Lucienne Fontannaz: The Gate(keepers) of Paradise: Artist Statement
This exhibition is presented in seven episodes
Episode 1 :Primeval landscapes – life out of water
Life on our planet exists because of the presence of water. All living things depend on it, vegetation, animals and people. Consequently, water has played a key role in the construction of life and the cultures (material and spiritual) that surround it.
Episode 2: Nature on Earth – vegetation, forests and the Garden
Earliest vegetation became forests and within protective forests, gardens could grow. The plants set a pace to life upon the forest floor and across the universe. Mankind worked within this enchanted space, observed the rhythms, recognised the cycles, was affected by the micro uncertainties and eventually challenged the entire system for reasons of efficiency. The Garden of Eden, an Earthly Paradise, was likely lost before it could be found, constructed through the eyes of men.
Before organised religions and their universal incorporation of water into key rituals, the Serpent Woman Deity was a life force on land and in the water (lakes and rivers) where she would find solace. She represented renewal, as does the snake when it sheds its skin each year, starting life anew.
Episode 3: Ancestral Serpent Woman Deity corrupted – Eve and the Serpent in the Garden
The story of Eve, the Serpent and Paradise Lost is a transformation (to fit the political and cultural needs of the emerging Judaic and later Christian and Islamic religions) of the prehistoric cult of the Serpent Woman.
The Serpent Woman Deity was considered as the Creator, both physically and spiritually, representing nature, fertility and sexuality. She was also revered for her wisdom and prophetic counsel.
The corrupted version of the ancestral Serpent Woman Deity, Eve, became a symbol of original sin as she was tempted by Satan, who appeared perversely in the guise of a snake. Being Eve’s previous consort, the serpent/snake thereby tricked the increasingly dependent woman into disobeying God by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Such was the gravity of this physical, intellectual and emotional expression by an individual woman that she was held forever responsible for the downfall of humanity. As a suitable consequence, Shame and Evil were invented and brought to bear.
Episode : Mankind’s will to power
There was a transition from relatively peaceful nomadic and agricultural cultures to more highly organised and centralised civilisations that made an art out of warfare. This change in the nature of human experience on earth ran concurrent with the passage from matriarchal to patriarchal societies.
This transition is exemplified by the Israelites fleeing Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and eventually establishing themselves in the ideologically prescribed and geographic demarcation of the Promised Land. Another example is when the early Hebrews replaced a polytheistic belief system that had a strong relationship with nature, with a more abstract religion emphasising the importance of historical facts and their ramifications for lived experiences within the new confines (and constraints) of a State apparatus.
Consequently, the panoply of gods and goddesses was replaced by a single, infallible and more abstract male deity - God. In these clarified and simplified regimes, dualisms were an inevitable outcome - body and soul, good and evil, mind and matter, intellect and intuition, male and female - each reflecting the fracturing of the earlier notion that combined Nature and Spirit. Indeed, nature was now to be mastered.
Episode 5: Eve after the Fall – regaining agency
The ‘re-writing’ of the Serpent Woman Deity within the story of Eve and the Serpent in the Garden has resulted in a significant deficit legacy in terms of the status of women across the ensuing centuries.
Examples include the Medieval Christian dogma, which demonised women, obsessed as it was with virginity, sexual sin and quasi-pornographic tortures. And in the present day, the dilemma verging upon crisis identified as the pressure placed upon girls and women via the media, fashion and sex industries to replicate an appearance and behaviour, as a stereotypical construct, of what it is to be female.
Much has been written about this fabricated, male desire-driven ‘image’ and its negative effects on women. It implies an artificial typecasting that is manipulative, often degrading, and certainly limiting to an individual’s expressiveness.
It is therefore timely and necessary that we engage in a conversation to find ways of facilitating a celebratory representation of women, the body, gender and sexuality and thereby rehabilitate the dignity and authority of the Feminine.
Episode 6: Medieval Mélusine – one amongst many, capable and subjugated
In 1393, the Duc de Berry commissioned French poet Jean d’Arras to write the story of Mélusine, believing it would affirm, in his favour, the disputed ownership of the sizeable town of Lusignan. Jean d’Arras based the book on both myth and historical fact.
The powerful female figure Mélusine is a Middle Ages echo of the prehistoric Serpent Woman Deity. The story tells of the knight Raymondin who, lost in the forest, arrives at a fountain where he meets the fairy, Mélusine. She is resplendent, promising him wealth and power. She agrees to marriage however on one condition, that she must not be looked at when in her chambers on Saturdays. Raymondin accepts and many years of happiness and ten children follow. Mélusine is so powerful and effective as a person that she brings fortune to the whole region of Poitou through developing the land and building the town of Lusignan. One Saturday, overcome by curiosity, Raymondin peers through the doorway of Mélusine’s room. He sees her joyfully swishing around in her bath with her now revealed serpent tail. While aware of Raymondin’s transgression, she feigns ignorance. Sometime later, dishevelled and in a rage, he calls her ‘a serpent’ in public, at which point she promptly turns into a dragon and flies off, never to return.
Episode 7: Women Fighters and sacrifice – an episode of paradise reclaimed
The works in this section consider the concept of Paradise now, as each reflects upon the powerful story of today’s well-trained and gender specific Kurdish female fighters.
Pitched against ISIS, these women are cognisant of the belief that when a male Islamic State member dies for what is considered a ‘good’ cause - through suicide bombing, or being killed in combat by another man - he will go to paradise. In paradise, he will be attended by 72 virgins. However, if death comes via the hands of a woman, it is believed that he will automatically go to hell. Herein lies additional motivation for the Kurdish female fighters. Paradoxically, it is said that a female Islamic suicide bomber’s best scenario in paradise will be to re-join her husband, albeit amongst his entourage of virgins.
Camouflage patterns featured in these works allude to both women’s claim to the past significance of the Serpent and its skin, and to survivability in their plight - fighting for dignity and agency in a most direct way, today.