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Art review: Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic at the British Museum

29 July 2022

Jonathan Evens finds Mary in an exhibition about female power

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Guanyin with child and attendants, China, 18th century, porcelain

Guanyin with child and attendants, China, 18th century, porcelain

RESEARCH has demonstrated associations between religious beliefs and patriarchal attitudes. Higher religiosity is seemingly associated with stronger patriarchal beliefs. While no religion sanctions violence towards women, religions have been and are one potent source of patriarchal orientations.

If this is true, the British Museum’s exhibition “Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic” has a job to do in demonstrating the extent to which religions engage with feminine power — in doing so, spanning magic, mercy, wisdom, fury, and passion — and still shape how we perceive femininity and gender identity today.

This exhibition brings together more than 80 unique objects: ancient sculpture, sacred artefacts, and contemporary art from six continents. The exhibits include painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, vibrant Japanese prints and Indian relief carvings, which stand alongside contemporary sculptures. With these the exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints, and other spiritual beings, associated with diverse areas of human experience: from wisdom, passion, and nature to war, mercy, and justice.

The exhibition looks to divine and demonic figures feared and revered for more than 5000 years, within a wide diversity of beliefs, to explore how different traditions view femininity, and how female authority has been perceived in ancient cultures. Enhanced by engagement with contemporary worshippers, faith communities, and insights from high-profile collaborators — Bonnie Greer, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique, and Deborah Frances-White — it demonstrates the significant part that goddesses, demons, witches, spirits, and saints have played, and continue to play, in worship.

Worship of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, reveals how her destructive capacity is venerated alongside her ability to create. The Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, who transcends gender and is visualised in male form in Tibet and female in China and Japan, uncovers the importance of gender fluidity in some spiritual traditions.

Lilith, who has been known within Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan, is both the subject of a charm for protection from demons and, in Kiki Smith’s sculpture, a defiant spirit unprepared to be subjugated. The terrifying Hindu goddess Kali, depicted in art as carrying a severed head and bloodied sword, is honoured as the Great Mother and liberator from fear and ignorance.

Christianity features most prominently and positively in the section covering compassion and salvation. Here, the focus is on visualisations of Mary the Mother of God. These range from an icon of “She who shows the way” to a late-medieval French statuette of the Madonna and Child, carved in ivory, and on to the head of a crosier showing the Assumption and objects — pilgrimage medals and a straw mosaic — commemorating sightings or visions of the Virgin.

A vibrant mix of reverence and humanism is found within these artefacts, all of which view our Lady as a boundless source of compassion and protection for those who are vulnerable.

A similar focus on compassion is, of course, also to be found in other religions, and here this focus includes images of Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Interestingly, when Christianity was introduced to China during the 1700s, parallels were drawn between Guanyin and Mary as embodiments of compassion. Between the 1640s and 1720s, porcelain figures of Guanyin holding a child were exported to Europe, listed in ship’s cargos as Sancta Maria. One features in the exhibition, as also does a calligraphic image from 1980 which shows the significance of Mary within Islam.

photo © The Trustees of the British MuseumThe Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on blackpaper

A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam. Osman Waqialla, in his piece, Kaf ha ya’ayn sad, has written the entire chapter in tiny script, woven around its opening five letters, portrayed in a bold large fount, each also being marked in gold. Through this representation of the Qur’anic verses, Maryam is remembered, honoured, and held up as a model for all to follow.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the influence of Christianity is less benign and more problematic, particularly when sex is the focus of action and thought. The exhibition provides examples of the way in which Christian tradition has misinterpreted the Genesis story of Eve’s being tempted by the serpent in the garden of Eden to equate Eve — and hence all women — as a source of temptation. A particularly warped image in this respect is The Fall of Man by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which depicts the serpent as a mirror image of Eve herself.

photo © Pace GalleryLilith, Kiki Smith, 1994

In contrast, the Irish Sheela-na-gigs, which prominently display their vulvae, seem to have been — although later viewed as moral warnings against lust, before then being censored — a celebration within a church context of feminine fertility. Feminist theology often reconnects with such understandings, as with Judy Chicago’s screen-print The Creation, in which creation in all its vitality and diversity flows from the vulva of a recumbent woman.

At the beginning of the exhibition, Professor Beard warns visitors not to expect any simple answers there. The exhibition invites them “to explore a problem that every culture in the history of the world has faced. How do you represent feminine power or desire in material form?” The exhibition confronts them with the diversity of ways in which femininity has been perceived around the world, from ancient times until today. With the five commentators as guide, and with comment from some groups of contemporary believers, visitors are invited to explore these diverse objects and the equally diverse understandings of feminine power which they symbolise and share.

While there are no simple answers to the problem of depicting feminine power, there is here a wealth of imagery and ideas with which to engage.

“Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 25 September. Phone 020 7323 8000. www.britishmuseum.org

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