Five lithographs and one etching, 2017.
‘Athena is my favourite ancient Greek deity. She is sensible, wily, loyal and brave. She rolls with the punches and holds her own on Olympos. She represents wisdom and justice. She is an expert spinner and weaver. Athena has a shrewd edge. She is the patron of Athens.
And she actively supports its imperial ambitions.
When I was a child I thought imperialism a glorious thing. How could I not? The might and splendour of the Roman and British empires were impressed on my consciousness from an early age. Pomp, regalia, red, purple, gold. I have come to see imperialism in a different light and, much that I admire Athena, I have trouble with her militaristic patriotism. How can she fairly represent wisdom and justice? Her staunch loyalty must certainly have led to bias. I have to remind myself that justice was different in ancient times: it was about settling scores.
The idea for this series came when I was listening to yet more news of war. The justice of a proposed military strike was being debated and I wondered: would Athena support this? Surely she has moved with the times and is tired of supporting power structures whose methods and motives are questionable? Does she not, at long last, want to cast aside her shield and spear, loosen her hair from under its heavy helmet and walk away barefoot, much more lightly on the ground?
The motivation to develop these works was a simple one. If I want things to change I must first look at myself. I must question how much I, whether actively or passively, support a status quo that I believe does much harm, both to the environment and to other people. I am privileged, my life is good. This is a mere accident of birth. What is the true cost of my comfort and how much do I take for granted? Making the goddess images allowed me opportunity to explore these thoughts through a feminine lens.
Nike, the winged goddess of victory. I shudder to imagine what she has witnessed through the millennia. The honeyed image of victory we most often see is of homecoming troops; waves, smiles, embraces. But the parade occurs well after the event. Victory itself is a far uglier thing. In ancient times, if your men won, other women got it in the teeth. If your men lost, you did. The euphoria that swathes victory is the euphoria of relief. You are safe. It is over.
Nike, I imagine, has by now seen more victory than she can stomach. She no longer wants to glide over conquering troops. Too many times, she has seen victory being driven home, house by house, thigh by thigh. The screams and whimpers haunt her. She can’t escape the smell of blood, of smoke, of fear. Its stench taints her robes and feathers. More than anything, Nike wants to flee.
In my lithograph, she does just that. Below her is the sack of Troy. She knows how it will play out. The citadel will soon be in ruins. Its defenders killed, the surviving women and children enslaved. They will be taken home as trophies or sold to traders.
Thinking about Athena and Nike prompted me to consider other goddesses – Aphrodite, Hera, Artemis. We create our gods in our own image. They reflect us: sometimes at our best, sometimes at our worst. We give them power over the human realm and immortality. They are our guides – even though we may no longer see or acknowledge them – for they reside in the background of our culture, influencing its progress. I want the goddesses to see they live in a different world. I want them to adapt, change, be useful again.
Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, fertility. She is inherently irresistible and represents the power female sexuality can exert over men, dressing it as love. This empowers us but is a trap. It denies men responsibility for their actions. ‘I simply couldn’t resist her!’ they may claim, puzzled if we are not flattered by their advances. For women, beauty is often held higher than any other measure of worth. We are rated on our attractiveness by men, by other women, by ourselves. Through beauty we gain love. Or sex, at any rate.
Aphrodite has been at the top of this game for thousands of years and has nothing left to prove. Men and gods have succumbed to her charms in droves. She can scarcely differentiate between them. They are but a blur. The prospect of random sexual engagement for all eternity bores her. She would rather read a book. It bothers Aphrodite that her physical charms have been valued to the expense of her intellectual potential, the neglect of which she has come to regret. This is the price of beauty, she has come to realise. No one listens when she speaks.
Hera, queen of Olympos, wife of Zeus, goddess of the stars, women, marriage. Her own marriage is not a happy one. Zeus does not bring out the best in her. The most powerful of the Olympians, Zeus uses his position on high to spot unsuspecting nymphs, maidens, wives whom he can overwhelm. Hera flies into a jealous rage with each fresh infidelity and it must be infuriating to her that Zeus is immune to her protestations. I recoil, however, when she seeks to venge herself, not on her husband, but on his violated prey and their children. I can see why this happens. It’s always easier to attack a weaker party.
Divorce is impossible for a goddess in the Greek pantheon. Worse, the binding oath of marriage, which comes to a natural end for mortals, is never-ending for Zeus and Hera. They are still up there on Mount Olympos, imprisoned in their toxic union.
Hera. Queen of heaven, goddess of marriage. Goddess of putting-up-with-it. What would it take for her to give it all away? To relinquish her position, dump the riches, leave the palace and learn to be a different Hera, a better one.
Artemis, the hunting goddess. Both destructive and protective of wildlife. She roams the natural world and over the millennia has seen her realm diminish. Once the forests were vast, now they are mere pockets.
She wonders: how has it come to this? When did humans grow so arrogant as to believe themselves gods? They behave as though all living things – every plant, every animal – may perpetuate only at their whim. Do other creatures not own the right to their own existence?
I wonder: can it really be the case that the whole world is up for grabs? Should everything within the Earth’s atmosphere be viewed as nothing more than a resource, ours for the taking, get it fast before it’s gone?
Demeter – along with Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis and Hera – is one of the five goddesses included among the twelve great Olympians (Nike is a lesser deity). However, I decided early on that Demeter would not be the subject of one of the lithographs. The idea behind this grouping is that goddesses, questioning their characterisation, their assigned role, choose this moment to step away. Demeter could not be included because she has already done this – indeed, it is central to her story.
Demeter, she is goddess of crops and agriculture. Through her beneficence, we are sustained. When her daughter Persephone was abducted, Demeter searched the earth’s surface for her exhaustively, but she was nowhere to be found. Finally, she learned her daughter had been forced into marriage with Hades, lord of the underworld. Furious, Demeter railed against the other gods, demanding Persephone’s return. To no avail. Plunged into grief, she refused to allow the earth to fruit. The sky deadened, crops shrivelled, people starved. It was like a nuclear winter. Not only the humans went hungry: gods, too, were famished, for insufficient sacrifices were being made. Something had to be done. At last Zeus decreed that Persephone would live half the year above ground with her mother, half below with her husband. So, we have the seasons.
I’ve made an etching of Demeter and Persephone in a round format – the shape of the world – which brings to mind another goddess, an older one. Gaia: the earth. Gaia’s son Antaios gained invincible strength through physical contact with her. He used this to his advantage by challenging travellers to wrestling matches, which, as long as some part of his body remained in touch with his mother, he would always win. This continued until, one day, Herakles managed to heave him from earth. Antaios lost his groundedness, his strength evaporated and he was vanquished. There is a lesson in this for us. It is one we already know but frequently ignore. We must cherish our relationship with Mother Earth – and not just the ground we stand on, also the sea, the sky, the rivers, the forests – for from the Earth we gain strength. If we disrespect her, she, like an angry ancient goddess, may turn on us, aggrieved.’