In Review

Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic

This exhibition’s vast theme sees feminist readings ‘thrust’ onto ‘unruly ancient art’

The British Museum’s Feminine Power brings together “an exhilarating array of goddesses, sorceresses and demonesses from living religions as varied as Tibetan Buddhism and Wicca, jostling side by side with cult objects from antiquity all over the globe”, said Marina Warner in The Guardian.

It’s the latest in a “splendid” line of exhibitions that use the British Museum’s vast holdings to explore the role of the sacred in different societies – in this case, examining the ways in which women have been idolised, vilified, objectified and worshipped through the ages.

You can see Cycladic clay figurines from around 3000BC, probably representing a mother goddess, and an Egyptian amulet from 1400BC that symbolises the blood of Isis. Nearby, there’s a video following a Vodun-like ceremony in contemporary Nigeria “in honour of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of fresh water and healing”. The show is a “treasure store of fascinating artefacts, thoughtfully chosen and arranged”, which offers to “reconnect us to the volcanic energy of goddess cults the world over”.

There’s certainly no shortage of “intriguing” exhibits here, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. A section devoted to the role of feminine deities in “the world’s many origin myths” gives us a “beautiful”, red-hued carving of the Hawaiian goddess Pele, said “to be responsible for the eruption of volcanoes”; and a shiny brass plate showing Mami Wata, the African river goddess, “woman on top, fish below”. In the section about female sexual power, a “tiny” Roman cameo from about 200BC carries possibly the oldest known image of Adam and Eve being tempted by the snake.

Unfortunately, however, the wondrous artefacts here are not allowed to speak for themselves. Instead, the curators attempt to rationalise their argument from a modern viewpoint, offering revisionist captions that “thrust feminist readings onto unruly ancient art”. It feels “more like projection than scholarship”, and the effect is “shrill and preachy”.

On large video screens, contemporary female thinkers including classicist Mary Beard and playwright Bonnie Greer tell us what to think; they can be heard in “every corner of the show”, making it “genuinely difficult to concentrate on the art”. It is decidedly annoying.

The assorted experts do provide some relevant and thoughtprovoking context for the exhibits, said Lucy Davies in The Daily Telegraph. Beard, for instance, gives unexpected nuance to a “glowing” marble Venus from AD100-150, explaining that the goddess was “an icon of military endeavour as well as love”; when Roman soldiers marched on Londinium, she tells us, “they did so with coins depicting her image jangling in their tunic pockets”.

Yet the show’s theme is so vast that it’s hard to take it all in: one moment, we’re learning about Medusa, Circe and the changing perceptions of the goddess Hecate, variously presented as “beautiful and independent” and “aggressively sexual”. Next come “Lakshmi, Hathor, the Virgin Mary, Guanyin, Ishtar and Rangda”. After a while, the barrage of cross-cultural information starts to become “head-spinning”. There is scarcely a dull moment in this compendium of “tremendous” objects: “but unless you happen to be in possession of divine powers yourself, you may struggle to digest it”.

British Museum, London WC1 (020-7323 8000, britishmuseum.org). Until 25 September.

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