Feminine Power exhibited at the British Museum

Above: Digital exhibition screen inviting visitors to contribute their own ideas about ‘Feminine Power’. Photo: Olivia Ciaccia.

The British Museum’s latest exhibition, Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic,[1] curated by Dr Belinda Crerar and Dr Lucy Dahlsen, opened its doors to the public on May 19th, 2022 to a chorus of enthusiastic receptions. This exhibition, which considers the diverse manifestations of feminine power across time, geography, and culture, promises to have a lasting social and cultural impact. Indeed, such was indicated in the speeches given during the opening event, with contributor and novelist Elizabeth Day concluding: ‘We are all powerful in our own ways. Let’s claim that power. And let’s change the world’.

Banner leading the way to the ‘Feminine Power’ exhibition in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Olivia Ciaccia

Visitors are first greeted with a digital panel featuring recordings and quoted text from five women contributors: Mary Beard, Bonnie Greer, Elizabeth Day, Deborah Francis-White, and Rabia Siddique. These women act as Muses and guides throughout the exhibition, conferring insight on how, despite cultural and temporal differences, the contents therein challenge, inspire, confront, and expose humanity’s relationship with feminine power, mortal and divine. In so doing, they address how such power was understood in the past, what it might mean to people today, and how it could manifest in the future. Though categorically about ‘feminine’ power (encompassing but not limited to the female), this exhibition demonstrates that such power challenges gendered binaries, as well as clearly articulating that exalting or confronting feminine power has been, and is, significant to people of all genders across the globe.

The exhibition is organised thematically according to five core areas: 1) Creation and nature, 2) Passion and desire, 3) Magic and malice, 4) Justice and defence, and 5) Compassion and salvation. These familiar categories enable visitors to easily comprehend the concepts and entities exhibiting feminine power in each section; however, rather than confining their contents to these themes, the exhibits are accompanied by effective, yet succinct, labelling expanding beyond the typical stereotypes of modern receptions. Each section undulates in and out of the preceding and subsequent themes, inviting visitors to consider their inter-connectedness; further, each exhibit features a mixture of ancient artefacts and traditions alongside modern ones, communicating the persistent relevance of their ideas.

In the introductory panel for the ‘Creation and nature’ section Bonnie Greer explains how ‘Female power is often associated with nature and the abundance of the land and sea… a maternal force that sustains life’; continuing, Greer explains that, also like nature, this can be ‘both creative and destructive’. Hence the section begins with a sculpture by Tom Pico entitled Tiare Wahine, depicting Pele, a Hawai’an akua (‘deity’) of volcanoes who embodies the duality of nature’s fecundity and destructive proclivities (BM 2014,2029.2). The contents of this section impress visitors with an understanding that Pele is believed to be a viscerally experienced force of nature, invested with agency and consequence, as well as the knowledge that ‘feminine’ power in nature does not solely manifest as fertile abundance, or gentle, maternal nurturing. Owing to the Romantic identification of women with nature, such understanding likewise challenges essentialised ideals of women’s roles and supposedly innate dispositions.

The exhibition continues a pattern of locating feminine power according to each theme as well as expanding beyond its traditional delineations. In ‘Passion and desire’ Mary Beard acknowledges the erotic power of Venus’ sculpted form whilst also highlighting her political ‘power to bring about both reconciliation and conflict’, as well as martial success.

Statue of Aphrodite featuring in the ‘Passion and desire’ section (BM 1834,0301.1).
PHOTOGRAPH BY Olivia Ciaccia

In ‘Magic and malice’ Elizabeth Day examines how from a place of suffering and/or anger, magical, monstrous, and malefic feminine figures ‘rebel against traditional expectations of female behaviour’. This section therefore explores the social dichotomy present in the fear of subversive feminine power, whilst also relying on it for protection and guidance. An exhibit from this section contains a copy of the Malleus Mallificarum accompanied by the voices of contemporary Witches, who themselves reify the humanity of those accused of witchcraft and who affirm the power of owning the Witch-identity (at least in their own culture) today. This is also the section where visitors encounter Kiki Smith’s unsettling sculpture of Lilith, whose depiction and mythos remain potent – often for opposing reasons – within contemporary receptions.

Rabbia Siddique leads visitors through the theme of ‘Justice and defence’, explaining that violently aggressive goddesses such as Kali – whose contemporary worship is beautifully documented in an exhibited video recording – represent the power to slay the wrongs contained within humanity, restoring balance to the world. Goddesses such as the leonine Sekhmet are presented in the context of their blood-thirsty justice-dealing mythos, yet given due complexity with artefacts evidencing belief in her contrary capacity to heal.

Icon of Kali featuring in the ‘Justice and defence’ section (BM new acquisition).
PHOTOGRAPH BY Olivia Ciaccia

In the penultimate section, ‘Compassion and salvation’ Deborah Francis-White observes that, whilst compassionate and maternal feminine power has been exalted across numerous cultures, past and present, this seldom elevates the status of mortal women. Further, Francis-White poignantly highlights that, ‘Whether she’s nurturing or whether she’s a warrior, she is active. There’s no passivity’. This section features figures such as the Egyptian goddess Isis, alongside Guanyin, Tara, and Maryam, with the latter complemented by the perspectives of modern Muslim women.

The exhibition culminates with the debut display of Wangechi Mutu’s sculpture, Grow the Tea, then Break the Cups, described by Lucy Dahlsen as depicting a ‘regal, armoured divinity’. To Mutu, this sculpture and its companion pieces represent feminine soldiers and guardians who protect mortal women and their wisdom.[2] With this piece, the exhibition closes with a digital screen inviting visitors to contribute their own definitions of ‘Feminine Power’, thus enabling them to become a part of the exhibition and the history, culture, and feminine power therein.

Feminine Power ‘is the first exhibition of its kind to bring together ancient sculpture, sacred artefacts, and contemporary artworks from six continents’.[3] The hosting gallery has been transformed into a liminal space which juxtaposes museum interpretation and conservation with the display of sanctified artefacts invested with sacred significance by ancient and contemporary people. Whether one regards the agency of the exhibited feminine power as external representations of the human psyche, or as depictions and/or vessels of feminine Powers themselves, the relational meaning they convey is relevant to all who explore the exhibition. Visitors are challenged throughout to question which societal conditions award feminine power with Divine status and which ones earn them the reputation of monstrosity. Often, as in the case of figures such as Medusa or Kiyohime, this is far from straight forward. As such, one is left questioning: what is our own relationship with feminine power and what are the implications of exalting, worshipping, imitating, fearing, persecuting, or demeaning this power and those who possess it, individually and societally?

Print of The Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung featuring in the ‘Magic and malice’ section (BM 1852,1009.203).
PHOTOGRAPH BY Olivia Ciaccia

Notes:

[1] British Museum, Feminine Power <https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/feminine-power-divine-demonic>.

[2] Belinda Crerar, Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic (London: British Museum Press, 2022), p. 255.

[3] ‘US singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, Laura Bates, Menstrual leave/abortion reform in Spain, Feminine power & goddesses’, BBC Sounds, 20 May 2022 <https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0017cqh>.

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Olivia Ciaccia

Olivia Ciaccia is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol researching the revival of ancient Mediterranean and Egyptian goddesses in 21st century Goddess Spirituality. Prior to her doctoral research, Olivia earned her BA and MA degrees in Egyptology at Swansea University. Olivia was one of the community consultants invited to contribute to the Feminine Power exhibition, lending insight to the ‘Magic and malice’ section.