Thursday, April 27, 2017

more about the goddesses

Another figurine on the quilt that can be associated to the culture of Catal Huyuk and Minoan Crete is the Cycladic Goddess, found on the eponymous neighbouring islands. Interestingly, here she is seen in a more stylized form than the Snake Goddess just mentioned. Small-breasted and folding her arms across her breast, with tapered legs and without clearly defined facial features, she somehow reminds me of the small 25,000 year-old woman dubbed the Venus of Willendorf, again for where she was originally found by archaeologists – but for me she is the Great Mother, and in my correspondences she represents the  creative fecundity formed in the darkest period of the year, which gives birth to the light at the winter solstice, transforming and renewing. In this cycle the Cycladic Goddess furthers the process of renewal at spring, when the unformed potential held in the dark becomes manifest in promising buds and blooms.
Another image is that of the Bronze Age goddess known variously across the ancient territories of Mesopotamia, Sumeria and Babylonia as Inanna – or Ishtar in later texts. She expresses the joy resulting from the fecundity of creation, and in the creative process brings the promised end of renewal into full form, seasonally experienced in the harvests of summer. Also slightly stylized perhaps, the image shows the abundance of woman-power for nurturing and sustaining as she hold her breasts in offering – and maybe celebrations? Where would the human race be without her? Her perceived role goes back to the Neolithic idea that the ‘creativity of the goddess was a constant state, brought about by herself in union with herself, and that the fertility of all aspects of creation was her epiphany.’[1] Stories about this deity in her various names, forms and attributes are complex, dealing with both the dark and light side of human experience, but let’s say just that many of them reflect the ongoing process of moving into and consolidating a patriarchal mindset. I ‘read’ the image for how I see her today, to empower my understanding of woman carrying the values of universal continuity for the human species, as bearer of life, as nurturer and sustainer.

Through the annual sloughing of their skin, snakes have always been associated with renewal and rebirth, and therefore with the fecundity of woman; as well as being the guardian and protector of sacred precincts, including the household. Their natural movements and instincts also represent a connection between the underworld and the earth. All of the shrines in the quilt have a section of the skin found by my neighbour incorporated into them. The significance seems to adapt to that of the Goddess in each. For example, for Kali Ma it is the end of the creative cycle, as in her compassion she destroys to create at the season of Autumn in the annual cycle. In my interpretation of the Goddess correspondences for the Wheel of the Year, it is her role to sort and separate as she ‘composts what remains from the harvest and returns it to the dark in preparation for continuity into the next creative round.’[2]

[1] Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, 1993, The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image, Penguin Arkana: London
[2] Annabelle Solomon, 2010, A creative imaginary for cultural change explored through a feminist spirituality and women’s textile art. (unpublished PhD thesis), p.149 – 152

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Reflections on the ancient images of woman

The images represented on the quilt range across millennia, with archaeological dating arising in the Paleolithic with the figurine of the Venus of Willendorf, the early to late Neolithic and Bronze Ages, going through to the painted image of Kali from twentieth century India. Thea Gaia’s passionate, life-long study made her a foremost scholar of women’s genealogy across all ages in all its dimensions. In tracking the meaning of the Snake Goddess of the Neolithic civilization of Crete I came across a monograph on my library shelves, by Dorothy Cameron and given me by thea in 1998, entitled “Symbols of Birth and Death in the Neolithic Era”.[1] Though prehistoric by definition, meaning there was no decipherable abstract written text, these early Neolithic cultures were not devoid of symbolism by any means. And though written in 1981, the analysis presented by the author of a matrifocal, matrilineal society venerating the female principle and describing ways in which the value given to womankind was demonstrated remains uncontested, and to my mind uncontestable. She embodied a powerful link with the forces of nature through her fertile creativity, and in her chthonic aspect, for intergenerational and seasonal rebirth.

Though dated around 1600 BCE in archaeological terms, the figurine of the Snake Goddess is a link to Catal Huyuk, and is evidence of the long prior period of women’s ruling powers. It is thought that the population from the earlier Anatolian city had established roots in Crete (many hundreds of years before King Minos, from whom the descriptor minoan derives, appeared on the scene). James Mellaart made the case for the precedence of woman over male in social customs and religious rituals due to the life-giving fertility attributes of the Magna Mater. The funerary practices of burying the skeletons beneath the beds in the houses show the woman’s bed to be larger, more adorned, and treated with red ochre, an indication of a shrine-like structure and something only accorded to the women. I find it fascinating that Cameron reports that in the villages surrounding Catal Huyuk today women still dip their hands in red paint ‘…and paint a row of hands across their walls, which look exactly the same as those found on the shrines inhabited 8000 years ago’.[2]

The red borders around my shrines have taken on added meaning, and it makes me think I might revisit the back of my quilt with red hands dipped in red paint. Since I could not piece the Goddess shrine blocks together with a closed seam, the back of the quilt was still rough and ready, with gaps and raw edges – another challenge of how to deal with it! Time was closing in; the gaps needed closing over. I went back to my initial plan, to do what comes to mind in the moment, so the vliesofix came out again, and strips applied to cover the cracks in the back of the quilt. I knew they couldn’t be stitched on, since the stitches would show through onto the front…another compromise had to be reached. More glue on fabric, to be ironed on to cover the joins! Now ready for hanging.


Returning to my books to review and renew my understandings of these ancient images of woman-as-Goddess, a sense of the exuberance of the season of life bouncing back after a long winter at Beltane arises. I wish these figures were more widely known and revered in so many societies around the world that have belittled woman’s power for creativity and enduring nurturance. It is the figurine of the Snake Goddess that brings me to consider another aspect of the materials used in the quilt: the snakeskin adorning each of my little shrines. In the image on my quilt, she holds snakes in her hands, here stitched in with a silver thread. Other figurines have been found with snakes twined up their arms, on the front apron and around headdresses (– and of course there is the Medusa, with hair of snakes, but more of her later). The women wore tiered, graduated skirts to the ankles, with a tight bodice and waistband to support their breasts, and were considered to be active in every aspect of society alongside men, including the art of bull vaulting shown in the frescoes on the walls of Knossos.

[1] Published by Kenyon-Deane Ltd. London
[2] Cameron, ibid, p.3

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Manifesting the final form

When the nine block ‘shrines’ had become manifest, the question of how to fit them together showed up as the next challenge – the challenging part of the creative cycle of forming, then ripening the fruit for a joyful summer consumption. And this is where the town plan of Catal Huyuk uncovered by archaeologists came into play: a Neolithic town in which each dwelling had an irregular, rectangular shape, with shared walls. At last the structure was becoming clear. I started to think the shrines could be cut jig-saw-fashion to ‘fit’ together, and joined by a strip of fabric, rather than pieced together to form a closed seam, which would make the whole piece too bulky. 

It seemed to want to grow organically, and could not be thought through ahead of time since the individual shrines had taken slightly different, uneven rectangular shapes. Then it became unavoidably obvious that the choice of cloth to form the adjoining ‘walls’ had to be red in colour, an obvious reference to women’s life-giving bloods – and in fact, the colour dominating many of the murals and shrines found in the complex at Catal Huyuk. This work was definitely a ‘process’, a work in progress by trying to get each block to hang together, shrine-by-shrine, while trusting that somehow the ‘township’ of shrines would come together. It was not possible be too cerebral about placing the images – according to date, or importance, or geographical connection. ‘It’s a shame,’ I had thought to myself, ‘but that just won’t work materially.’ A feeling of relief had come over me, but also of danger: what if I can’t make them sit nicely together as a whole?

Raw-edged appliqué was the obvious choice using these materials, including of course lots of vliesofix, that fabulous stuff that glues fabric pieces together through a process of attaching through ironing then removing the backing paper. I did have two irons: one for ‘clean’ ironing, and one for use with this sticky adhesive. Nice idea, which doesn’t work so well when the brain works faster than changing irons, and both irons got quite dirty, but thanks to the silicon ironing sheet, control could be maintained! The raw edges of the tapa cloth came together with a strip of hand-dyed red fabrics from different sources, freely cut, adhered, and then stitched close to the edge of the red. I spent a lot of time changing bobbin and top threads as I worked through the process of joining the shrines. The irony was that, in the process I needed to keep a ‘straight’ eye while recognising the result would not give straight lines – a difficult process for me, who prides herself on having a very straight eye, to within a millimeter – or less! Below is the final form it took, taken in exhibition currently at Braemar Gallery as part of the "Out of Context" exhibition (6-30 April, 2017). As if obvious, there are not many straight lines here!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Structural considerations

Although it could be said that quilts usually start with a grid in mind that was not the case here. Here, the cards created by thea Gaia were the starting point, and how to form a ‘grid’ while embedding them in the tapa cloth was elusive. Grid formations that have presented themselves over the years returned from memory to consciousness. I have loved collecting images of stone walls, crazy paths, even tiled toilet floors (including one of thea’s)… weird maybe, but definitely providing arrangements of dimensions that could be used and adapted in the structuring of blocks for a quilt. Another structuring possibility came back to me, learned from the treasure trove of thea’s knowledge about Goddess and women-focused societies of yore: the overview of the town plan of Catal Huyuk, a Neolithic city of approximately 7,000 BCE.  It is in Anatolia, Turkey, and since discovery in the mid twentieth century has been of great interest to archaeologists, who found many small figurines of, and shrines to obviously important women, clearly venerating women’s ability to renew life. It led James Mellaart in the 1960s to propose the possibility of a peaceful matriarchal culture, one built on cooperation and egalitarian communal sharing, indicating a non-hierarchical community focusing on the ‘female metaphysical principle’.[1]

The Turkish authorities were not impressed with this interpretation and the site was shut down for many years, but has since re-opened in 1996. It seems that the story presented by Ian Hodder from Stanford University, which was initially acceptable to the authorities as it was based on a patriarchal interpretation of the archaeological finds, has been reconsidered in light of having unearthed an 8000 year-old goddess, further evidence of a matrifocal culture. And the excavation – and no doubt the debate - continues.[2]

The season of the developing fruits and the possibility of their ripening, ready for the forthcoming harvest, is coming to the fore now: the “shrine” notion was starting to bubble up, shrines of remembrance to these divine women…and a visual tribute to my long-time mentor and friend, thea (Rainbow) Gaia. I started by attaching vliesofix to the back of the tapa sheets, and roughly cut blocks large enough to ‘enshrine’ the images. The tapa has the appearance of rough-hewn desert stone, but trouble was in deciding just how to go about getting the right aperture to show the attributes of the goddess images at their most powerful. Should I cut up the base cloth into random rectangular shapes, match them up with an image, and then decide how much of a ‘window’ to cut out, and how much of the figure to reveal? Or should I cut image by image, deliberately and, with greater precision of placement over the image, cut away the window to reveal the image. Then there was the shape of the aperture: a precise square or rectangular cutout, or something less formal? Coming back to the shrine idea, it seemed best that they should be roughly square or rectangular. Having cut the background away from some of the smaller figurine prints, they needed to be attached to a background piece of a different colour – still earthly, but it could work to bring in some contrast to the basic beige of the tapa cloth. This is a point at which to start, with the construction of each individual shrine for each of the Goddess images. At the beginning, feeling the pressure of both time and recovery from illness, I had made an agreement with myself that, not having any vision for the final form, I would just go ahead with constructing each block, without my usual self-critical eye.

[1] Judy Foster, with Marlene Derlet, 2013, Invisible women of prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war, North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
[2] There is much more to the story of Catal Huyuk than can be recounted in my short post.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Uncovering the material

Maybe we textile artists keep things for a reason, though dare I say that it is usually unknown at the time. Several years ago (probably more like 10 or more) my neighbour Dorothy had found a sloughed snakeskin in her back garden, which seemed to be that of a diamond python. Snakes have always been a sacred symbol of rebirth, so I treasured this gift and I had tried to make it useful for some future textile work by attaching it to gauze with a light PVC wash. I then put it away for ‘later’ use. In the same container were the pieces of a bark cloth from a Pacific Island – something received many years earlier at the 2004 Women Scholars of Religion and Theology conference thea and I had attended in Melbourne, with the title of PeaceWorks. Convened by WSRT in the Australian Catholic University campus in Fitzroy near St Vincent’s Hospital, thea and I did a large group ritual together “in a Goddess tradition” for all participants on the first morning, celebrating the seasons in the cycle of the Wheel of the year. The tapa cloth was part of another small ritual that one of the presenters from Tonga gave at the conference.

There was gallery, where artworks in many different media were exhibited. I also had some quilts hanging as part of this exhibition. The main one I remember was my Wheel of the Year, which was displayed as a small installation, to include the Northern Hemispheric cycle mirrored on the floor below the wall hanging based on the seasonal cycle according to the Southern Hemisphere, which of course demonstrated their polar oppositions.

The Goddess images are printed directly from thea’s publication called the “Awesome Power Series”, a group of nine ancient Goddesses that thea and friend Roseanne DeBats had prepared as large posters also. Scanned in to present as part of my PhD thesis, I flicked them over to Sheila Quonoey whose inkjet printer was working, and a full set was printed in black and white for me to tea-dye. So, I had the images on cloth, now what? The physical images had become transferred from print on paper to print on ‘material’, but the structural form they should take remained elusive. This is the “sprouting” process, occurring at spring after the winter months have passed, leaving ideas burgeoning, waiting to come to fruition.

Tribute to thea Gaia: 'Before the beginning, when God was a woman'

This is the first of 4 or 5 blog posts about a quilt inspired by the life and work of thea Gaia, who was my friend and mentor in coming to understand that I have power as woman, and the means for re-claiming that power.
Part 1: beginning
The invitation to again be part of the group exhibition of Blue Mountains textile artists in 2017 was exciting. I had been gathering basic ideas about a Goddess series quilt, based on the 9 images of ancient women produced in a project of dear friend and mentor, thea Gaia who had died in 2016. This series had been included in my thesis as part of the correspondences for the Creative Wheel of the Year.[1] In spite of my initial enthusiasm I tried to opt out of the exhibition, because even though the images of ‘women of power’ were there, available to work with in concrete form through the cards that thea had produced, its form remained dormant, buried in the dark recesses. I was not finding the motivation, energy or creative input to bring the raw materials together. I was feeling the influence of the season of Samhain – or Hallowe’en as it is know in general parlance.

There were several reasons for this lethargy, which is why I suspect the tangible manifestation of ideas remained ethereal, elusive and intangible. Firstly, an acute attack of cellulitis took hold in mid-January, which had me hospitalised receiving antibiotics intravenously for 4 days, with the discomfort lasting for many more weeks. The experience of being dependent on others in the hospital was soul destroying. And of course the whole melanoma thing came crashing down again: that here I was, still at the effect of the first malignant melanoma removed when I was 25. Excised at that time also were the lymph nodes in my right groin, leaving me with a lasting and permanent lymphoedema of the right leg and foot. Not a good space to be in when trying to encourage the creative juices to flow. But slowly, they did start to flow thanks to the curator’s encouragement, just as the warmth of the Sun starts to return to renew life beginning at the Winter Solstice.

[1] Link to thesis, P.149-157