Postcard: Salem

Allan deSouza

Ahh, the city of peace. Not — I admit — where one first thinks of with that appellation, but Massachusetts’ Salem is, etymologically at least, linked to Madinat al-Salam, the eighth century City of Peace that existed on the site of what is now Baghdad, another city that one doesn’t associate with harmony.


Salem is now happily aka Witch City. Even the nose-wiggling mother of TV witchdom, Bewitched, filmed a number of its episodes here. Its new moniker appears proudly at every corner, emblazoned across T-shirts, even on police badges, uniforms and squad cars all with the cute logo of crone astride broomstick. There’s something goofy about “Protect and Serve” when accompanied by that logo; you expect pointy hats and wands instead of helmets and truncheons. No such luck, but the local PD do take their public relations seriously, offering a virtual online tour of the local cop shop, during which you can “visit” the Front Desk! The Booking Room! The Crime Lab! The Fitness Center (with punching bag)! View a stainless steel toilet in one of thirteen cells (unlucky for some)! The cop shop even has a cop shop, where you can part with your green for some blue paraphernalia.


I learn from the web tour that Salem’s first brush with civil unrest a New England version of the LA riots was when Quakers ran naked in the streets to protest the vanities of Puritan dress. Sounds quaint now, but the locals were barely able to keep a lid on their fear of difference, especially in a town that was a central node in an even-then rapidly globalizing economy.


What might have been long simmering came to a fierce boil with the first accusations of witchcraft. The “medium through which the devil entered the town” was Tituba, an Arawak Indian woman, kidnapped in South America and sold into slavery in Barbados to Samuel Parris of Salem (these geographic meanderings are typical of any story linked to Salem). Tituba supposedly enthralled local girls with her tales of Caribbean voodoo, but it was when Parris’ daughter and niece went into fits following their own attempted divination using an egg white in water in which they saw the specter of a coffin that all hell broke loose. It sounds like a plot Stephen King might have penned for the PBS “reality” series Colonial House, but in this case, the god-fearing folks of Salem interpreted hell all too literally.


And from then on, events took a decidedly surreal turn, but with dire, too-real results. Following court proceedings worthy of the Inquisition, nineteen hangings, one unfortunate crushed by stones and four “deaths in custody,” a euphemism we have become all too familiar with the town was able to return to its semblance of normality.


Current normality means that history might be the stuff of social nightmare, but the way it gets remembered and marketed is definitely more Disney than horror movie. It’s possible to view the town’s history in various recreations, including at the Witch Museum and the Wax Museum. I beat a hasty retreat from the former when a busload of school-kids came cackling in, ransacking the gift store like a plague of locusts. But the waxworks kept me spellbound for a whole afternoon, even though most other punters breezed through in under fifteen minutes. I find the representation or perhaps the need for representation of wretchedness strangely appealing.


On my walks through the town I look for the “The Witch Is In!” signs, thinking that these might lead me to good witch-kitsch, but after a seemingly inexhaustible succession of Witch Houses, Museums, Dungeons, Covens and other black-painted, inter- changeable trash-and-trinket dives, I’m still empty-handed. I was momentarily tempted by some life-size, passably realistic ravens, but they wouldn’t have fitted into my carry- on luggage and negotiating airport security with them perched on my shoulders was probably not a good idea. (Leaving a few days later through Boston’s Logan Airport, I was directed by security to the “short” line. The short line of course takes a really long time, because it’s reserved for those with brown skin. Imagine me trying to explain away the ravens).


Witchcraft is not only for the tourists. Salem has a significant population of practicing witches with their own support groups and  educational resources. There’s WEB (Witches’ Education Bureau); PRANCE (Pagan Resource and Network Council of Educators); and the acronymically-uninspired Witches’ League for Public Awareness,who make up for it with their mission statement to “help witches come out of the broom closet.”

Witches aside, I’m in Salem for the opening of Looking Both Ways: Contemporary Artists From Africa, at the Peabody Essex Museum. The Peabody (pronounced “Pibiddy” by locals), founded in 1799 as the Salem East India Society, is one of the oldest museums in the U.S. Following a major refurbishment by Moshe Safdie, the architect who also designed LA’s Skirball Cultural Center, it re-opened in 2003. Even with miserable weather outside, the new atrium is light-filled and airy, with sleek curves and a sail-like ceiling. Sitting in its ground floor café sipping a cup of Darjeeling, I could almost imagine sitting on the deck of an old tea clipper, ocean breezes ruffling my eighteenth century hair. It’s a happily romantic image, as long as one can forget that Salem was also a slaving port.


The museum reflects its trading origins with significant firsts. It’s the first American museum to collect Asian and Pacific art, including nineteenth century Asian photography and some revealing examples of export art, made specifically for the Western market and often incorporating symbols of American patriotism. They’re like eighteenth century versions of Americana with “Made in China” labels. There’s the Chester and Davida Herwitz collection, the only American museum collection of modernist and contemporary Indian art. There’s a substantial collection of Ethiopian Christian art. An exhibition on Geishas. Edward Curtis. Lantern slides. Ships’ figureheads. An actual, full-scale, two-story Qing dynasty Chinese house. And of course the exhibition of contemporary African art, of which I’m part.


Yawn, yawn and pass the uppers. I can imagine that being the reaction of some X-TRA readers to such diverse collections. I can also imagine that this is precisely the reaction that the museum anticipates and quite clearly attempts to confront: what has all this stuff got to do with us, here, now? After all, it’s not exactly as if Salem’s demographics reflect the museum’s holdings; if Tituba were around now, she’d probably stand out as much as she did then.


It reminds me a little of the British Museum. As a kid growing up in London, I always wondered why it was called the British Museum, when everything inside was, ahem, stolen, from everywhere else. But later I understood that as being precisely the point. You go there to learn about the British, about their history, how they constructed their sense of themselves and about what a mongrel people they really are. It’s the same with the “Pibiddy” and what it means to be American. Walking around the museum and also around the town, East Coast American culture and history — seen through its archi- tecture and objects began to make so much more sense. It was with this in mind that, given a choice between a tour of the Chinese house and the museum’s local architectural holdings, I chose the latter. Beginning with the John Ward House, ca. 1684, and through eighteenth and nine- teenth century mansions, one can trace the burgeoning wealth of the town, and see the tangible influence of trade and slavery in the increasingly sumptuous furnishings and fabrics.


On my last day in Salem, I’m wandering the “Pibiddy” Asian galleries, and there’s a curious ringing in my head. At first I think it’s just fatigue, too much art or maybe too much witchery. But after a while I discern a pattern, a melody even. It’s a siren call. I track its source to the Buddhist sculpture galleries. The sound is emanating, like some ethereal tentacular force, from Mariko Mori’s 1996 video, Miko No Inori (The Shaman Girl’s Prayer). Mori faces the camera, her eyes gleaming metallically, her hands fondling a crystal ball, turning it over and over. It’s a particularly fitting image for Salem, more bewitching than anything I’ve yet seen. But what is it that the Shaman Girl sees? Or is she physically blind, her vision cast only into the spiritual realms? What is past, what is to come? Across from the video monitor is a statue of the Buddha, and the same questions apply. And with those questions, the statue feels as current, as contemporary as Mori’s video.


It’s a risky ploy by the museum to pit such different genres of work. But in this case, despite Mori’s pop-Buddhism (Buddh-lite?), each is enhanced by the presence of the other. Other similar pairings are scattered through the collections, and each time I feel compelled to slow down, take a longer look.


I’m waiting in the lobby of the museum for my car service to the airport and a stretch-limo pulls up. The driver steps out, “Mr. deSouza?”


I wait for the, “I presume?” but I guess we don’t share the same historical references.


“I was expecting a regular car,” I protest.


“The people I have to pick up at the airport after I drop you off want this,” he says, as if I should be grateful for such luxury. I meekly get in, a little embarrassed by all the faces peering to see who this celebrity might be. It’s only me, I want to say, but I have to admit, it’s a fine way to make an exit.


BFN, Allan deSouza

Allan deSouza is a Los Angeles based artist and writer. He is represented by Talwar Gallery in New York.


Further Reading