The British Museum Takes the Feminism Out of Feminine Power

John William Waterhouse, “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses” (England, 1891), oil on canvas (© Gallery Oldham)

LONDON — Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic at the British Museum opens with a large board featuring a bland statement from Citi Bank, the exhibition’s sponsor. This would be fine, if the corporate tone it set had not continued throughout the rest of the exhibition. 

Despite the show’s promising title, the atmosphere in the gallery is bizarrely lacking in anything remotely powerful, divine, or demonic. There is an abundance of metal sheeting, colorful strip lighting, and plasticky fabric, as well as far too many pull quotes in different fonts and “inspirational” words dotted around; the short introductory wall text is surrounded by a plethora of verbs and nouns apparently associated with the feminine, such as “multifaceted,” “peacemaker,” and “erotic.” The whole design reads like a company’s annual report, writ large in three dimensions. 

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Here, as in many of the exhibition’s labels and texts, the museum seems afraid to do or say anything that might seem too stereotypically “feminine,” or even feminist. A studied neutrality is at play — which of course is not really neutral, but rather a reiteration of the contemporary gendered status quo, which sees “male” as the default and “female” as the other. 

“Queen of the night” (Iraq, c. 1750 BCE), painted clay relief (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

This is surprising because Feminine Power is full of breathtaking objects. The oldest artifact in the show is a wonderfully expressive clay figurine from 6,000 BCE, originating from the north Jordan Valley. It depicts a seated woman with enormous thighs, small breasts, and an emotive, somehow doleful, face. Not much is known about the significance of such figures, but a voluptuously feminine and essentially human quality permeates them. 

Elsewhere, a stone carving of Sheela-na-gig from a medieval church depicts a bald, grimacing woman holding open her vulva with her hands. It speaks to a potent mingling of the sacred and the profane; the mysterious power of such an image in an ecclesiastical setting is palpable. Female figures play even more important roles in many non-Christian belief systems, and there are beautiful sculptural representations of revered goddesses by Indigenous Hawai’ian, Inuit, and Yoruba artists.

The range of cultures referenced in the exhibition is impressive and important, but unfortunately the exhibition texts often lack sufficient information about each culture to explain the full meaning of the selected objects. For example, very little detail is offered about the position real women held or hold within a given society — but surely such information is vital for beginning to understand the significance of each featured female figure. 

Tom Pico, “Tiare Wahine” ( Hawai’i, 2001), Ohi’a wood (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The exhibition does little to separate representations of women made by and for men from those created by and for women. Undoubtedly, some of the most powerful works are the few pieces by 20th- and 21st-century female artists, from Ithell Colquhoun’s “Dance of the Nine Maidens” (1940) to Judy Chicago’s “The Creation” (1985) and Wangechi Mutu’s “Grow the Tea, then Break the Cups” (2021). Where the works are by (or assumed to be by) male artists, Feminine Power suggests what such images might have meant to male worshippers or what they might say about a patriarchal belief system — but it generally fails to consider what such images might have meant to women. The realities of women’s lives are conspicuously absent from this show about the feminine. 

A particularly frustrating section is dedicated to “Magic and Malice,” which is a shame because there are some truly astonishing objects on view here. There is a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum (first published in 1486), a famous witch-hunting manual from Germany that explicitly connects dark magic with women and encourages readers to use torture to coax confessions from female subjects. This copy, intriguingly, contains a small sketch of a phallus added later alongside a section accusing witches of magically removing men’s penises. 

Kiki Smith, “Lilith” (1994), silicon, bronze, and glass, unique, number one in a series of three plus one unique AP, 33 x 27 1/2 x 19 inches (image © Pace Gallery)

These ideas are potent, fascinating, and frightening, but rather than exploring the extensive body of feminist theory surrounding witches and witch hunts, we are instead provided with a soundbite quote about how this attitude to women is similar to representations sometimes found in tabloid newspapers today. Although the exhibition effectively conveys the complexities and enormities of its subject matter, without preaching about whether women should be reclaiming or rejecting particular values, it treats its audiences as though they are not intelligent enough to understand a more nuanced interpretation.

Presiding over the “Magic and Malice” section is Kiki Smith’s life-sized sculpture “Lilith” (1994), which clings upside down to the wall, her piercing gaze cutting through the pull quotes and inspirational jargon. In Jewish mysticism, Lilith was the first woman and the first wife of Adam, created from the same earth as him (as opposed to Eve, who was made from Adam’s rib). Lilith claimed equality and refused to lie underneath Adam during sex, so she fled Eden in a powerful act of rebellion. 

Lilith is a symbol of chaotic, defiant revolt against patriarchal rule. An extraordinary ceramic bowl from between 500 and 800 CE depicts her in chains with wild hair and exposed breasts, alongside an inscription asking for protection from “the evil Lilith who leads astray the hearts of human beings.” Lead on, Lilith. But it might be too much to ask the British Museum to follow you. 

Workshop of Sri Kajal Datta, “Dance mask of Taraka” (India, 1994), papier mâché (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London, England) through September 25. The exhibition was curated by Belinda Crerar, curator of international touring exhibitions at the British Museum. 


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