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Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic

by Bella Bloss | 27 July 2022

Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1954, Bronze, (81.3 x 68.6 x 44.5 cm), Image Source: British Museum

​The British Museum’s current exhibition, Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic, is a celebratory display of the influence of female Goddesses, Saints, Witches, Spirits and Demons from cultures and faiths all over the world, taking the viewer on a journey of over 5000 years of feminine power. These feminine powers are depicted in ancient sculptures, historical paintings, traditional masks, manuscripts, artefacts and contemporary interpretations that are dedicated to the magnificent figures of femininity. The curators, Lucy Dahlsen and Belinda Crerar present an intimate look at an eclectic and diverse collection of figures and images such as the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, the Hawaiian Goddess of Volcanoes Pele, the Hindu Goddess Kali, Lilith from Jewish folklore, The Virgin Guadalupe, The Hindu Goddess Lakshmi, and the Chinese Goddess Guanyin, amongst many more. These beings and the artworks made of and for them present the ways in which the idealised figures inspired by women’s strength have been portrayed, celebrated and feared throughout history and the impact they have had on the multiple generations of women after them. The exhibition is curated into six categories: Creation and Nature, Passion and Desire, Magic and Malice, Justice and Defence, Compassion and Salvation and Feminine Power Today. Each themed room collates the artworks and interpretations of the feminine figures from different cultures that define such qualities, including statements and observations about each pinnacle figure and the artworks from the five collaborators - Mary Beard, Rabia Saddique, Elizabeth Day, Deborah Frances-White and Leyla Hussein. These insights and considerations from vital female writers and historians elevates the exhibition experience. This collection of works and figures in one space gives the viewer a look into how different cultures and periods in time view and represent the impact of privileged female knowledge and experience, how that was variously mythologised by predominantly patriarchal systems, how some cultures share similar ideas and beliefs, and how they communicate those beliefs through the female figures. The combination of ancient and contemporary works enhances the experience entirely when you see how consistent and strong the influence of feminine identities have been throughout history. The cover image for this exhibition is Kiki Smith’s bronze sculpture, Lilith (1954). This crouching figure with her head turned to the viewer was cast from a real woman, her glass blue eyes reminiscent of ancient sculptures similar to the Roman Head of Augustus with human-like glass eyes that still seem to hold life, also displayed in the British Museum. Lilith is a feared woman in the Jewish faith, depicted often as a demon, as her story is that she fled the Garden of Eden to reside with Satan. Accordingly, the sculpture is in the Passion and Desire room, displayed as if she were crawling demonically down the wall. Smith’s intention with her display is to conceal Lilith’s nudity to refrain her from the gaze.

Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1954, Bronze, (81.3 x 68.6 x 44.5 cm), Image Source:

In the room titled Compassion and Salvation, the viewer is presented with the delicate porcelain figure of Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. The Goddess is a guiding and caring figure, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, who appears when one is in danger. This exquisite and lustrous white porcelain figure from the eighteenth century is depicted with multiple arms surrounding her like a halo, expressing her ability to help and guide everyone. Although she is predominantly presented as a female figure, Guanyin has the ability to take on any form, allowing her to present as both female and male, young and old.

Guanyin, c. 1800, Porcelain, (41 x 20 x 11.50 cm), Image Source: British Museum

The final room in the exhibition is interactive, titled Female Power Today, inviting the exhibition attendees to reflect on the experience and to comment on what feminine power means to them. These comments and contributions, alongside a photo and the name of the commenter, become part of the exhibit as a projection of hundreds of written responses by attendees and the five collaborators that contributed their scholarly voices throughout, ensuring all voices are collectively and equally important. The exhibition leaves an enduring impression on the viewer. It is an exceptional, one-of-a-kind experience, defining the strength of feminine identities in all forms. An educational, empowering and momentous encounter that elevates the role of the female in art and culture.


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