The Legacy of ST. WILGEFORTIS photographed – in Conversation with SAM RICHARDSON

Sam Richardson is one of four researchers/artists taking part in this year’s Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen Fellowship-Program. Her project After Kümmernis is currently exhibited at Neue Galerie Innsbruck (also part of the exhibition are projects by Olga Ştefan, Rosalyn D’Mello & Suzana Milevska – find all interviews in our blog). The exhibition titled CORPOREALITY REPAIR CONCILIATION – Investigating Ways Into a Better Coexistence is open for visitors until July 16th, 2022.

Self-Portrait below Kümmerniskreuz statue from the 12th century, Church of Rankweil, Austria, 2019 | photo: Sam Richardson

Sam is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in photography and is based in Los Angeles. They graduated from the Photography Department at the UCLA MFA program in 2020 and worked as a Crisis Counselor in New York and Los Angeles. A few years back a research project around the legend of St. Wilgefortis (German: St. Kümmernis) led her to Innsbruck for the first time because she found out that the dethroned saint used to meet particular popularity in Tyrol and Bavaria.

St. Wilgefortis is a  Catholic saint whose legend originated in the late Middle Ages. Originally either a pagan noblewoman or the princess of Portugal (her origins are disputed), St. Wilgefortis was promised to a suitor by her father. The suitor’s identity is also disputed. Some accounts identify him as a non-Christian and say that Wilgefortis wished to keep her Christian body pure. Either way, she did not wish to wed this man, and the night before her wedding she prayed to God to make her repulsive to the suitor. When she awoke she found that 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 worshiped by those who are bound or restricted, and thus by prisoners and others in captivity.

In an interview Sam talks about researching St. Wilgefortis and her legacy in Innsbruck. She also shares insights into her artistic process, her unique approach to photography and how activism informs her art.

St. Kümmernis, Axams, Austria, 2019 | photo: Sam Richardson

Did you grow up in an artistic environment?

I wouldn’t say I grew up in a specifically studio-based artistic environment. Both my parents were journalists, so I grew up with three TV’s on simultaneously broadcasting different news stations and tons of newspapers. My dad had done a little bit of photojournalism when he was younger, and he really liked photography. So my first camera was my dad’s old 35-millimeter camera from the 70s. I think I was 13. Art was always welcomed in my home, though perhaps not actively practiced. But growing up around fast paced journalism has definitely impacted my own art practice and relationship to images very deeply. 

I joke that I just always wanted to be an artist but I kind of sucked at painting and drawing. When there was a photography class offered at my school I thought: “Oh well, I could take photographs. That’s how I’ll be an artist.”

What were the first photographs you took?

I photographed my mom a lot. I still do. Once I started doing portraits that’s when I really started getting into it. I was fortunate to have a dark room at my high school, so I spent my free periods there. I set up these weird shoots with my friends but also, I just took my camera everywhere and took pictures of whatever we were doing. It was a mix of teenage silliness and suburban life. I sometimes forget how many photographs I took back then. I didn’t have a digital camera and so I would make small prints of everything. When I go back to my parents’ house, I find these stacks of little black and white prints and they tell the complete story of my teen years.

If you look at the images today, were there certain themes that emerged even then?

It’s really corny and people say it all the time, but photography has always been my way to connect with people. It is so immediate.

Although I’ve changed the way I approach photography a lot by now, I think it was always important to me not to photograph people who don’t want to be photographed. When people aren’t comfortable it’s not enjoyable for them and neither is it for me. And I think I can tell from the pictures from when I was younger that taking photos consensually was already important to me back then.

Something else that is already apparent in my early work is the exploration of gender and identity. A quiet and subliminal queerness runs through all the images.

Likewise, the realization that you can distort reality through photography and create fantasy worlds becomes visible early on.

At the beginning of your video in the exhibition a voiceover says: “But not everyone wants to be photographed, like not everyone wants to be captured. So let’s just say for this context, everyone wishes to be seen, but perhaps not everyone wishes to be captured.”. It highlights how important the concept of taking pictures consensually is to you.

That quote was from a conversation with my friend Virgil Benjamin Goodman Taylor about photography, power dynamics and rights of representation. His stance was that the world wants people to be presented in a certain way, may it be supermodels or people who are disenfranchised and marginalized. It’s a way to comfort people, by demonstrating that everyone acts as they are expected to act. I think about that a lot when it comes to the power dynamics of a camera. With that in mind, it makes sense that the word “captured” is used when we talk about photography. When I take photos, I really don’t want people to feel captured. I want them to feel seen and empowered, I want it to be a collaboration. I definitely fail sometimes, but I think it is worth trying.

There’s so much theory on photography being quite a violent act and I don’t disagree with that. Photography has been used for terrible things. It has an intense colonialist, white supremacist, sexist and heteronormative history. Images were used by predominantly white, male colonizers to categorize people. It was used to justify enslavement and for eugenics. And of course, cameras are also associated with surveillance and the prison system. So, for me, thinking about the power dynamics of capturing people in a photograph and to not expect that people want to be presented in a certain way is crucial.

Are there photographers that really inspired you or were important for your development as an artist?

In university I started to ask myself: What does it mean to take a photograph of a person? What is the power of the image? Back then Susan Meiselas was a big influence for me. When she was in her 20s, she started touring around with a carnival in the Northeast and South of the United States. Within the carnival there was this strip show, the “girls show” they called it. She would go on the road with these women for years and photograph them backstage, in their free time but also during the shows and she became very close with them. The shows were men only and it wasn’t an empowering sex worker environment. Besides the photographs she recorded audio tapes with the women, and she kept correspondence with them by writing letters. When I came across this project in college, I was struggling with how to give a voice to a subject. Her approach of incorporating audio recordings and letters was enlightening to me. Of course, she was still an outsider entering a very enclosed community, but it was one of the first attempts in photography to actually give a voice to the subjects.

I also really love Deana Lawson, who focuses on black identity and the black experience in the US. She photographs people in their own environments, for example their apartment but she will slightly change things. In a weird way she set-dresses these spaces that are personal to the people she photographs. Her subjects usually stare directly into the camera which creates this notion of subverting the gaze. It feels like the subject is very much in control of what is happening.

What is your approach to giving a voice to the subjects you portray?

I sometimes literally put the voice of the subject in writing on the wall next to their photos in an exhibition.  But that’s not always the case. In the end, what really matters to me is the act of taking the picture. What is the relationship between me and the person I photograph? For me that is often way more important than the literal photograph. And even if you don’t necessarily see it in the photographs, I hope that you can feel it. I don’t even know if the perfect collaboration is possible, because once you have the camera, no matter what you do, some kind of power dynamic emerges. But I decided that if I’m going to make this my life, I want to at least try to make it feel purposeful and good for everyone involved.

Do you think it can ever be okay to take a picture without consent, for example in photojournalism?

I can’t say if it’s OK or not OK. I can only speak for myself, and I feel uncomfortable doing it. I think that that’s partly because I’ve thought about it so much, right up to the point where I can’t take pictures at all because I’m overthinking it. But I do think photojournalism is important. I think the world needs to see and know what’s happening. I just wonder if there are ways to change it for the better. I think there are slight shifts happening. For example, the questions of who is taking the picture, who is documenting trauma, is raised. Is it people just dropping into a bad situation taking pictures and leaving? Or is there a way to have people from the affected community photograph what’s happening to them? Smartphones and the internet in general make such an approach increasingly attainable. Photography became super accessible as a medium, which I think is amazing. Many movements in the US, but also in other places, take the Arab Spring as an example, have started because people were able to report things instantaneously. Images and videos have the power to mobilize and connect people and that can be a very good thing.

I definitely think that there’s a difference between taking pictures in an information context and an artistic context. There are some images in the world circulating as art that are clearly not consensual images and that feels strange to me. There’s a lot of conversation around: If you are too thoughtful, you won’t get as good or as raw of an image. I know what people mean when they say that, but I also wonder: At what length and at what cost?

Performance by Sam Richardson at the opening of „CORPOREALITY REPAIR CONCILIATION – Investigating Ways Into a Better Coexistence.“ | photo: Daniel Jarosch

How did you find out about St. Wilgefortis?

In my early 20s I stopped getting my period, I was having a lot of stomach issues and was unable to control my weight. I also had a lot of facial hair. I did numerous tests and eventually was diagnosed with PCOS, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. My doctor back then gave me a pamphlet on PCOS which said that the nickname of the syndrome was “thief of womanhood”. They put me on high estrogen birth control and Metformin, which usually people who have diabetes take. I took it all for about a month, but it made me feel horrible, so I stopped. A lot of people who are assigned female at birth have facial hair, it’s not that uncommon. But I definitely have much fuller of a facial beard than most AFAB people. It got to a point where I was so ashamed of it that it made my life very uncomfortable. I was wondering if there might be a positive and fruitful way to process it. I started looking up bearded women and kept digging deeper and deeper. And then somehow St. Wilgefortis  (also: St. Kümmernis) came up.

From a contemporary point of view, she is considered the patron saint of PCOS because of her beard and has become a queer historical icon of a kind. Her legend basically shows that this has always existed and is normal. Historically she was the patron saint of those who wish to be liberated from tribulations, in particular people in abusive relationships, survivors of assault and domestic violence, as well as those imprisoned. All these things that we are still dealing with today. When I did more research, I found out that she was taken off the Catholic calendar and a lot of her shrines were destroyed or left to deteriorate. Some of her iconographies were bodily changed in order to resemble Jesus. She was seen as a denigration of the image of Jesus because she looked like Jesus in a dress, a nonbinary, trans Jesus.

There are a lot of different origin stories, and we don’t know if she actually existed but clearly she was needed.

Why did your research about St. Wilgefortis lead you to Innsbruck?

Through my research I found out that she had, to an extent, a big following in the Tyrolean region and Bavaria. A lot of this information I got from the book The Female Crucifix. Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages by Ilsa E. Friesen. So a few years ago I went to Innsbruck to find out more about her. I went to see her images and statues in several churches in the area. In Neufahrn bei Freising in Bavaria there is a church dedicated to her called St. Wilgefortis. Instead of Jesus, she is on the altar.

In Rankweil I saw one of the statues of her that was changed to look like Jesus. Most people there actually do think it’s Jesus, but you can tell that it’s her, because she is wearing a crown instead of thorns.

I also went to Axams, where they used to have a chapel dedicated to her. By now she has been replaced by Virgin Mary because apparently people didn’t really like her. But I got to see her in the basement and it turned out to be one of my favorite statues of her. It’s very colorful and her hair is down and blowing in the wind. I saw one busts of her that was transformed into Jesus in the Diözesanmuseum in Brixen. You can also find her in the Volkskunstmuseum here in Innsbruck. 

All this research fed into an article I wrote for e-Flux Journal  that I thought would be the end of that chapter.  But then my friend sent me the Büchsenhausen Open Call and said, “You have to apply, because who else in the US is invested in a project within the Tyrolean region??” And I guess he was right and so I returned to Innsbruck.

Her story is so exciting and ambivalent. Why do you think so few people know about her?

I think it’s twofold, one in communities that are critical of the church someone like a dethroned saint is not going to come up and then on the other hand it’s a perfect example of how successfully she was stamped out.

When I first found out about her, I thought that there must be art about her, but there is not a lot. There’s a movie by Ulrike Ottinger called Freak OrlandoIt’s based on Orlando by Virginia Woolf but it’s very fantastical and weird. It follows a character that goes through different historical moments of female divinity and one of the chapters is focused on St. Wilgefortis.

Ursula Beiler did a performance at Taxispalais referencing Kümmernis right when I got here, so some people in Innsbruck became aware of her through that. There are other smaller pieces of art I have seen on the internet that deal with her legacy, but nothing that seemed invested long term – that I personally know of. 

What new perspectives on Saint Wilgefortis have opened up for you during your fellowship?

One thing that I got into while I was here was this idea of her name having multiple meanings. In German she is called Kümmernis, which means grief and sadness. In Italian she is called Liberata, liberation. That notion that both, liberation and grief, can coexist and are actually connected is something I wanted to explore. I think liberation can come out of grief.

From the very beginning, my goal for the project at Büchsenhausen was an expansion of my research into a more contemporary conversation. To think that the past is the past is a very western, white and Euro-centric way of thinking about history. I think history is our past, our presence and our future, especially because we have not reconciled with so much of what happened.  If we do not question our past critically, historical structures and violence continue with us in different forms and shapes. This way of thinking about history is not new, and has origins in  indigenous historians, thinkers and writers.

With that in mind, I began to think about Kümmernis‘ legacy. One of the first things I learned when I came here was that Austria had the highest rate of femicide in the EU. But I like to think that her legacy is not the trauma and the violence, her legacy are the political movements, the awareness that’s being raised, people that continue to fight because they know that the fight is not over.

You got pretty involved in the local activism scene.

I met a lot of very kind and open people at Café Lotta. I joined the Fear the Queer group and got to know theInitiative Bürglkopf schließen. We connected over a lot of things and some of these people ended up in the portraits that I made for the exhibition.

People in Innsbruck are really organized and determined to be loud and I didn’t really expect that. But I think that wherever there is a stronghold of conservatism there is always something that’s opposing it. 

How did your experiences here affect your art and your research process?

I think art should not necessarily be separated from the process. In my time here, I have further explored this premise and integrated the process itself even more closely into my art. I think the info table in my exhibition is an expression of that. The collection of flyers and brochures of the organizations that I was fortunate enough to get to know here is kind of the bibliography to my artworks.  It is like citing all the people and the ideas that have opened themselves to me and have informed what I am exploring.  It is also a way of challenging the perception of what knowledge is supposed to be stored and accessed in this white cube gallery space. I’m politically engaged in the US but I think that was one of the first times that I brought art and activism together a little bit more explicitly, showing that for me one doesn’t exist without the other.

How do you think art can help activism?

We live in a very visual culture so whether it’s photographs, posters or illustration, these are all things that people can connect ideas to.  Art also has the ability to reach broad audiences. Art can make activism more approachable and welcoming because I think activism can oftentimes exclude people through theory, especially in the left.

Activism should serve the people that are impacted the most by whatever the literal issue is but often it’s too dangerous for these people to speak up. I think art can create safe spaces for people to be involved, be understood and see what is happening. Also, images travel and art therefore can be a good way to share ideas with people who can’t actively join a demo for example.

| Johanna Hinterholzer

In 2003, the „Fellowship Program for Art and Theory“ was established at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen with the aim to create a place for discussion and artistic expression. Artists, writers, and scholars are encouraged to reflect on international art and societal discourses in relation to regional topics. 

This year’s Büchsenhausen Fellows examine the process of coming to terms with the past through a feminist-queer lens – for a better and more profound understanding of our present. Until July 17th the fruits of their creative endeavors can be seen at the Neue Galerie in Innsbruck (Rennweg 1, Großes Tor Hofburg) in the exhibition CORPOREALITY REPAIR CONCILIATION – Investigating Ways Into a Better Coexistence curated by Andrei Siclodi.

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