This weekend will be the last chance to visit the exhibition “they say she was” at CAS, Ostend. In an old building located in the popular Belgian coastal town, artist Erien Withouck shows us the power of storytelling and oral history. “they say she was” portrays two stories of female characters: one from the Shetland Islands in Scotland and one from Ostend – Selkie and Miete Delanghe –, and each story is approached in a particular way. It is not surprising that the central medium remains photography, as Withouck is schooled in photography. The eye-catcher of the exhibition and also the cover photo, is a large black and white picture of Shedlandic waves. Withouck’s interest in the oral transmission of history is reflected in her use of headphones in the installation. These connect you directly to the voices of eight different women telling the Selkie story in their strong Shetlandic dialect. As you are listening to the varieties of the story of the Selkie Wife, you are also invited to watch a slide show with photographs of Shetland contemporary life. The second mythological character highlighted in Withouck’s exhibition, brings us close to the history of Ostend and its fishery. Miete Delanghe was, according to the fishermen, a witch who cursed them when they refused to give her fish. One of the stories about Delanghe is brought to you through an installation of posters at the gallery and the fishery docks.
Professor Hilde Van Gelder (HVG) and intern Clara Wouters (CW) sat down with artist Erien Withouck (EW) to talk about her interest in oral history, which led to this project.
CW: For this project, you went all the way to the Shetland Islands to discover the oral culture and in particular the myth of the Selkie. How does this project about mythology relate to your artistic interest throughout the years?
EW: My artistic projects always depart from material that I find, which can be either photography or archive documents. For this project about the Selkie story I decided to start from oral history, which is still very much alive on the Shetland Islands. It surprised me to see the amount of stories still travelling around there.
CW: As you are living and working in Belgium, how did you stumble upon this story in the Shetland Islands?
EW: I have travelled to the Islands before and I found it remarkable how isolated the people live there. In the past, this community lived off fishery industry. Men often went out to sea to fish and because this used to be very risky, there were numerous widowed women living on the islands. Women predominantly ran the community, which means that the history of the islands was transmitted through their voices. Focusing on the stories told by them brings out a female presence in history. This in particular is what attracted me to Sheltand in the first place. Also, storytelling is quite common there, more than in Belgium, so there it is not very hard to find stories like this one.
CW: The fact that the story is told by a female artist is also really important. Is this female point of view a common perspective in your artistic research?
EW: Yes. But it stands out the most in this project.
HVG: Your Belgian background together with the coastal theme of your project brings you to this exhibition space in Ostend. Can you explain how you translated the Selkie tradition into the Belgian context? And why did you choose the title “they say she was”? What does it mean?
EW: Maybe it is good to answer your last question first. I initially exhibited the Selkie project in Leuven (Ithaka #28, 2020). I wanted to show the project in Ostend for the obvious coastal link. But for this exhibition in CAS I wanted to add something which also put Ostend history into the picture. It was a bit harder to find vernacular history in Belgium than it was in Shetland. I think this is because the storytelling culture is less alive here. But nevertheless, after some research, I found the many stories of Miete Delanghe who was said to be a witch. As I got more informed about her, I kept in mind how this extra project would take form within the already existing exhibition. This is the point where the title “they say she was” came to me, as it can be applied to both stories. In addition, it includes also a reference to storytelling and oral culture itself and refers to the female perspective. By using the verb “was”, the meaning of the sentence can be purely existential, or one could easily add an adjective. I really wanted to bring Miete Delanghe’s story back to life here in Ostend, and this is why you will discover that the poster is not only hanging inside the exhibition space, but also on the docks of Ostend. The connection between the outside and the inside world is important for this project.
HVG: So the Selkie figure and the Miete Delanghe myth become slightly conflated in the exhibition.
EW: Yes they do. Because I think they have a lot in common. They are both strong and independent figures. The Selkie tale shows a more positive representation of a woman while Miete Delanghe was seen as a poor old witch, which says a lot about how women were presented in the past in these different coastal regions. Through studying these stories, I hope to present another perspective on the history of these two places.
CW: You chose to highlight the oral transmission through adding hanging headphones to the exhibition space. They connect the visitor with Scottish women who each tell the story a little bit differently. Can you tell us more about this?
EW: What interests me in the idea of oral history is that it is not fixed, unlike writing or photography. It is always changing depending on the context. Every teller will insert their own nuance into the stories. Instead of portraying one single version of the story, I asked several women to tell it their way. In this way, the ephemeral character of these tales is emphasized. On another level, I am very interested in the way that oral culture gives a different perspective on history than the more dominant written texts, which are very fixed and dependent on authority.
CW: Written history is nonetheless easier to study, you just have to look them up in a library. But what is the methodology that you use for your research on vernacular, more ephemeral history?
EW: For the Selkie story, I did an open call on the Shetland radio for people who could tell me anything about Selkies. This was one way to get information, but another was simply to get around and drink tea together with the female inhabitants of the island. This way I not only learned a lot about the history of the island but also about the personalities of the people who live there. It was a really nice experience. In Ostend, it was different. Because of the lockdown situation, I wasn’t able to talk to people the way I did in Shetland. But there are resources and databanks for these kind of stories in Belgium, which is how I discovered Miete Delanghe.
HVG: But to get to know everything about Miete Delanghe, people should visit the exhibition of course. And you continue to look around for locals who can add elements to the story from their personal recollection. Is there something like a local radio in Ostend?
EW: There is, indeed. I’m still planning on contacting them. I’m also planning on collecting more of these types of stories. I already found some other interesting women who were said to be witches. This is definitely only the beginning of a much larger project, which will focus more on Belgian characters, starting with tales from Ostend.
CW: In the exhibition, you approach the subject through different media. Primarily there is photography, then you have the audio files with the interviews, and then you add a dictionary for a better understanding of the Shetland dialect. How did you come up with this multidimensional approach?
EW: For me, the photography in the exhibition stands for the present version of what the island looks like today. The voices, on the other hand, are a way to break this temporality and go back to history. So, the combination of the photos and the voices works as a link between the present and the past. Listening to the voices while watching the photographs creates an opportunity to make up your own version of the story. It is a way of speaking beyond the visual element. Similarly, the installation of the posters of Miete Delanghe transport the past stories into a present context.
CW: The aspect of the dialect is also typical for these oral cultures, and this aspect is fading in our modern society. In this sense, it is interesting to bring it back together with the more personal side of history.
EW: Yes, language says a lot about history. For example, the language in Shetland is derived from Scottish, but the island was also colonized by Vikings at one point, which is why they also use some Norse words. So, in this dialect you can already read a lot about the past of the islands.
CW: Entering the exhibition, one big black and white picture directly attracts the attention of the visitor. Why did you choose to bring the focus to this image of the sea?
EW: Firstly, it had a lot to do with the space itself. CAS is located close to the sea and when you enter the space the sea directly looks back at you. The sea is for me a place of reflection, of travelling, it is a departure point but also a resting point. This is the image that comes to my mind when thinking about the stories. I wanted to bring this space of reflection into the exhibition.
CW: For me it also brings out a big contrast between the black and whiteness and the colour in the other pictures.
EW: Well, the colours of the coloured pictures have this coldness, blueness. This reflects the isolation of the island, but it also refers to the elements of wind and sea, which are very present there. I chose to print the big picture of the sea in black and white because it adds this notion of timelessness. Whereas the coloured pictures are not as timeless because they include very contemporary elements.
CW: To me, the black and white print of the sea looked very alive. I had to take a moment or two to realize that there really was no colour in the photograph. Depending on the way I looked, a green or blue shade would appear.
HVG: It is interesting that you say that because my initial impression was the other way around. Looking at the sequence of the pictures on the wall, I had to constantly convince myself that this was colour photography. You see the colours, but there’s something really airy and thin about their atmosphere, as if the colours are about to fade away. That adds tremendously to their enigma. This aspect is probably the most visible in the last picture on the wall, a picture in which you look through a window at the sea. This one is almost a black and white photograph, and it is very nice how exactly that picture makes the transition to the large black and white print. The visual narration builds up very well, and offers a fascinating prelude to the multi-medial installation in the adjacent room.
The exhibition will be open until the 26th of July in CAS. It is open on weekends from 14:00-18:00 at Frans Musinstraat 19, 8400, Ostend. The artist will be present on the 25th and the 26th of July. We hope to see you there!