How Women Artists Are Reclaiming Images of Female Demons and Deities

Cath Pound
Jun 2, 2022 5:07PM
Carolee Schneemann
Eye Body #5, 1963/1985

Unknown, Queen of the night, ca. 1750 BCE. Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum.

Female deities, demons, and religious figures have been a source of artistic inspiration for centuries. Yet all too often, their image and stories have fallen victim to a prurient male gaze and patriarchal ideas of womanhood. “Feminine power: the divine to the demonic,” on view through September 25th at the British Museum in London before traveling to venues in Australia and Spain, explores these representations and interpretations across time. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue reveal the ways that women artists from the mid-20th century onwards have been reclaiming the symbols and narratives of divine women for their own ends.

Throughout art history, the Biblical figure Eve has been depicted as the archetypal temptress, a misrepresentation that wilfully ignores the fact that the prospect of knowledge, rather than carnal power, persuaded her to eat the forbidden fruit. In an image from Carolee Schneemann’s 1963 series “Eye body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera,” the pioneering feminist performance artist photographed herself naked with snakes slithering across her torso. Schneemann revells in her own nudity instead of suffering the shame that Eve allegedly forced upon mankind, and confronts the tradition that treats the female body as an object for male gratification.


In more recent years, Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu has challenged Eve’s maligned reputation by reimagining her as the Nigerian feminist activist Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. Mutu’s diptych collage Yo Mama (2003) portrays Eve as uncompromisingly powerful with the decapitated serpent slung over her shoulder and its head speared by her stiletto. Mutu has rebelled against the troubling objectification of female figures as dangerous temptresses across multiple cultural traditions, re-defining them as symbols of female empowerment.

Far worse than any temptress is a woman devoid of maternal instinct, a child killer, as embodied by Lilith, Adam’s first wife according to Judaic folklore and mythology. Drawing from the same texts, women artists and activists have recast Lilith as a furious anti-patriarchal force by focusing on her refusal to be subordinate to Adam.

Kaushik Ghosh, Kali Murti, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and The Trustees of the British Museum.

Kiki Smith’s fearsome 1994 bronze sculpture of Lilith portrays the unrepentant rebel crouched upside down on a wall. Her piercing, blue glass eyes add a particularly disturbing intensity. “She’s transcending the constraints of her body. She’s refusing to be subjugated and what’s interesting is that, although she is naked, she is positioned so you cannot get a full view of her body,” said Lucy Dahlsen, who co-curated the exhibition alongside the British Museum’s Belinda Crerar. “She is very firmly resisting the male gaze.”

Kali, one of the most widely venerated goddesses in Hinduism, is loved and feared in equal measure. Frequently depicted trampling on the body of her husband Shiva, the deity who threw himself under her to calm her frenzied dancing that threatened to destroy the cosmos, Kali is seen by some as a formidable yet dangerous expression of female power. However, it is this very characteristic from which many women have found inspiration. Artist Sutapa Biswas, who frequently uses Kali’s image, explained in the exhibition catalogue, “It’s still considered fearful for women to be possessive of themselve—sexually, powerfully, intellectually—but a figure like Kali gives us permission to be and do just that.”

Judy Chicago, The Creation, 1985. © Judy Chicago. Courtesy of the artist and The Trustees of the British Museum.

Rather than challenge the representation of a particular female figure, Judy Chicago confronts the notion of a single male god in her 1985 series “Birth Project.” Inspired by creation stories from religious traditions around the world—many of which emphasize the importance of feminine agency in the creation of life—Chicago designed 84 large-scale representations of childbirth, which were then crafted by a collective of 150 needleworkers across the United States. The Creation, a 1985 screenprint based on one of the original designs, shows a female deity lying in a birthing position. Her right hand pulls her thigh to one side, allowing life to flow from between her legs, while her left hand firmly clasps a glowing sun that shines down on the beings the woman has created.

The enlightening and thought-provoking exhibition concludes with Mutu’s Grow the Tea, then Break the Cups (2021), a bust of a regal female deity embellished with oyster shells, feathers, and porcelain fragments. “This is a work in which Mutu is saying we have the power to comment on how we understand the feminine,” Dahlsen explained, “to think about the ideas and images that we relate to, that we find helpful, and those that we don’t, and to carry those that we do forward with us into the future.” It is a power we would all be advised to use wisely.

Cath Pound