Eve. Medusa. Aphrodite. Kylie Minogue. A seductive and subversive new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia explores feminine power, authority and identity through the ages.
Goddesses, demons, witches and spirits: call them what you like, powerful women have been capturing the world’s attention for millennia.
Feared and Revered: Feminine Power through the Ages is a bold and timely new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia which explores female spiritual beings and feminine power in the ancient and modern world.
Opening image: Antefix, Capua, Campania, Italy, about 500 BCE. © Trustees of the British Museum, 2022
Showcasing more than 160 stunning objects from the British Museum’s collection, it spans six continents and dates back almost 5,000 years – from 2800 BCE to present day. The exhibition includes a fascinating range of monumental sculptures, sacred artefacts and contemporary artworks, alongside Australian Indigenous representations of female ancestral figures and pop culture embodiments of the divine.
Curator Belinda Crerar explains that the exhibition explores how female authority and female power have been revered in different spiritual traditions around the world. “They all say something about how female identity has been viewed at some point in history, and the emphasis is really on the variety of that,” she says.
The exhibition is divided into five themes: Creation and Nature, Passion and Desire, Magic and Malice, Justice and Defence, and Compassion and Salvation.
Within these themes there is an 18th dynasty statue of Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of war, Balinese masks, a marble statue of Aphrodite, and one of the earliest depictions of the sculptural female form in a Cycladic figurine from 2800 BCE. There are also contemporary pieces, including The Creation, 1985, by feminist artist Judy Chicago, and Kaushik Ghosh’s bloodthirsty Kali Murti, 2021.
Traditional female images of power and authority, often presented in a negative light, are here reclaimed and placed within their social and historical context.
For example, Medusa – one of the most famous monsters from Greek mythology, with living snakes for hair and the power to turn people to stone – is represented in an exquisitely carved carnelian intaglio, mounted in a gold ring. Today, Medusa has been reclaimed by feminists as a symbol of female strength and power, particularly for survivors of sexual assault and violence.
Feminine power: an Australian focus
The exhibition has also been given an Australian twist, including representations of Yawkyawk figures from Western Arnhem Land. For the Kunijku people, Yawkyawk are young female ancestral beings who inhabit freshwater pools and streams; they have the head and torso of a woman and the body and tail of a fish, and are associated with fertility.
Also on display is a costume worn by ‘pop goddess’ Kylie Minogue in her 2011 Aphrodite: Les folies tour, designed by Dolce and Gabbana and representing the Greek goddess of love, life, sex and passion.
Exhibition curator Caroline Edwards said, “Kylie Minogue is revered by millions of people from around the world… She’s a secular goddess – we consider her Australia’s own goddess.”
Feared and Revered is on show from 8 December 2022 to 27 August 2023. Visit nma.gov.au/.