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Pagan Poetry – autumn/winter 2019 8
From left Monique wears micro mesh top with FF Karligraphy and organza pleated skirt Fendi, earrings and belts her own. Ayesha wears mesh dress Vivienne Westwood, t-shirt Tiffany Chan, necklace Loretta Cole DupratPhotography Caleb Stein, Styling Victoire Simonney

Self-defence & sex magic: practioners with modern takes on ancient rituals

We meet the alternative thinkers mixing art, alchemy, and obscure philosophies

Taken from the autumn/winter 2019 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here

With an irreversible climate crisis looming and the age of anxiety already here, there’s never been a more pressing time to reconsider our relationship to the natural world and its rituals. Shot by Caleb Stein, one of 20 young artists selected for Red Hook LabsNew Artists III 2019 programme and exhibition, these individuals all apply the timeless practices of spirituality, alternative thinking, and nature-inspired celebrations in their work and life – whether through herbalism, holistic self-defence inspired by ancient martial arts, or simply every day observance. As performer Cassidy ‘Gomorrah’ Greaves says, the “most basic of things are all rituals in their own way”. 


The Shadow Sistxrs Fight Club is a “physical and metaphysical” self-defence class for women, non-binary, and QTIPOC (queer, trans, and intersex people of colour) witches. In an age of mounting discrimination and violence against minorities, the class equips those most at risk with practical survival skills. The Sistxrs aren’t the only group building a community from the fringes: across the UK, young people are harnessing mystical mindedness, pagan practices, and obscure philosophies to preserve the mind, body, and spirit. “We combine jujitsu, karate, movement medicine, meditation, herbalism, and craft,” says Ayesha Tan-Jones, who started the class in 2016 with Monique Etienne, after becoming alarmed by increasing attacks on people within their wider community. “Received wisdom would have us believe that martial arts is the preserve of violent and macho cis men,” claims Etienne, a martial arts practitioner from a Tibetan Buddhist background. “Not so: self-defence has traditionally been about protecting yourself and your loved ones. We are reclaiming that. There’s a lot of emotion at Shadow Sistxrs,” she says. “A lot of laughing, tears of joy, and relief. We have done workshops from London to Los Angeles. We plan on taking SSFC around the world, building a global community of warrior witches!”


Cassidy ‘Gomorrah’ Greaves, a performer, DJ, drag artist, and trans activist of Irish descent, proudly identifies as pagan. “For me, anything that isn’t in line with an Abrahamic religion is pagan, and I’d say I’m neck-deep in that camp,” explains Greaves, who says that ritual is an important part of our everyday lives.

“Making a cup of tea is a ritual; rolling a splif is ritual; showering; getting dressed – the most basic of things are all rituals in their own way.” A member of the Radical Faeries of Albion – the UK chapter of a global, non-hierarchical collective with its roots in the LGBTQ+ counterculture of the 1970s – the artist admits that defining what exactly the Faeries are is tricky. “There’s a saying: ‘Ask one hundred Faeries what the Faeries are, and you will get one hundred different answers.’ Everyone gets something different out of it.” To some, it’s a place to meet with fellow “spiritually inclined” queers, but for Greaves it’s very much about connection. “I don’t have the best relationship with my biological family, but being a part of the Faeries has allowed me to form bonds that are just as, if not more, sacred.”


“I believe in energies and interconnectivity, but I don’t ascribe myself to any specific spiritual label,” explains AntojO Otero, a member of the Radical Faeries. “Roles in the Radical Faerie community are very fluid. I’ve had many.” Otero’s primary calling is that of a storyteller, working across various media such as writing, singing, acting, and performing. “I’m part of a (performance) collective called TheMany. For the last few years, we have worked on a (piece) that I’ve written called Queer Faith & The Many. It’s a tribute to the planets of love, queerness, and neurodiversity.” Alongside storytelling, Otero’s practice involves healing others through touch, and taking part in ‘heart circles’, a popular practice among Radical Faerie communities. “This is where a group forms a confidential circle and each member is invited to share from their heart. The ritual involves simple, specific rules: no comments, no interrupting, no judgment. I’ve discovered depths of connection through these circles, connections that happen with surprising speed. Magic.”


“I find spirituality so personal, individual, fluid. I struggle sometimes to follow the constant quest for (spiritual) self-identification,” says Livia Rita, a London-based singer, visual artist, and choreographer. Rita, who is part of an art collective known as the Avantgardeners, was raised in the Alps, and describes nature as central to her craft. “I consider myself not just connected to nature, but to embody it.” At her shows – dramatic, bold, heavily choreographed – she is accompanied by a “gang of witches”, an international network of dancers and collaborators. She describes her debut album – a synth-pop opus due this autumn – as “a totally immersive, multidimensional fantasy”, replete with an accompanying zine that showcases the sustainable fashion collection-slash-merchandise she has created to accompany the launch. The pieces are sculptural, evoking otherworldly, fairy-like insects and microbiological organisms. “My aim is to overwhelm people’s senses. I want to convey urgency in these times of environmental crisis and political unrest. My art and music promote social and political activism, a refusal to surrender to what we have been given, and instead reach for utopias and forge speculative new worlds through radical togetherness.”


“My ancestors guided me to what I do now,” says Grace ‘the Community Witch’ Gottardello, a London-based holistic life coach and mindfulness facilitator. Gottardello is an Aborisha, a devoted follower of the Orishas of the Afro-Cuban religion of Lucumí. As a coach, she stewards individuals through “a rediscovery of identity, mind, body, and spirit outside of the white gaze”. Her toolkit includes tarot, herbs, meditation, and a “network of spirit workers”. Would-be clients can find her at Pxssy Palace and Misery Party events, and from late autumn she will be offering tarot and astrology services at a space in Dalston. There is no average session, she says, each experience is individual and needs to be treated as such. “People tend to engage with holistic coaches because they feel judged or disenfranchised by mainstream counselling and support groups.” Gottardello chooses to work primarily with people of colour and LGBTQ+ folk because, as a biracial queer woman, this is her community. “And as a community, we are constantly under threat. We are isolated, and, in the medical therapeutic system, we lack mentorship, representation, and support.”


Painter and sculptor Orfeo Tagiuri’s works are bright, bold, playful, and deep, exploring mysticism, spirituality, walking, and the woods. “I was partially raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he explains, “not far from where Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau lived and worked. They both celebrated a philosophy of self-education through a close observation of nature.” While so much art languishes in airless galleries, Tagiuri likes to liberate his pieces, photographing them outside, under open skies. His recent works include paintings, illustrations, and a collaboration with photographer Frank Lebon, who the artist teamed up with on the music video for James Blake’s burnished pop single, “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow”. He’s also been at work on the Wish Cards, a series of simple, card-backed invitations that contain a single match, a striking strip, and a miniature candle. “The idea is for people to light and blow out the candle as they would on a birthday cake. How lovely would it be if everybody who was gifted one of these cards made a wish! The collective push of positive intentions would be there whether or not you believe in the magic.”


London-based community organiser and activist Tom-Diana Koukoulis facilitates spaces where queer people can feel seen and nurtured, a calling that began with their own journey towards sexual and spiritual healing. “I wanted to manage my chronic illness (Koukoulis has thalassaemia, a condition affecting haemoglobin levels in the blood) better, and achieve a better quality of life. And in that process of exploration, I learned a lot. I want to share that knowledge with – and be of service to – my community.” Koukoulis does this work via Quintasensual, a safe, inclusive, ‘conscious sexuality’ festival in Somerset, founded in 2013. At Quintasensual, where “spirituality and sexuality are intertwined”, programmes can include anything from workshops on tantra, kink, and consent to rituals involving sacred touch and sex magic. Koukoulis is also active with the Radical Faeries, a community very much in kinship with the festival’s values. “I see the Faeries as aiming to define our own queer spirituality, since non-queer spirituality doesn’t always include us, and is often hostile to us. We aim to heal ourselves and our community from the damage that patriarchy, capitalism, and toxic masculinity do to us.”


What can herbalism offer us in 2019, as the threat of a sixth – yes, sixth – mass extinction looms? Plenty, says photographer, witch, and herbalist Nicolette Clara Iles. “With a collapsing climate, we need to know what’s around us. Knowing this helps us to appreciate it – something that many of us have forgotten to do.” Iles has taken an active interest in the occult since their late teens, but could see magic in the natural world as a child. At present, their herbalism practice is private rather than transactional, built on locally foraged herbs and plenty of study. “In some ways, you never stop learning. It’s a practice with no end destination. I’ve learned a lot from my friend Christina (Oakley-Harrington, founder of London bookshop Treadwell’s), and also my fellow witches. The rest is self-researched, self-explored synchronicity.” Iles sees little distinction between photography, herbalism, and craft. “Almost entirely, one exists with the other. Photography is like a magical act in itself, creating something out of nothing – a type of alchemy, even.”


Sonalle LaMariposa is a London-based psychotherapist, coach, and counsellor. She identifies as pagan, and uses a variety of tools and skill-sets to inform and enrich her work. These range from meditation, tantra, and shamanism to sound, movement, and therapeutic photography – the latter a practice in which her clients can explore the self in relation to the body. “All of my workshops and sessions involve ritual of some kind,” she explains. “My work encompasses the cognitive, behavioural, and interpersonal, while harnessing the power of the imagination to deal with mental and emotional distress in the here and now.” Through her work, LaMariposa guides clients through issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, and trauma. She specialises in issues relating to gender, sexuality, and relationships, bringing lived experience to her role. “I have an embodied understanding of the intricacies of polyamory, power dynamics, roleplay, and spirituality. These aspects are all implicit (in my work).” 

Caleb Stein is one of the 25 selected artists who feature as part of Red Hook Labs New Artists III 2019 programme and exhibition

Hair Federico Ghezzi at Saint Luke using Bumble and bumble., braids Sam David at Nuff Naturals, make-up Bea Sweet at JAQ Management using Marc Jacobs Beauty, photographic assistant Andrea Orejarena, styling assistants Isabel de Carteret, Danny Pringgo, make-up assistant Gareth Harris