Feminine Power: the divine and the demonic.
19 May–25 September
The Citi exhibition at the British Museum is a thought-provoking and diverse display of more than 80 artefacts and contemporary artworks that draw from the museum’s collections, loans and new commissions. They reveal the complexity of the representation of more than 5,000 years of femininity in cultures and religions around the world. The emphasis is on the divine and uncanny magic aspect of feminine power that opposes and questions the traditional compassionate mother figure, though the demonic side is explored too in the form of stereotypes. Power is at stake, and feminine power often opposes male power and transgresses patriarchal rules that entrap women in constrained, predicted roles. Women’s rebellion is therefore persecuted and punished, and the healing, nurturing figure is transformed into a lusty temptress and dangerous witch. Her power is acknowledged as double-sided and contradictory; she creates and destroys, heals and kills, terrifies and inspires. The two faces of the divine and the demonic are confirmed in her attempt to control her own life and avoid man’s interference; it is a force that cannot be contained. The exhibition suggests that these ideas still guide our perception of femininity in different cultures throughout the world.
The exhibition is divided into five sections: ‘Creation and Nature’, ‘Passion and Desire’, ‘Magic and Malice’, ‘Justice and Defence’, and ‘Compassion and Salvation’. Bonnie Greer, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique and Deborah Frances-White preside over the different parts of the exhibition, voicing their experiences as women and as feminists. The Earth (Gaia for ancient Greeks), conceived as a maternal force that is connected to a woman’s body, is the root of woman’s creative power but also the evidence of her vulnerability. Sex and desire cause childbirth and motherhood can restrict women to subjugated and marginalised roles. A woman’s reaction can be angry, chaotic and violent, as in the figure of Kali. She is mutable, a shapeshifter that is potentially dangerous and vindicative in extreme situations and is certainly disruptive. The exhibition also shows and attempts to classify all these different aspects and aims to make sense of this seductive power that seems untameable and yet is constantly tamed and controlled by the patriarchal society. Surviving this condition seems to be the final aim of the strategies that women have learned, transmitted and implemented in different cultures and times; their experiences imply suffering as well as ecstasy as they struggle to express themselves outside the box.
The five themed sections are in conversation with one another, questioning femininity and, at the same time, confirming its cultural trends. The viewers are invited to respond to the different inputs and maybe formulate their own ideas of feminine power. In the piece ‘The Creation’ by Judy Chicago (1985), the creation of the world is reimagined from a woman’s and feminist perspective. In the picture a reclined female body gives birth to animals and plants, physically creating the world and its inhabitants. This therefore reinterprets the intellectual creation described in the Bible, in which God creates the world through his word and afterwards creates Adam, who names plants and animals. The female body is at the fore alongside her suffering and creative power. This kind of picture is strikingly different from Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in which the creation is expressed by God and Adam touching each other’s fingers.
Other powerful images of women are ‘Tiare Wahine’, by Tom Pico (2001), the flowered woman whose name cannot be pronounced; ‘Sedna’, by Lucassie Kenuajuak (1987), who granted success in hunting to Inuit people; and ‘Sheela-na-gig’, carved statues of female figures displaying open vulvas (1100) that decorated churches, castles and other buildings in Europe, maybe as symbols of fertility or examples of lust.
In the second section the marble statue of Venus (AD 110–150) and the bronze statue of Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) stand out for their remarkable beauty and meaningfulness. Sex and passion are embodied in Venus’s perfect erotic body that hides and shows her nudity. On the other hand, Lilith is a feminist icon; she is Adam’s first wife according to Jewish mystical texts (AD 700), and she refuses to submit to her husband and flees from Eden. According to the Jewish story, she kills babies and gives birth to demons. In the 16th century, prints of Adam and Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden were made that seem to cast the blame on Eve and in which even the snake has the shape of a female body. There is a different perspective in the Indian painting depicting Krishna’s courtship to his female counterpart, which emphasises reconciliation and harmony.
Rebellion and revenge as well as suffering are explicit in the stories of Circe and Medusa, whose independence imply knowledge that they use to control man’s power. They are seductive and dangerous figures that only temporarily win over man and are finally dismissed from the main story or killed, as in Medusa’s case. Other pictures and artefacts on display show witches celebrating the Sabbath and ogres, monsters and jealous female demons present in many cultures and in all continents. Their despair culminates in anger and they dare to express themselves via their ambitious magic power which is considered threatening and causes persecutions.
The Egyptian divinity Sekhmet (1391 BC) and the Greek and Roman goddess Athena/Minerva (AD 100) emphasise protection in war, justice and energy. They are warriors and convey wisdom but also the destruction caused by conflicts. The contemporary piece ‘Kali’, by Kanshik Ghosh (India, 2021), shows Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and death and mother of the universe, dancing on the body of Shiva and therefore expressing her power.
The final part of the exhibition focuses on the compassionate figure of the Virgin Mary in Christianity and Islam (Maryam) that is further interpreted in the Buddhist figure of Guaryin. There is a parallel between all these images that encompasses their trials of everyday life as well as their divine strength that has inspired many women to see them as models. However, the exhibition also suggests that the celebration of the Virgin Mary has not triggered a better status for women. Her nurturing aspect, her meekness and her obedience to God’s call are at the fore in traditional interpretations rather than her more disruptive aspects, which are expressed in the Magnificat and in Revelation 12 texts.
The final piece of the exhibition, ‘Grow the tea, then break the cups’, by the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu (2021), features a female goddess formed from found objects and broken china. The assemblage refers to the effort of healing after the trauma of colonialism, creating a new whole. Some powerful myths are absent, such as the myth of Demeter and Persephone, Artemis/Diana and Hera/Juno. But this inspiring, tremendous and enthralling exhibition ends with a sharing point in which visitors can voice their opinion in the interactive final space, adding more views to the multifaceted vision of feminine power and to its meaning for us today.
Carla Scarano © 2022.