Updated: Oct 3, 2022
From Lilith to Mami Wata
Depictions of the feminine are wrought with conflict over what is even meant by the word. The enculturation of sex (the way in which sex never exists without culture, the way there is no pregiven sex or gender) has been exposed in recent decades as a decidedly tricky and delicate subject, one demanding an appreciation for the range of ways humans can and have understood themselves, their bodies, minds, and the rituals they enact around their differences and similarities. Power and liberation, but often liberation with its inherent limits and conflicts, define (and constantly redefine) what notions such as femininity (and masculinity) can, will and should be.
Views of the feminine that are too simplistic or narrow have always privileged a particular feminine over all others, usually in a quite deliberate attempt at erasure. (The cis feminine over the trans, the white over the Black, the straight over the lesbian and bisexual, the abled-bodied over the disabled.) And histories of the feminine that do not appreciate the full scope required for the subject are doomed to constantly fail to provide a stable basis for general human wellbeing.
Recently, I was fortunate to attend the very end of the Feminine Power exhibition for The British Museum. This is not so much a review of it (seeing as it is now over) as a reflection on its themes and some of its content. But to take up a little of the reviewer voice, the objects, ideological refrains and their contextualisation were all excellently showcased, but the curation did sometimes (perhaps necessarily given the vast cross-cultural scope) lean over-heavily on text.
(Whereas art galleries have learned to evade the pitfall of text-heavy displays, it is that much harder for museums to forgo long blocks of prose printed in sometimes smallish font on plaques. That is, given that they are invariably conveying precise information rather than just being an apt physical space for interrelated pieces of art.)
Feminine Power has a massive subject to address, which its curator Belinda Crerar separated into five categories: Creation & Nature, Passion & Desire, Magic & Malice, Justice & Defence, Compassion & Salvation. The subtitle was ‘the divine to the demonic’ and in keeping with that, the iconic piece, used to promote the exhibition, was Kiki Smith’s 1994 bronze and coloured glass sculpture Lilith. The full-bodied Lilith crouches on a wall, resting on her arms and legs, looking over her shoulder with striking blue eyes. This version of the primordial she-demon of Jewish mythology is very much the feminine refusing the male-gaze, owning her rebellious freedom.
Such agentive depictions of femininity, however, are shown to be in tension with feminine power as a threat to patriarchal orders. Queuing to see the book Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a 1486 proffered treatise on witchcraft by German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer, a woman ahead of me appropriately pretend spat on the display. It was certainly by no means a solitary example of the history of misogyny to feature, nor even the only example of distinctly European Christian misogyny either.
There were other interesting tensions, too. Some of the exhibits focussed a lot on new or old models of female authority, even intimating something not too distant from the girl boss tropes of the 90s and early 00s. (The idea of women’s liberation as encapsulated in more women CEOs rather than more equal societies, in women in the military rather than in the aspiration to abolish the need for a military and all the violence they enact—often against women.) But opposed to this there were also models, as in Lillith, of female emancipation and even the rejection of domination as an ideal, including forms that appropriate the feminine. (There are also alternative notions of domination, too, as with Kali being of primordial entity of creation and destruction.)
Moreover, the feminine could be depicted in ways stressing reproduction and sexuality (often a sexuality explicitly framed as for men), but also in ways stressing the fluidity of gender and the importance of self-determination. In her preface to the accompanying book Mary Beard takes direct issue with the longstanding academic association between all female goddesses (and too few male ones) with fertility. Equally, for the South Asian and Tibetan Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin, a plaque read, “Guanyin can appear as a masculine figure or as a feminine figure, but in fact transcending everything, including gender, is the ultimate meditative place where we can be beyond binaries and restrictions. So, I think of Guanyin as a ‘they’.”
Capturing these conflicting and overlapping notions of the feminine, its expanses, limits and gender per se, is one of Crerar’s achievements. Another is in the previously mentioned geographical breadth of the collection that she brought together. I have already highlighted examples from Asia and Europe, of which there were plenty more, but of particular (happy) surprise was when my partner saw an exhibit of Efik origin, which connects to her family's history in Nigeria. (Apparently an aspect of Nigeria that often gets overlooked.) This related to a water goddess, which, she informed me, has become through Christian influence a demonic bogey(wo)man used to scare children: a being she recalled as mami wata (literally, mommy water).
It is an apt testimony to another side of the feminine the exhibit did not shy from: the influence of colonialism and the importing of a necessarily male-dominated, cisheteronormative ideology. That is not to expunge the tensions of power that exist outside of colonial and imperial spheres, but it is correct to observe that the forceful spreading of those spheres—sometimes under a banner of superficial, perversely parochial humanism—were anything but authentically humanist, and often actively disempowered women alongside gender variant peoples.
Something I especially loved about the exhibition was how it actively drew on community collaboration, which came through in the depths of its engagements with various material. For depictions of the Hindu festival of Kali Puja, for example, they used recordings of an event in Camden, London made in November 2021, organised by the London Durgotsav Committee with permission. Or in writing about witchcraft the Children of Artemis, a UK collective of Modern Pagans, were consulted.
The exhibition often challenged depictions of feminine power as evil and other, it opened a space for reconceptualisations. At the end it even invited attendees to write their own reflections, many of which suggested exactly such appraisals of the feminine were taking place. Mami wata and Lilith are both different examples of such fresh perspectives, and for my partner (from an ex-Christian family) it was the very first time she even encountered these archetypal women as anything other than sinister.
Both she and the woman who faux spat at a book embodying violence against women were not the only examples of enthusiastic interactions I witnessed. The mostly women, mostly young audience for the gallery seemed engaged, the best measure for the success of such a piece. I felt drawn, as a femme nonbinary person, to pieces that explored the blurry edges of the feminine, but by no means exclusively. There was a lot to see before exhibition fatigue set-in.
We need more exhibitions of this type, and I would recommend the accompanying book, which goes into greater depth and covers even more artefacts and artworks to reveal the diversity of human responses to the feminine. (Here there is also obviously more leeway for extensive prose, too.) In particular, it would be welcome to witness a continued interest in how the feminine has and can be a space of empowerment, of self-possession, as well as remembering all the times it has been used as a confinement for lives that consequently never got to fully flourish.
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