A Saintly Curse Continued: The Legacy of What is Seen and Unseen
My project proposal for the Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen Fellowship is a continuation and extension of research, documentation, development and production for an ongoing project focusing on the Catholic St. Wilgefortis. Wilgefortis was either a Pagan noblewoman or the Princess of Portugal (her origins are disputed), who was promised to a suitor by her father. She did not wish to be wed to this man, and the night before her wedding, she prayed to God to make herself repulsive to the betrothed. When she awoke, she found she had grown a beard. The suitor called off the wedding, and her father, enraged, had Wilgefortis crucified.
St. Wilgefortis came to be the patron saint of relief from tribulations. Historically, she has been venerated by those who wish to be disencumbered, in particular by women who wish to be liberated from abusive husbands or domestic situations, as well as by survivors of sexual assault, rape, and incest. She has also been historically worshipped by those bound or restricted and thus by prisoners and others in captivity. In various regions and time periods she has been known by other names, such as St. Kümmernis (Germany, Austria), St. Uncumber (England), and St. Liberata (Italy).
St. Wilgefortis was struck from the Catholic calendar in 1969 during a liturgical purge. She was also considered by many in the church to be a denigration of Christ – a non-binary body that resembled Christ and negatively affected his representation by association with queerness. By striking her from the calendar, it reads to me as an erasure of a history of gendered violence. If that to which you pray for liberation is rendered fake, then the reality/history of the violence is as well.
My personal connection to this saint is rooted in a hormonal syndrome I have, Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Nicknamed the “thief of womanhood” in the medical world, the primary symptoms of PCOS are those that tend to “masculinize” the female body. In this sense, male patterned hair growth is a prominent symptom and one that I have. I would be a “bearded lady” if I were not to maintain a certain routine. In that way, I and many other PCOS bodies find one kindred to this saint.
For many years, I conducted self-documentation, as well as interviews and photographs of other people with PCOS, all in conjunction with ongoing research about the syndrome, the medical-industrial complex and queer histories of gender variant representations. The culmination of this work, as well as my time traveling, was an essay that was published in eFlux journal during March of 2020, A Saintly Curse: On Gender, Sainthood and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Since publishing this piece, I have been wanting to dig deeper and wider into how to talk about contemporary realities and understandings of gender, queerness and a history of violence and suppression.
In the context of the Büchsenhausen Fellowship, I will spend more time in the Tyrolean region to further my research on St. Wilgefortis, as well as the community that exists on the land that was historically a pilgrimage site and worshiping place of her. These quiet queer histories that exist throughout the world also live in the present day. As a photographer*, writer* and video artist*, it feels possible to take this history, the contemporary landscape of this history, and continue to find those that relate to it and embody it. I firmly believe that history is not only the past but the present and the unseen future. Therefore, I will focus on a body of work that accounts for local and global records of queerness, resilience and survival, while also taking into account the different identifiers that affect this experience.
In that, I also have spent time talking about how these violent histories replicate themselves to this day. The time in Innsbruck will allow a deeper investigation into the history that has transpired there over time. Whether it be the fascism of the Nazi party, and what is left of it today, or the societal expectations around gender based in Christianity, it all adds to understanding how iconography and history are embedded and continue to thrive, privately and publicly.
Text: Sam Richardson
Sam Richardson is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in photography, as well as video, sound and writing. They are based in Los Angeles, CA. As an image-maker working in a documentary-informed practice, Richardson strives to unlearn, break open and find new ways of creating images that interrogate collaboration and photographic relationships in the context of the body, trauma and care. She utilizes her experience as a Crisis Counselor to survivors in New York and Los Angeles, abolitionism and personal history to enter their work with a practice of care and investigation into personal and shared experience.
They graduated from the Photography Department at the UCLA MFA program in 2020 where she TA-ed and supported professors in several art studio courses in the Art Department, as well as TA-ed in the Arts Education Department. They are dedicated to creating the most expansive and inclusive form of arts education from theory to practice. During winter 2020-21 she was Artist and Instructor in Residence at Urbano Project in Boston. Currently, they are the Director of Communications and a Teaching Artist at Creative Acts. In Fall 2021 they teach a Foundations course at California Institute for the Arts and a photography course with Las Fotos Project.