people and to change their environment for the better. Bodirsky’s made it clear though that women who identify as Witches each have their own definition for the term and her’s is not universal. For each Witch, the meaning and beliefs are different.

“I find one of the core beliefs in Witchcraft, Paganism, Wiccan, etc. is self-empowerment, being very proud of the being that you are, however strange or abnormal, however people perceive you,” said Brett Seivwright, one of the few male Witches attending the WITCHwalk.

Beginning at Wonderworks, a crowd of about 20 Witches set out on the WITCHwalk, their destination was the Toronto Public Labyrinth in Trinity Square Park. Bodirsky, proudly displaying a banner with the festival’s logo, briefly addressed the assemblage of Witches.

 Raquel Ellesmere and Brett Seivwright show off their Witch pride (D. Dejene).

Raquel Ellesmere and Brett Seivwright show off their Witch pride (D. Dejene).

“It’s time we came together as a unified group and come together at least once a year to discuss our points of view as a unified group. Being proud of who we are is vital,” said Bodirsky.

High-pitched cackles and chants of, “we are the weavers, we are the web, we are the witches back from the dead,” filled the air as the proud group marched on, smiling and waving to their curious onlookers.

When the group finally arrived at the Toronto Public Labyrinth, they formed a circle and began the ritual of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season. The ritual is a way to honour their ancestors and those who have become before them whether they know them or not. Offerings of roses for love, sage for cleansing, and mugwort which gives the overall offering a special boost, were among the gifts left for the ancestors during the ritual.

 Monica Bodirsky leads the group of Witches on the WITCHwalk (D. Dejene).

Monica Bodirsky leads the group of Witches on the WITCHwalk (D. Dejene).

“This time of year the veil [between worlds] is very thin and we can actually communicate with them a lot easier so we leave them offerings,” Sharmila Dey, one of the Witches participating in the ritual, said.

Whether it’s food, herbs or, flowers, the offerings left behind are a way of acknowledging and thanking the ancestors letting them know that just because they are gone does not mean they are forgotten.

Dey left offerings for her grandparents and great-grandparents, both of whom she had never met.

“I just let them know that I know they’re still around and if they want to communicate with me through any signs or if they want to come to me in my dreams, that I’m listening and I’m here for them and I thank them for the opportunity to be here today,” Dey said.

The following night the festival concluded with an intimate town hall meeting at Wonderworks where the organizers and participants could discuss the successes and missteps of the event as a whole. The group agreed that the opening and closing ceremonies were highlights, but press coverage was definitely lacking. Bodirsky pledged to not rest until WITCHfest North 2018 ends up on the front page of The Toronto Star.

Keeping the ideals of visibility, diversity and pride are at the heart of preparations for next year’s event, as Bodirsky has already eagerly begun planning the celebration.

“I really want to be creating a physical community and provide education in a respectable space for all of us. It’s why I called this first festival Out of the Broom Closet,” Bodirsky said. “Not only to support young women in the arts but just to start the whole conversation so people get past the word [witch] as a negative thing when actually it is something women are embracing. We’re basically reclaiming the term and showing people something other than green faces and warts.”

Nuit Blanche: One Sleepless Night in Toronto

By Kieona George

From dusk to dawn, Nuit Blanche illuminated Toronto’s streets with the theme of Many Possible Futures. A host of artists and activists amplified their voices through new formats, materials and technology, evoking the untold stories of history and bringing a new face to movements, people and places.

  Social awareness ran thick through the veins of every exhibit; splendor manifested into political consciousness and left every observer with a message and a memory. Monument to the Century of Revolutions reflected on some of the revolutions of the 20th century.

  “It’s important for the city to recognize that the people are suffering, and then to make it a space where people can talk about those things,” said Nato Thompson, curator of Century of Revolutions.

  The Viminal Space dove headfirst into the decriminalization of sex workers, putting a human face on an industry that is so often reviled. More or Less allowed viewers to post a selfie with resistance to poverty from the past as a backdrop, allowing the viewer to become an indelible part of a campaign to increase homeless shelters in Toronto with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

  Thompson talked about his Bolshevist inspirations, with 2017 marking the 100-year anniversary since the revolution in Russia. It took two years for Thompson to create and finalize the idea, and more seven months to produce Century of Revolutions, which was formed in collaboration with the Russian collective “Chto Delat” (in English: “what is to be done?”).

Thompson’s original idea was to to recreate the raid of the Winter Palace by having cast members invade City Hall, but for obvious reasons, the deal was rejected. Thompson decided to present the curations in old cargo shipping containers, painting them as vessels of cultural spirit rather than vessels of material export. His piece inverted perspective, challenged the western archetype of excess and radically engaged our deeply-held notions of poverty.

Century of Revolutions crafted its own city from Thompson’s creative and political vision. The exteriors of the shipping containers were denude of their own significance; many containers of them were masterfully interwoven in mosaics of revolutionary paraphernalia like banners that read “There are cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets through.”

Spoken word recitals, musical performances, and various other resonances filled the ears from every direction. Every sense was encumbered by the extraordinary voice that found its way into each element of the exhibit. “Revolution is already happening," Thompson said. "The real question I ask is how can we connect our struggles so that we can achieve social justice not only in Toronto but across the world." Another artist delivered a moving spoken word performance about gun violence and her family’s experiences. Faduma Mohamed, a third-year English student at the University of Toronto, merged her personal struggles with gun violence to a hopeful future at RISE Edutainment’s installation.

“The voices of anyone feeling like they don’t belong in Canada are the most important voices,” she said. Despite her harrowing stories, Mohamed emitted an tone of acceptance and hope, her spirit permeated in those who heard her." “This world has multiple ways of making us feel small, but we don’t need to feel small,” Mohamed said. “We are larger than life.”

In keeping with the theme of social revolution, the exhibit Taking to the Streets expressed the intersection of art and protest, and how art imitating life allows people to promote tangible change.

  Curator Barbara Fischer said in her curatorial statement that the streets are the primordial for celebration and remembrance, making Nuit Blanche a fitting opportunity to highlight social justice.

  “When there is no justice, the street becomes the place where we rally and throw our voice together in a show of force,” Fischer said. “Festival and protest meet in the street, and art is associated with both, remembering by way of images, words, whispered histories, or monuments, the points where anger and power clash.”

  The exhibit included eight different projects. Holding Still/Holding Together, created by Annie MacDonell, was a performance that brought emphasis to the passivity of street protestors who offer little resistance when being subverted by police.

Horses was another one of Fischer’s installations, which featured a live group of horses, believe it or not. It took stock of the agitation that marks its own existence. It could be an homage to the understanding that strange times demand strange art, or it is situating the embodiments of visceral strength, power and wisdom in a place where these qualities are ironically lacking.

  Indigenous representation at the event was showcased in Life on Neebahgeezis, curated by Maria Hupfield. It was an Anishinaabe interpretation of David Bowie’s song Life on Mars, using the surreal qualities of the night to make Native stories present and urgent. One of the projects, Serpent People, included a series of theatrical performances as well as sculptures to showcase Indigenous identity. According to the Nuit Blanche website, the project was constructed from “Anishinaabe Intelligence” and fashioned from the stories of The Black Sturgeon from Nippissing First Nation.

  Participants from outside of Toronto may have been intrigued by the idea of an all-night event.

“If we have a night market where we’re from, it’s until 8 p.m.,” said first-year hospitality student Maya Donald-Hamblin who comes from Victoria, B.C.

The idea of staying out into the wee hours of the morning may offer a radical idea in on its own. Others weren’t aware of the purpose of the event entirely. Taye Robin, 18, thought that Nuit Blanche was an outdoor party, akin to a music festival or concert. His friend Devon Earle, 18, had previously been to Nuit Blanche and wanted him to discover it on his own. He said that the French name of the event draws people in with curiosity, and so it is something people have to plunge into without expectation.

  The Netflix program Stranger Things had its own installation on Osgoode Lane called Red Forest. Due to the show’s popularity, waiting in the line for the exhibit would be a time-consuming and tedious task. In fact, some people spent most of their night simply waiting in the admission line.

  Runnymede Collegiate student Shae Hayes said that she waited with her friends for two hours to walk through the show’s “Upside Down” imitation. The Upside Down is the fictitious alternate dimension in Stranger Things, filled with terrifying and alien creatures. At the end of the installation, there was a “plot twist” as the forest changed into the Twilight Drive-In from Netflix hit Riverdale. As a fan of the show, Hayes rated the exhibit highly.

  Torontonian Julian Gannon said Nuit Blanche shows the city in a different context to those who attend. Nuit Blanche undoubtedly spoke to a carefully curated mix of hip and heart, without for a second sacrificing the enduring cultural identity of Toronto.

  At its core, speaking truth seems to be what Nuit Blanche is about. Through the endless variety of art in all its forms — whether that is sculpture, paintings, projections, spoken word, or any other mode in the imagination — artists demand for their voices to be heard. The beauty of the night spoke to reflections and prospects for the future.

  “I think that when people come here, they end up learning what they wouldn’t learn otherwise,” said first-year dance student Katia Puritch. “They come for the art, and the art has a message.”