Review: The Objects Speak For Themselves At British Museum's Feminine Power

Feminine Power, The British Museum ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 7 months ago

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Review: The Objects Speak For Themselves At British Museum's Feminine Power Feminine Power, The British Museum 3
This work by Judy Chicago depicts a female God. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum is rampant with statues, but this is the first time I've seen one slithering down the wall towards me like something out of a horror movie.

The sculpture, by contemporary artist Kiki Smith, is of Lilith, the first woman according to Jewish mythology, who was exiled from Eden for refusing to be subservient to Adam. History has often depicted Lilith as a demon, but her independence has given her modern feminist icon status; Smith's work leans into both, referencing the myth while revealing a gravity-defying power.

In striking contrast is a Roman statue of Venus, showing an idealised nude female figure — it's said when she was first revealed, lusty Romans tried to make love to her. Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic uses such juxtaposition to show that while women have been viewed through many lenses — all-too-often it's been a patriarchal one.

Kiki Smith's Lilith literally climbs the walls. © Pace Gallery

Demonising women and their behaviour is visible throughout many cultures — labelled as witches, women are either shown to be 'ugly hags' or otherwise — as in a John William Waterhouse painting of Circe — 'seductive sorceresses', breasts visible through their diaphanous garments.

In a welcome move, the British Museum reaches out to modern day Wiccans to see how such depictions affect them, as well as to current devotees of the Hindu goddess Kali, who view her as a powerful role model (unlike the British Empire, and a certain Indiana Jones, who unjustly characterised her followers as bloodthirsty individuals.)

The Hindu goddess Kali has often been demonised; here she's seen through a contemporary lens in a work by Kaushik Ghosh. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five prominent female voices are brought into the conversation, including those of historian Mary Beard and author Elizabeth Day, and this is where an otherwise strong exhibition loses something. Rather than positioning the speakers as cheerleaders for Feminine Power, they assume centre stage; the show opens with speeches from all five, and throughout, human rights lawyer Rabi Siddique calls for women to be viewed as 'lionesses' and 'warriors'.

In truth the external voices aren't necessary; the objects in this show are powerful enough to speak for themselves.

Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic at The British Museum is on from 19 May to 25 September. Tickets are £15.

Last Updated 18 May 2022