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Erien Withouck, Selkie, courtesy the artist

The Shetland Archipelago, north of Scotland is home to 20,000 inhabitants. The rich folklore and mythology is carried by Woman’s voices. This ongoing project will consist of a throrough research in their archives, reflecting and contrasting present environments with their past ones. 


The first part of this project focusses on the folklore of the Selkie. The Selkie lives in the skin of a seal underwater. She can come upon land as a human when she takes off her seal skin. Many of the lore tell of a man who steals her skin, making it unable for her to return to the sea. She marries the man, bears his children. Eventually she finds her seal skin and chooses to return to the ocean. She takes her freedom over her expected role as mother and housewife. 


Alongside a slide presentation of images suggesting the Selkie lore, the voices of women from the islands tell of the Selkie. They tell different versions of the tale as well as contemporary literary interpretations. The second part of this project will focus on the history of witches in Shetland. 

Erien Withouck

Audio presentation of eight voices
00:00 / 03:18

Erien Withouck, Selkie, courtesy the artist

Between 2018 and 2020 Erien Withouck travelled three times to the Shetland islands and spent a few weeks of winter and summer in this archipelago off the north of Scotland, wandering around the breathtaking coastlines, discovering the folklore and meeting the local communities. The blues, the greens, the greys. Her photos make tangible the biting cold of Shetland, where few natural elements still dominate the landscape as far as the eye can see. Water, rock, wind. We almost feel able to touch the foam of the waves crashing against the huge cliffs shaped by the harsh north wind. The tactile grain of the analogue photographs gives an impression of timelessness, with the pale and cold colors almost fading away, as if we were observing through the eyes of ancient explorers lands that are still untouched, unspoiled.


Yet contemporary details appear, almost unexpectedly, to bring back to current times, to the present: a tattoo on a foot, a boat at dusk, a girl on a cliff. This is also the present, vibrant and alive, of the community of women that Erien encountered during her stay in the Shetlands. In the audio presentation we hear their stories, in a heartwarming and lively cacophony of tones and accents, while they whisper, perform, sing, recount the tales of the Selkie, mythical creature part seal part woman. For her long term project, Erien investigates the enigmatic role of women at sea, represented as witches or Selkies, ambiguous legendary figures at the same time feared and desired. The folktales narrated by the local women weave the past with the present, keeping alive an ancient oral tradition. Their voices make the still images vibrate, in a work that explores the blurring and interweaving of different temporalities and suggests the powerful legacy of storytelling and memory in these remote islands.

Rachele Ceccarelli


Erien Withouck, Selkie, courtesy the artist


Erien Withouck lives and works in Brussels. Her artistic practice researches notions of collective memory and history in relation to the present. Withouck explores these tensions photographically and via audio installations. Her work has been shown in various institutions, festivals and galleries around Belgium. In 2020, she was selected as laureate for the TIFF program with FoMU, Antwerp and as a resident at BAC Art Lab in Leuven. She recently co-founded the editorial and curatorial haven De Blinkerd.


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