The point at which the heart sinks in this exhibition is, unfortunately, right at the outset. That’s where we meet the five commentators that the British Museum has invited to respond to the objects and ideas in the exhibition. But only Mary Beard knows her subject. There’s Bonnie Greer, playwright and critic; Elizabeth Day, podcaster and novelist; Rabia Siddique, humanitarian (that’s a calling, it seems) and barrister; and Deborah Frances-White, podcaster and stand-up comedian. Each presides over part of the exhibition, which is ordered by categories such as Passion and Desire and Magic and Malice.
It’s an odd exercise. I’m not entirely sure whether Frances-White, for instance, brings much to the party: ‘I’m a feminist but some mornings I’m feeling divine, other mornings I feel demonic. But I always try to stand in my feminine power, so this exhibition is very much for me. Come with me, let’s find our divine, demonic feminine power together!’ To which the only response is a murmured ‘Thank you; I have other plans.’ Then there’s Day, whose take on the witchfinder manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, is fabulously inane.
There’s a curious want of confidence about this ploy, as if the artefacts lack popular appeal, so the museum feels it’s necessary to harness the pulling power of pundits. And so we get Greer promising excitedly: ‘This exhibition is about transition. It’s about the feminine as the power of transition. So you’d better leave all your baggage behind for this one because you’re going to be changed when you come out.’ Oh yes? Greer was brought up as a Catholic, yet oddly she wasn’t let loose on the Virgin Mary but on Creation and Nature, where she sounds off about a Sheela na gig, a depiction of a woman showing her bits, found in an Irish church, a genre whose purpose is unknown: ‘This tells you,’ says Bonnie, ‘…that we’re mortal, we’re human. And that’s probably the most sacred thing that the church could say.’ No, Bonnie, it isn’t.
There are, in fact, some fascinating artefacts. The earliest is an ugly small figurine of a seated female figure with a whopping bum and thighs, tiny breasts and the oddest triangular face, from 6,000 BC (or BCE, if you’re the BM). It’s the sort of thing a child might make but it’s a form ubiquitous from the earliest history. Once, the fashionable view was that these figures represented a primal Mother Earth figure (Ronald Hutton, the social historian, punctures this in a new book) but the truth is, we don’t know. Moving on three millennia, we find two extraordinarily evocative female figures from Greece, c.2,700 BC: a curious, blank-faced figure with crossed arms and a remarkable abstract representation, with the features suggested in linear strokes and a smooth protuberance for a head.
Goddess figurines from Sha’ar Hagolan, Jordan Valley, c.6,000 BC [© israel Museum, Jerusalem / Israel Antiquities Authority / Bridgeman Images]
From here, we move rapidly on to the Japanese creation myth, then a 1980s representation of creation by Judith Chicago – upending the Judaeo-Christian gendered account – then an Inuit ‘mistress of the sea’ followed by a modern depiction of a Hawaiian volcano goddess. These juxtapositions of disparate cultures, ancient and modern, should be mutually illuminating but the effect throughout the show is more often discombobulating. The catalogue includes objects I missed, including a hilarious urn depiction of the rites of Demeter featuring a woman sowing seeds that sprout into phalluses.
Mary Beard presides over Passion and Desire where she has the opportunity to revisit the Capitoline Venus. The work that inspired it, by Praxiteles, apparently occasioned the first #MeToo incident: a young man tried to have sex with the statue. The most striking artefacts here are from Mesopotamia including a little panel of a couple copulating on a bed. Elsewhere we find an extraordinary little bowl (500-800 AD), also from Iraq, with an incantation against Lilith, Adam’s first wife, and an image of her that is like a child’s scary drawing.
In Justice and Defence, Rabia Siddique says: ‘It’s time to embrace our lioness instincts, our warrior capabilities, to create change.’ That’s Sekhmet, the Egyptian lion-headed goddess of war – lionesses do all the actual work in a hunt – and her image is terrifying.
In Compassion and Mercy we get to the Virgin Mary. Here the Christian Virgin is put in her place, preceded by the Muslim take on her. In fact, we get very little in the show on the female figure who was the most potent and ubiquitous in western civilisation, with the additional bonus that in acquiescing to the Incarnation she is the most important example ever of female consent.
On the way out, there’s a huge panel inviting us to respond to the question: ‘What does female power mean to you?’ with responses flashing up on screen. It’s typical of an exhibition that aims to be inclusive and provocative, but just ends up a bit of a mess.
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