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Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic

  • Art
  • British Museum, Bloomsbury
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Dance mask of Taraka , workshop of Sri Kajal Datta, 1994, India , papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum
Dance mask of Taraka , workshop of Sri Kajal Datta, 1994, India , papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Lust, destruction, anger and filth: female power in human history is vicious stuff, and this exhibition of ancient sculpture, sacred artifacts and contemporary depictions of goddesses, witches and demons absolutely revels in it.

There’s Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, who erupts and obliterates, but paves the way for new life in the process. There’s Tlazolteolt, the Huaxtec goddess of purification, who inspires sexual desire and eats filth to cleanse transgression. There's China Supay, the demonic Bolivian embodiment of lust. There’s Athena, Venus, Lilith, Hekate and Eve, and they’re all here as sculptures and paintings and masks.

Throughout history, the female spirit has been tempting, lustful, strong, noble, just and compassionate. It is countless things to countless cultures, and the objects here celebrate that dizzying diversity. The China Supay mask is wild and obscene, the statue of Kali with her necklace of severed men’s heads is dark and gory, the images of the Virgin Mary are soft and caring. 

The female spirit is countless things to countless cultures.

But the exhibition is, ironically, a bit of a patronising mess. It opens with screens of word clouds: ‘patient’, ‘unapologetic’, ‘dangerous’. It feels like being stuck in a meeting with a bunch of male ad execs trying to figure out how to flog tampons. The show is also plastered with interpretation and giant quotes by academics and comedians that say stomach-turningly cringe things like ‘it’s time to embrace our lioness instincts’ and ‘it’s almost as if women aren’t allowed emotions, big, complicated, messy emotions’. It’s vacuous and reductive, and totally undermines the rest of the show. 

Maybe if they really had embraced their lioness instincts, they’d have gone in for the kill and this deep dive into the complex, intense, multi-faceted history of femininity would have felt a little more fierce.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


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