WOMEN 'S SPIRITUALITY, ART AND POLITICS
Feminism is developing a dimension, new and disturbing at first to many women, but eventually often the source of the deepest inspiration and encouragement. This is to do with women's spirituality, with what is often called "matriarchy" and which basically proposes that our conditioning to be "inferior", full of guilt, and to accept our roles in male-dominated society comes through the values of a male dominated religion, with all its sub-structures. These themselves permeate society and our thinking, even if we are not formally attached to any standard religion - Judaism, Islam, Christianity etc.
Such spirituality attempts to research and reclaim for ourselves as women a number of separate concepts: the first, with emphasis on matriarchy, researches those universal areas of the past where the Deity was female, and where women's life cycle and women's values held pride of place. As has been shown elsewhere (1) menstruation was an example of the power and holiness of women, where the Sabbath was the day of rest for the Moon Goddess when she was menstruating; women's natural cycle of blood was far from being unclean or a "curse"; blood was the visible power of her life giving, life nurturing and life enhancing force. The Goddess in her various aspects and names in societies going back as far as humankind's emergence is known, recorded and documented; she was Isis in Egypt, the great magician, Mistress of Childbirth, Queen of the Sciences and the Arts; all through ancient history the Goddess is seen in her three of four forms, which link up with the moon's phases - the new and young moon symbolised by the Maiden (in Greek Artemis), who is also Mistress of the Animals, of Medicine, of Nature; the full moon by Astarte, (Aphrodite) the woman celebrating her joy in sexuality in all forms and shining with delight; the older woman is the waning moon, Hecate, the hag or crone, in touch with the mysteries of the dark, and of death; while in some of the women's religions there was an aspect for the dark of the moon: Kali, in India, allowing herself to live her anger and rage, and with them cleanse the world; and at last, the cycle returns with Artemis; so that each of the aspects of the moon is a Goddess, and each goddess is an aspect of each other. So with women; these female religions tells us not we are "fickle" and "changeable" as the male jargon has it; we have aspects of ourselves, and our cycle changes; we are whole, but we may show different sides of ourselves at any time.
These are only a few of the ideas inherent in this spirituality; their appeal is not merely to research a "golden age"; it actually inspires and encourages us today to deny our subordinate roles, and to have courage to struggle for total freedom from domination by patriarchal values.
It is against this context that "Woman Magic" an exhibition of work by women artists which has been touring the country for some time has evoked passionate response enthusiastic often from otherwise uncommitted women, and extraordinarily vicious by some representatives of the establishment.
Although the four artists, who work in different mediums and forms of medium, do not hold to any particular "line" or conform to a special formula, Anne Berg, Monica Sjoo, Beverley Skinner and Marika Tell all derive inspiration from women's spirituality in the past, and its direct motivation for recovering our creativity and life force now and in the future.
Anne Berg who has been painting since she left school refused to allow herself to be "brainwashed into abstract art". She says "I was unable to surrender my autonomy and found myself barred from the trendy and financially successful art world". Through marriage and the upbringing of small children she found herself trapped and many of her earlier paintings show her despair mingled with strength and determination to survive. She developed strong links with "life-affirming art which can be traced to the Celts" - a people whose Goddess religions survived in Europe and particularly in Brittany until well into the Christian era. Anne sees the Celtic image and her own art as life-affirming within a dead concrete covered patriarchy. She says of this life-affirming art "it has the strength of the plants which burst through the concrete with which our patriarchal society tries to cover the earth ... of the inner life which breaks through the cold veneer of false reality ... it is the force that we express in our art that will one day re-inherit the world." Anne's paintings are a blaze of brilliant colour; she explains that these hot oranges, brilliant purples and reds, deep emeralds and peacock blues are pouring out the openness and the glory of nature, denying the destructive power of patriarchy. They have much in common with Celtic decorations in the Book of Kells but they also are part of women's spiritual struggle. In this respect Anne talks about anger: "They helped me to go away from my anger" she says, "No, I don't know how angry I am". But in a group of heads of Medusa she makes her point clearly. Medusa is seen crowned by snakes - and she is supposed to be says Anne "the archetype of the horrible woman; whereas in fact she was queen of the Amazons and a most powerful woman. The snakes coming from her head are symbols (as they were in the past) of power and wisdom. But to patriarchy powerful women are terrifying and have to be made into frightening dreadful creatures". Anne emphasises that her paintings for "fighting for life", are re-affirming women's creativity and spiritual life.
Monica Sjoo's painting "God giving Birth" showing the world being born from a woman's womb caused a furore when it was first shown; Monica was threatened with prosecution for obscenity and blasphemy; and even last year was obliged to take it down in Lancaster, although pornographic material was openly displayed and filmed in the same town.
Monica's paintings are immense, and timeless; they show goddess and female symbols of the past, and they reflect her "life-long search into ancient woman-cultures and the religion of the Great Goddess." A new edition of her book, the "Ancient Religion of the Great Cosmic Mother of all" is due this year. She strongly emphasises women's work in all cultures - remembering she says "that white women are only a minority, amongst Earth's women-population" - and she explores real lives, our creativity, our sexual powers, natural bisexuality. For Monica, the Cosmic Mother is alive, and inspires her. Her paintings reflect what she calls "psychic vibrations" and she links these with the landscape. Megaliths, spirals, mazes, wells, sacred stones, living underground waters all form part of her paintings which re-embody women's ancient religion. But the past is only part of her philosophy; what was inspirational then is inspirational now; "The nature of the Goddess shows us our womanbeing as it will be when we can develop freely and in joy.
An aspect of this spirituality is practical politics. Monica wrote recently: "It has long been clear to me that it isn't only the economic situation of most women - unwaged housework, economic dependence, low wage service jobs... that prevent us from discovering and acting upon our creative potentialities ... what also weighs on our minds are the patriarchal religions and philosophies that say that to be truly human is to be male... therefore to me there were never any contradictions between working actively with the Women's Movement since 1969 and researching the womencultures and working with other feminist artists."
Beverley Skinner's images are also of the Goddess, of female symbols, and in brilliant colour. She says: "People and their art are inter-related ... if you kill the arts you weaken people." One of her best known paintings is "A Moon Goddess Arriving In The 20th Century." She is riding a white horse and is strong and proud. Beverley speaks about "the dynamics behind some of the main causes of hell on earth and some of the cures". The best magic for all of us she says is the magic of the arts of human happiness, and she connects that happiness with the re-establishment of the power of women to enjoy their creativity and person-hood.
Marika Tell's batiks include images of women menstruating together, and of the sheela-na-gigs to be found throughout Ireland and parts of Britain; images of the goddess holding open her vagina. It is important here to explain that this is not making her available to everyone as patriarchal writers assume, but showing that the world is born from the womb, that the dead return to the earth which is also the womb of rebirth. The Goddess religions, using this symbolism and that of the waning and re-emerging moon, and being involved with the cycle of nature, always presented death as part of that cycle, and as an aspect of rebirth.
Marika says of the Woman Magic Exhibition: "The first time I showed my batiks in public I felt very vulnerable; but seeing all our works go alive, so together gave me strength - it was an incredible feeling."
Her batiks of women menstruating also brought public attack; but she sees menstruation as creative, not shameful. "My work is a celebration of creativity and womanhood, which we show as a strength, not the weakness that patriarchal society would make us believe it is."
The Woman Magic Exhibition's message was summed up in its explanation to visitors at Lancaster: "For women, revolution, feminism and spirituality cannot be separated ... women are awakening from their degraded position. Men must be involved in the life-process and their power-mad games be brought to and end before the entire earth is destroyed ... it is patriarchy that has tried to separate biological creativity from intellectual and aesthetic achievement. It is important to express ourselves as we are, as women ... we are making a great pool of woman-confidence, woman-power, woman-magic and with it we can change the world."
© Asphodel P. Long (Spare Rib, August 1981)