Gaja Lakshmi, Rajasthan, India, about AD1780. Picture supplied
Various artists: Feared and Revered: Feminine power through the ages. National Museum of Australia. Until August 27, 2023. nma.gov.au.
What do Kylie Minogue, Guanyin (Chinese goddess of mercy), a seductive Roman life-size marble statue of Venus and a Russian medieval icon of the Virgin and Child have in common? They are all female characters of power and influence, and they are all included in a spectacular new exhibition that has opened at the National Museum of Australia.
In May 2022, the British Museum in London staged the exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic. It was generally greeted by a lukewarm critical response with complaints that it lacked focus, raised many questions but provided few answers, and that it was dazzling but without much substance.
In Canberra, at the National Museum of Australia, this exhibition has been rebranded as Feared and Revered: Feminine power through the ages. It has been supplemented with a cameo display of Australian First Nation artists’ representations of female ancestral figures plus a costume worn by Kylie Minogue in her 2011 Aphrodite: Les Folies tour.
There are other differences between the two exhibitions. The British Museum show was originally planned for a bigger space than room 35 at The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery in which it was eventually shown and where the number of exhibits had to be seriously curtailed. The exhibition at the National Museum is almost twice the size of the one held in London, both in the number of exhibits and in the space it occupies.
The whole spectacle is a bit overwhelming with some quite spectacular objects beautifully displayed. The National Museum does stage some of the most stunningly presented exhibitions in Canberra. The scope of the exhibition is very ambitious with more than 160 objects from around the world dating from about 6000BC to the present, each work, in different ways, examining diverse perspectives on femininity and the impact of spiritual figures on gender identity.
Queen of the Night relief, Iraq, about AD1750. Picture supplied
As we have grown to expect with their British Museum collaborative exhibitions (this is the fifth such exhibition over the past two decades), there are many impressive pieces, including the monumental carved figures of Sekhmet from Ancient Egypt, an ancient marble Cycladic female figure from 2800BC, the Roman over life-size Venus and a French medieval ivory of the Virgin and Child.
Conceptually, the exhibition is structured around five very broad themes with porous borders: creation and nature; passion and desire; magic and malice; justice and defence; and compassion and salvation.
These are very elastic categories and include Tiare Wahine (Pele), the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, who has recently been in the news, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, the Hindu goddess Kali, Ancient Egyptian statues of Sekhmet and Greek and Roman goddesses from Aphrodite/Venus through to Medusa, as well as the Judeo-Christian Lilith, Eve and the Virgin Mary, the last represented through a superb Russian icon from the 16th century.
There is also a sprinkling of contemporary pieces, including the well-known feminist screenprint by Judy Chicago titled Creation, 1985, and Kaushik Ghosh’s blood-dribbling Kali, 2021.
Many of the exhibits are ritualistic objects, in other words, made by believers for a community of believers. Through the conceptual framework of the exhibition, we are invited to critique some of the underlying assumptions found in these artworks.
Likewise, ancient stereotypes have been reinterpreted within a more contemporary framework of thought.
Lilith, for example, who in Judaic mythology was the first wife of Adam, was banished from the Garden of Eden because she would not obey her husband.
Traditionally, she was cast in the role of a primordial she-demon, but subsequently, she has been rehabilitated by feminists as a heroic figure of defiance.
She was the first woman to put the first man in his place.
Similarly, Eve has been interpreted as the temptress who was seduced by the serpent and then in turn seduced Adam and this led to the Fall.
In this exhibition, Eve appears in a glorious woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder as well as in a magnificent Roman onyx gemstone probably from about AD200.
Was Eve the evil temptress or a victim?
Cranach in the early 16th century leaves it an open verdict, where the serpent herself is a female temptress, Adam seems to happily grab the apple and the cherubim with scourge emerges from the left and is about to cast them out of the garden and into a world in which death exists.
Intaglio with an image of Adam and Eve, Italy, AD200-400. Picture supplied
The feminist interpretation of Eve was simple and is summed up in the slogan that frequently appears in graffiti – “Eve was framed”.
This is a strategy repeatedly employed throughout the exhibition – to present traditional female images of power and authority, usually presented in a very negative light such as Lilith, Eve, Medusa, Kali and witches and to suggest a path to rehabilitation.
If not rehabilitation, then at least an understanding of their position within a social and historical context.
Feared and Revered is a beautiful, seductive and subversive exhibition.
It not only dazzles you with what curators call “visual candy”, but it also challenges you to reassess some of the long held convictions concerning powerful women, real or imaginary, who cast a spell over the history of humankind.
It is an exhibition that demands prolonged contemplation and several visits before it fully reveals to you its many layers of its possible interpretation.
It is an exhibition that is not to be missed but to be savoured one goddess, witch, demon or spirit at a time.