ANYONE who has experienced the Edinburgh festival and fringe, when the streets are alive from morning to night with theatre, music, and art, while bistros, pubs, and tea shops are packed, and tartan kilts brighten every venue, would hardly recognise the city’s quiet and grey streets now.
In the midst of this desolation, however, Arusha Gallery, which opened in 2013 on the spacious upper floors of a delightful Georgian house in the New Town, is presenting “Ancient Deities”. This is an exuberant group exhibition focusing on the gods revered in the past.
Inspired by Neil Gaiman’s book and TV film American Gods, which took a very unconventional look at old gods, it was conceived before the pandemic by the Gallery’s artistic director, Agnieszka Prendota, and the artist Rhiannon Rebecca Salisbury, who have curated it together. They invited 18 artists, some born into other cultures, including those of Kuala Lumpa, Slovakia, and Uzbekistan, but now London-based, to produce a painting, sculpture, embroidery, or installation based on an ancient deity that they relate to. Most are very young, with impressive CVs of prizes, awards, scholarships, and residencies. All have a sensitivity to spirituality and the natural world.
Alia Hamaoui has chosen Tiamat, the primordial Babylonian goddess of the ocean and personified Chaos, who gave birth to the first generation of Babylonian gods. She was killed and her body divided into Heaven and Earth. She is known as the glistening one, and has a radiant aura (melam) and is represented as a ceramic amulet depicting slugs between beads strung on a cord.
Arethusa GalleryRebecca Harper, Pandora’s Shrine to Hope (2020)
Lilith appears in some ancient Jewish literature as being created out of mud at the same time as Adam as his equal, although she is not mentioned in Genesis. She rejected Adam’s advances and was banished to an island, and Eve took her place. She is often portrayed as an evil witch, but Salisbury sees her in terms of soft, pink, feminine shapes.
Referred to in the Old Testament, the serpent Leviathan is here portrayed by Tahmina Negmat as a huge black web loaded with dark shapes, and with touches of pastel pink and blue, and a green inset of a man’s benign head. Beeswax is mixed with oil on felt to produce a special effect in this extremely large work (170 × 190cm).
Victor Seaward has chosen Tezcatlipoca, the all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-knowing god of the Aztecs, who demanded daily human blood sacrifice. The concept is portrayed as a fruit in acrylic on 3D-printer SLA (stereolithography).
It is easy to understand why most of the other works are based on Ancient Greek or Roman mythology. It was a world in which gods and goddesses were equally powerful and revered. They were immortal; so one did not suffer the sadness of losing them in death. Virgin goddesses and gods could have children and lovers of the opposite or the same sex; but rape and seduction and especially hubris were punished very severely. People could relate to such gods from a distance (rather like the royal family). Together with Platonic philosophy, they are an part of our cultural DNA.
Tahmina Negmat, Leviathan (2020)
Two artists have selected Aphrodite (Venus), the oldest of the gods, representing love, both sexual and spiritual, and beauty, and who prefigures the Virgin Mary in Christian art. Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s abstract divine love fills her large oil painting on canvas with delicate shapes of pink petals opening on a pale blue background, while Ella Walker, who has made a lifelong study of Greek and medieval art, depicts Venus in the familiar crouching position, surprised in her bath, and uses pale shades of flesh colour and green.
Artemis (Diana) is the bold huntress. Paige Perkins, however, sees her as Our Lady of Wild Things, in close alignment with Nature, while in Wandering, a young and curious girl is depicted in a flowered wilderness with her pet fawn.
In contrast, Matt Macken portrays her brother Apollo (Helios), god of the sun, in a tragic scene. Apollo was in love with a young Spartan prince, Hyacinthus, and was teaching him the skill of throwing the discus when, sadly, it came down on Hyacinthus and killed him. We see Apollo in his distress, his golden head in his hands, bowing over the mutilated body.
Arethusa GalleryElla Walker, Back and forth my heart is torn between (2020)
Lena Brazin gives us a kindly goddess Hestia (Vesta), who gave up her position in Olympia to Dionysus and concentrates on the hearth, the centre of the Greek and Roman family and house. In oil and acrylic on linen, she shows a cosy little house lit at night and her Roman temple where the Vestal Virgins served her.
The nymph Eos (Aurora), goddess of the dawn, is portrayed by Charlotte Edey in silk hand-embroidered figures on Jacquard tapestry inset with freshwater pearls in tones of pastel pink, purple, and green, suggesting the purity of the new day arising. Jake Grewal lights the slowly darkening sky with a dazzling golden sunset to outline the Hesperides, who guard the sunset and the garden of apples. They seem to be young men tanned, as they might well be, living outdoors in a garden believed to lie between North Africa and Spain.
The darkness of the underworld of Hades (Pluto) is seen as calm and peaceful to Norman Hyams. Looking rather like Charles Dickens, this god sits morbidly thinking with Cerberus, his three-headed guard dog obediently at his side.
Leo Robinson describes himself as a black dancer. His graceful black fawn, a Pan figure, has arms uplifted in a balletic pose behind a very fine screen of sprinkled green leaves and flowers, with the musical accompaniment of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp
Arethusa GalleryRhiannon Salisbury, Lilith (2020)
Pandora, in soft bronze and green colours in acrylic on handmade paper, framed in wood and resin, has a shrine to Hope; for the artist Rebecca Harper says that although Pandora is a mortal, by being associated with gods she has become venerated rather like a saint.
Melusine by Byzantia Harlow is a nymph dwelling in watery realms, as described by Paracelsus, and seduced by Beelzebub into practising witchcraft. She appears on a Tarot card as the feminine and mercurial aspect of spirit, hope, and new life, and is represented by an eccentric-shaped sculpture of jesmonite, bio resin, acrylic paint, and crushed quartz crystals.
Arethusa GalleryLeo Robinson, Black Faun (2020)
One god who has travelled unchanged through time from Osiris to the Christian era is the Green Man, who represents rebirth and resurrection, and whose face appears in many churches and cathedrals in the UK. Jessica Wetherly has made a simple and effective figure with aluminium and paper, covered in foliage with large seed balls at his feet for people to take away and scatter.
In American Gods, the author writes: “Old gods never really die; they only wait to be awoken in a new time.” Billy Fraser foresees that, when life as we know it is finished, the last “god”, Nuclear Energy, will still leave a trace. His art piece is a bare planet with a rectangular black inset, made of various materials, including aerogel. He names it Godzilla, after the fictional prehistoric monster with nuclear hot breath, and perhaps may eventually breathe a new different life and gods into being.
“Ancient Deities” is at Arusha Gallery, 13A Dundas Street, Edinburgh. The exhibition can be viewed physically in the Gallery (with safe spacing) and also in a curated viewing room until 18 October and then online. Phone 0131 557 1412. www.arushagallery.com