Jhe British Museum is full of objects once sacred to one culture or another. Until recently, moving into a museum setting disenchanted these artifacts. Their new surroundings effectively dampened the mysterious spiritual power they had enjoyed when displayed in a sanctuary, be it a place of worship, a shrine, or a Christian church. But that’s about to change: I was surprised when, visiting the site in London one afternoon, a group of visitors drifted past and paused briefly to genuflect and cross in front of a statue. stone of a Huastec goddess from Mexico. This divinity, ancient and obscure, still had a spiritual meaning for them.
Conservators are newly sensitized to the beliefs of these visitors: requests for the repatriation of ancestral objects have led to the recognition that their spiritual energy is intrinsic to their meaning. The terms of exclusion – “idolatry”, “unbeliever” – are now, fortunately, a dead letter; the word “pagan” has a new value, and respect is the guiding principle.
Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic, a new exhibition at the British Museum, brings together an exhilarating array of goddesses, witches and demons from living religions as varied as Tibetan Buddhism and Wicca, jostling side by side with objects worship of antiquity all over the world. the globe. Belinda Crerar, curator and author of the lucidly argued and lavishly illustrated catalogue, also invited those interviewed – some of whom adhered to a faith – to express their feelings about the female deity in question.
The curation points out at the outset the difficult questions posed by the material: a small, bulbous, crouching, steeple-headed clay sculpture from around 6000 BC and two guitar-shaped Cycladic figurines, made around 3000 years later, face an abstract marble female form, called Mother Earth and sculpted in red-veined marble in 2010 by Jordanian artist Mona Saudi (unfortunately passed away in February). Mother goddesses? Proof of matriarchy? No one knows, but the arguments in favor of such an interpretation are no longer valid.
The feminine here is not necessarily gendered feminine, although it most often manifests in female form, sometimes monstrous, sometimes zoomorphic. The show scrupulously avoids stereotypical categories such as Mother, Virgin, Whore. Instead, through five cellular spaces, it follows strands in which roles often overlap. In the first section, Creation & Nature, a video follows the vodun-type ceremonies held in midsummer in honor of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of fresh water and healing. In the second, Love & Desire, the famous tablet of Ishtar-Inanna from the museum’s own collection shows the goddess full face, with eagle talons for the feet, lions under the feet and a sentry owl on either side .
The power of this image is awakened in the next section, Magic & Malice, where Kiki Smith’s bronze sculpture of Lilith hangs high on the wall. Lilith was Adam’s first wife and refused to lie under him while having sex, but flew away and was turned into a she-devil, kidnapper of children. Smith, born in 1954, has long revisited mythical figures who have been reviled, claiming them as patron saints and kindred spirits: Lot’s wife, Eve, Mary Magdalene. His imperious vision of Lilith, with the bluest eyes (like those of the artist), appears on the cover of the catalog and presents the show’s leitmotif: as with the famous publishing houses of the 1970s – Shameless Hussy with US, UK’s Virago – appropriation of negative tropes has long been an effective feminist ploy, but it was once laced with more skepticism and irony.
The Feminine Power mindset differs from the rebellious mindset of yesteryear because the argument that religious systems oppress women is now heavily contested. There is a growing view that female imagery in religions attracts devout women because it presents a mirror of their/our lives and needs. Men’s interest in these manifestations of the feminine is not questioned. In contrast, for my generation, religious views were seen as trapping women in low expectations and instilling misogyny in both men and women.
I still hesitate on this because – while reveling in the enchantments of Circe and fascinated by the terrifying, dirt-eating Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl – I am still troubled by the doctrine of the role of the fall and Eve, and of many aspects of the attitudes of different religions. Women’s; for example, by the gentle benevolent grace of Mary and her Buddhist counterpart Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, who both assign to women in particular the duty of benevolence and care.
The function of images, however, is much more complex than simple mirroring and enhancement. The motives – revenge against the oppressors, promise of reward in the afterlife, need to feed the divine powers to divert their anger – can only be touched upon given the festive spirit of the exhibition. It would be a duller show and its soapier narrative if the negative stereotypes were all rehabilitated. The divine and demonic powers involved would be weakened.
This is not the case: in Justice & Defence, the terror of Kali radiates from the huge effigy of the goddess, which the museum commissioned from the Indian artist Kaushik Ghosh. Shot in the daylight of India, this fierce, screaming apparition, with its scarlet tongue hanging out, the slick of blood on its raised sword, and the stocky Shiva doll wedged beneath its stomping feet, might seem histrionic and might arouse horrible laughs were it not on display next to an actual weapon, a 19th century iron ‘sword-axe’ of impressive length with Kali’s all-seeing eye, which no evildoer knows. is sheltered, incised on its surface. The goddess symbolizes, we are told, the badly cut, the defeated hypocrisy, the crushed abusive powers. (I was rather hoping that the necklace of severed male heads she wears might be portraits of well-known oppressors, but no, they mostly look like Salvador Dalí.)
The final section, Compassion & Salvation, turns to Mary and her Quranic counterpart, Maryam, as well as the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, who began as a male bodhisattva (enlightened being). This section therefore illustrates potentially non-binary currents in the conception of female power. Some of the most exquisite art appears here: a marvelous miniature of talismanic calligraphy gives the complete Surah Maryam, the Quranic story of the birth of Jesus; an image of the Madonna of Guadalupe – shrouded in a radiant scarlet halo and green mantle – is made, if you look closely, entirely in tiny straws laid side by side. Meanwhile, an 18th-century Chinese statuette of Guanyin on a lotus bears a blessing symbol in each of its 18 arms, each graceful little finger miraculously modeled in lucid porcelain. These beautiful images rocked my anxious, rooted resistance to goddess worship. I gave in then – to pure delight.
In some cases, a finer object could have been chosen to illustrate this point: John William Waterhouse’s maiden Circe only weakly transmits the magic of this founding witch. Nor does the Terracotta Medusa carry the full force of the Gorgon’s magnificent fury.
But on the whole, Feminine Power puts out a feast of objects both precious and popular, old and new: it has something of the character of a cabinet of curiosities. As I walked through the curved spaces (the layout reminded me of Skara Brae, thought to be shaped like the inside of a woman’s body), I found my senses rewired and sparkling at the wide variety of materials on display, the contrasts of medium, texture, scale and luminosity: the rich, lustrous chestnut-red Ohia wood carved and polished by contemporary Maori sculptor, Tom Pico, for his image of a crouching flower goddess; the waxy black soapstone of a bulbous mermaid-like deity Sedna, Mistress of the Sea, by Inuit artist Lincassie Kenuajuak; and the carnelian-shaped Ankh amulet from 1400 BC. which symbolizes the blood of Isis (her menstrual blood, Belinda Crerar told me), which was placed on the neck or chest of the dead to protect them. When it comes to forms of expression to invoke the powers above and below, human ingenuity, it seems, knows no bounds.
Feminine Power belongs to a splendid lineage of explorations of the sacred by the British Museum, of which The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman by Grayson Perry in 2011 is a remarkable example. This series illustrates the fundamental change in the conception of museums and their relationship to their audiences: the visit becomes an ecumenical ritual, the museum a place where different systems coexist in peace (it is to be hoped) and a form of syncretism. modern develops, with contemporary Wiccan devotees of Artemis coexisting with followers of Kali.
Surprisingly, this echoes the Roman Empire’s approach to religious variety: the Romans were surprisingly welcoming of new gods (Cybele, Mithras) and, as is well known, deified their emperors even while they were alive. The landscape of faith today, as this exhibition reveals, reflects this same push for global ecumenism. The final note is struck by one of Wangechi Mutu’s “sentinel” or “guardian” series: entitled Grow the Tea, Then Break the Cups, it is a Giacometti-like female bust made of dark earth, charcoal , oyster shells, feathers, skin, porcelain and hair. It’s a chilling, secretive and mysterious piece, and an example of the artist’s call for each of us to create our own deities.
Some of this new approach may conform, surprisingly, to Western ideals of individual empowerment rather than the collective strength offered by a shared faith. It can also contain a dose of wishful thinking, as female power overlooks inherently troubling aspects in the interests of civility and inclusivity. But the general impulse to reconnect us with the volcanic energy of goddess cults around the world has inspired a treasure trove of fascinating, carefully chosen and arranged artifacts.