Last month, I looked at how the mythological feminine can help us to imagine and bring into being more compassionate and cooperative relations with our environment and with each other. Earlier this month, I shared an article by Charles Audley in which he announced Noisily festival’s intention to take positive steps towards ensuring more opportunities for female-identifying DJs to share their skills and energies in headline slots. Today, I’d like to trace the possible connections between these two posts – is there something about ‘the feminine’ in psyculture that’s encouraging more open and honest discussion around gender inequality, and more determination to confront it? Is there something about the way women and ‘the feminine’ are represented visually in psyculture that offers opportunities for reconfiguring cultural attitudes towards women and womanhood? In exploring these questions, I’ll draw on the work of five visionary artists, all of whom identify as women.

To Prey or to Pray
Aloria Weaver – To Prey or to Pray? Oil on canvas, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist. Source: aloriaweaver.com

This painting by Aloria Weaver asks an important question: will we continue to accept cultural frameworks that position women, other-than-human animals and the Earth itself as ‘prey’, or will we ‘pray’ for – and thus bring into being – a world in which all life is properly respected and revered? In her description of the piece, Aloria draws on notions of ‘balance’ between feminine and masculine that are visible throughout visionary art, but goes a step further in representing the specific consequences of the suppression of ‘the feminine’ for women.

Since the Scientific Revolution, Western cultures have positioned women on the underside of a modern binary that elevates ‘masculine’ rationalism above its own definition of ‘femininity’, and above all forms of non-human life. Francis Bacon wrote in the sixteenth century that the ideal scientific method would force nature into giving up her secrets much like a woman being forced to confess to witchcraft at the hands of the Inquisitors[1]. This is just one particularly colourful example of the misogyny that is so deeply ingrained in our modern assumptions about women, other-than-human animals and the Earth: within the rationalist materialist worldview that has remained dominant since Bacon’s time, they are material resources to be owned and used.

boom party like a feminist screenshot
Boom announce a panel discussion on gender equality and consent in party settings as part of this year’s Liminal Village program. Source: boomfestival.org

Psyculture is a culture in which this worldview is more difficult to maintain. If we are indeed all ‘one’, the gender-based violence experienced by women becomes a problem to be acknowledged and addressed. Last week, Boom festival announced that they will be hosting a panel discussion at this year’s Liminal Village focusing on the importance of developing dancefloors on which women can feel safe from sexual harassment. As they note, the objectification of the female body, visible in “the systematic use of hyper sexualised female imageries in mainstream nightlife promotional material”, is “a symptom of a nightlife culture where gender-based sexual violence is naturalised and embraced”[2].

My own thinking resonates with this but approaches the issue from a different direction: the naturalization of gender-based sexual violence is made possible by a dominant visual landscape in which women are represented as nameless, interchangeable bodies providing decoration and titillation. When this is how women are seen, it’s no wonder that they’re so likely to experience sexual harassment at events[3], and that they often struggle to be taken seriously as DJs and producers. I’m interested in psychedelic and visionary arts because they seem to offer an alternative to this dominant visual landscape. The psychedelic realization of the intrinsic value of all life seems to translate into a realization of the intrinsic value of the female human being – not as a body to be looked at and used, but as a powerful creator of culture in her own right.

Brigid of the Bright Arrow
Emma Watkinson – Brigid of the Bright Arrow. 2018. Image courtesy of the artist. Source: emanations.co.uk

The powerful female is often depicted as a goddess, as in this painting of Brigid, “the Druid Goddess of poetry, story telling & childbirth”, by Emma Watkinson. Brigid is shown playing an instrument whose strings “resonate with the magic manifesting cauldron of her womb space, where she is connected with the universe”[4]. Her feminine anatomy is represented as a source of power and wisdom – a power that she alone has access to. In contrast with images that represent women’s bodies as sources of sexual power for the use of others, this image offers viewers identifying as female the opportunity to see themselves as manifestations of a divine womanhood and to reclaim their bodies as sources and expressions of their own erotic power.

Ana-Suromai-web
Amanda Sage – ANA-SUROMAI. Egg tempera, casein & oil on linen, 53.5″ x 79″, 2005-2011. Image courtesy of the artist. Source: amandasage.com

Another image in which female anatomy is a source of power is the painting ANA-SUROMAI by Amanda Sage. This time, it is the anatomy of the artist herself, and she is baring her vagina in a symbolic strike against injustice. The female form is no decoration or titillation here but a demand for the viewer to confront the reality of our contemporary situation, to allow space for the anger that is a justifiable response to it, and to recognize their power to stand against it. She writes, “The act of revealing publicly the hidden core of womanhood initiates a process of change that operates on a world scale, as well as on an individual level”[5]. As a highly successful and influential artist, she is leading by example in representing her power to effect change and acknowledging that there is something specific about the power she has as a woman.

Return of Sisterhood
Emily Kell and MothaBug – Return of Sisterhood. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 24″x36″, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist. Source: emilykell.com

There are many artworks by both female- and male-identifying visionary artists that depict a feminine presence – whether goddess or real woman – exuding power. There are comparatively few, however, that depict the bonds between women. We live in a culture in which women are no longer legally the property of their fathers and husbands, yet the convention remains that they are given their father’s last name at birth, and on marriage will take their husband’s. This cultural tradition honours the lineages of men whilst erasing those of women. In this context, it is important not only to assert the autonomy and power of individual women, but also to honour the connections between them. Return of Sisterhood, a collaboration between Emily Kell and MothaBug, is one painting that does this, inviting the viewer to recognize a universe of possibilities emerging as women offer each other strength, wisdom and inspiration.

These images offer alternative visions of what it might mean to identify as a woman, and they contribute towards the emergence of a visual landscape within which women are represented as powerful beings worthy of respect. We are still some distance away from the eradication of misogyny and gender inequality, both in psyculture and in wider culture, but artworks like these help us to imagine what such a future might look like. In so doing, they help us to start making that future our reality.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to know what you think about these artworks and my responses to them, and to hear about any other artworks that speak to you about ‘the feminine’, womanhood or gender. Please head over to the facebook page to do this – I’d really appreciate your input!

With love and new moon blessings,

Maia

 

References:

[1] For an in-depth discussion of this see Carolyn Merchant’s book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980, San Francisco: HarperCollins). Also see her more recent article The Scientific Revolution and The Death of Nature, available at http://nature.berkeley.edu/departments/espm/env-hist/articles/84.pdf

[2] https://boomfestival.org/boom2018/program/liminal-village/party-like-a-feminist-gender-equality-and-consent-in-party-settings/

[3] See Vera Papisova’s report on sexual harassment at Coachella this year, available at https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sexual-harassment-was-rampant-at-coachella-2018. See also Kaitlyne E. Motl’s article on her experience of being threatened with rape at an EDM festival, available at https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/view/942/869

[4] http://emanations.co.uk/art/3372/

[5] http://amandasage.com/2011/08/ana-suromai/

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