The Feminine Power exhibition at the British Museum is good despite its predictable and apologetic #girlboss feminism. It is the next exhibition in a pattern of what the Guardian’s, Marina Warner, euphemistically calls ‘ecumenical’ shows, which use the museum as a space of reparation and a sort of peacekeeping tool. Earlier in the year, the V&A did a show similar in tone, Fashioning Masculinities, and like that show, the art and artefacts displayed in Feminine Power immediately disproved the show’s presupposition. That is, that of the group in question; women in the case of the British Museum show and homosexuals, the implied subject of the V&A one, lacked power until very recently.
It is difficult to imagine a less inspiring setting for a show with such a bold title. Located in the rather small cylindrical room, the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery, the room’s roundness poses a curatorial challenge. Even so, the solution reached by curator Belinda Crerar and her team is disappointing. Marina Warner, again euphemistically, compared the layout of the curving futuristic exhibition space to that of Scottish Neolithic settlement, Skara Brae, though a perhaps more accurate comparison would be to the perfume displays in duty free shops in airports. The exhibition is entirely white-painted MDF, shiny Perspex, fluorescent lighting, and narrow strips of grey netting, hanging high toward the ceiling, to which the purpose is very ambiguous.
You are greeted upon entering, not by any artefact, but by three large screens, on which portrait-format, life- size and eye-level, looped videos of the museum’s five ‘high-profile collaborators’ play. They are supposed to, I assume, guide engagement with the objects. This reminds me of overhearing a reference to an ‘interpretation steering committee meeting’ going on at another large public museum in London. How insulting to me, the viewer, and to the artefacts and artworks on show. How insulting to the goddesses! Of these five female collaborators, only TV classicist Mary Beard seems a relevant choice, though her recurring presence in things like this is tiresomely ubiquitous. Bonnie Greer, playwright and critic; Elizabeth Day, podcaster and novelist; Rabia Siddique, humanitarian and barrister; and Deborah Frances-White, podcaster and stand-up comedian (notice the profession ‘podcaster’ being here doubly represented), form the rest of the group. The part of the loop I was greeted with was that of Deborah Frances-White, she stands with her hands almost mockingly on her hips and in a pantomime voice intones, ‘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!’I almost turned around to leave. The comments from the collaborators continue in this vein, each printed next to a single giant quotation mark inside of which a photograph of the speaker has been inserted. Apollo’s Jo Lawson-Tancred calls these comments ‘jarringly vapid’ and The Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh calling them ‘fabulously inane’, they are both these things, and detract from the otherwise rather brilliant wall text.
I strongly dislike writing and commentary, which implies our forbearers were stupid brutes with no capacity for nuance and no sense of irony or ambiguity, just because they were not spellers-out of thing to the nth degree in the style of today. However, as with all creation made to channel the divine, the sincerity of the sacred objects on display defeats the sad and decorative chains of their current interpretation. Of particular interest is the section on the Sheela-Na-Gigs; gargoyles of ancient, emaciated women displaying their vulvas, ambiguous figures of lust and fertility, which were common on churches and secular buildings in Ireland, Britain, France and Spain from the 1100s. So too, that on Tlazolteotl, Huaxtec goddess of purity, also known as the ‘eater of filth’ who is often represented with lips slightly parted and a dark stain around her mouth from completing her task. One of the most compelling and disturbing items on display is reproduced above, the bulging-eyed mask depicting China Supay, wife of the Inca god of death, Supay, and one who would attempt the seduction of the Archangel Michael. The mask was once worn by a dancer to perform La Diablada (the dance of the devils) celebrating the Archangel’s triumph.
Time and again one experiences the object on show, such as the Japanese Hannya masks, which in Noh theatre convey a woman’s physical transformation, as well as inner turmoil when experiencing jealousy, and is struck by the complexity of the insight into female psychology, only to be pulled from one’s thoughts by one of the ‘collaborators.’ In response to the Hannya mask, Elizabeth Day states that she sees them as ‘othering’ of women’s jealousy and states that they signify an example of how ‘male dominated cultures have sought to explain jealousy as a specifically female emotion.’ This statement’s existence suggests the non-existence of a fact-checking department in the British Museum. However, it reflects the sentiment of all the living women involved with this show that seem to echo, that they do not want to be put in a box, and that they want to be allowed to be complicated. Where the show goes wrong is assuming that this desire was born recently in women. The artefacts and art objects on display in this show certainly all attest to the multivalence, which is fundamental to the feminine archetype across cultures. Once more, the lessons of history remain unlearned though hiding in plain sight.
In the last room is a large screen where visitors are asked to submit their response to the question, ‘What does feminine power mean to you?’, the comments, once submitted, are then immediately projected onto a screen and continue to appear on a loop. The responses are hilarious and depressing. They range from the predictable ‘women should rule the world’ commentary from gelded men to statements like, ‘To me, feminine power is the ability to manipulate men. Hashtag God is a woman’ from someone called Zena, who I can only assume is a teenager. Also a teenager, a commenter called Zofia says feminine power is about ‘owning her rage’, next to her comment a photo taken on the spot by the input devices’ internal cameras. In it Zofia pouts for the camera and places her hand beneath her chin and cocks her head in a gesture implying aegyo-inspired cuteness. It all makes me feel a little sick and sad.
What the exhibition confirms to me, as a woman, is the sense of our great and heart-breaking task – to always ingest and transform – the evil, the defunct, the unjust – to eat filth forever. Perhaps the call to arms of the artefacts is to keep our mouths open and to not shut them in fear. Reading the largely meaningless captions from the five women selected for comment, and those of the public on that final screen, I would do well to remind myself of this.
Image: “China Supay,” made of plaster, hair, glass. Unknown c. 1985 © The Trustees of the British Museum