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Feared and Revered: Feminine Power Through the Ages

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It's the middle of winter. Actually it's only the start. But I'm in Canberra where it's absolutely freezing so it feels like it's the middle. I'm here to visit family and to catch the Feared and Revered: Feminine Power Through the Ages exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. According to the website, this blockbuster collaboration with the British Museum 'celebrates the power and diversity of female spiritual beings in cultural traditions and beliefs across the globe.’ 

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In planning our visit to the exhibition I came across this excellent sensory map for the museum as well as the quiet hours guide for the exhibition. It’s wonderful to see a national institution catering for the needs of all visitors. Every time I visit this museum  I see the enticing exhibits in the foyer and promise myself that next time I’ll make more time to see the other rooms. It also has a brilliant shop with a fantastic range of books and gifts. I must remember to save the pennies before my next visit! 

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I’m not sure what I think about this exhibition. I really wanted to like it because it’s continuing the current trend of recognising women’s contributions to the arts. It joins the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name and ACMI’s current Goddess exhibition in positioning women firmly within the narrative we tell about ourselves as human beings. Celebrating and sharing feminine stories, identities and beings is vital for everyone, not just women and non-binary folks. 

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The whole thing was in one large room which was good because you could see in one glance the whole exhibition and pace yourself accordingly. There was enough to feel like you were getting your money’s worth but not so much that it felt overwhelming. The exhibits themselves were grouped into five sections of Nature & Creation, Passion & Desire, Magic & Malice, Justice & Defence and Compassion & Salvation. However it was hard at times to know which exhibits belonged to which section because they weren’t clearly divided. A platform running through the centre to divide the different areas would have been great.

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Feared and Revered had a great range of exhibits spanning centuries and regions across the globe including Africa, Asia, Europe, India, Latin America, North America and the Pacific. There were sculptures, paintings, clothes, masks, coins, figurines and more. The historical and contextual background for each piece was fantastic as was the information about the artist. Unfortunately, most of the exhibits were displayed in cases which made it almost impossible to take a good photo or get a good look at the contents because of the reflections on the glass. It made me realise that I usually visit galleries where the art is much easier to view.

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I really enjoyed seeing how women have been portrayed through the centuries. Seeing the common threads and the differences. And seeing creation, death and destruction from a female perspective. It’s quite different to the usual patriarchal art made by white men that inhabits most gallery and museum spaces. I particularly enjoyed the Creation painting by Judy Chicago that imagines the world being birthed from a woman’s vagina.

My favourite pieces were the almost 2,000 year old Roman/Greek marble sculptures, the head dress from Nigeria, the Maori cloak woven from flax seeds and the Kali statue wearing a necklace of severed heads.

While I had mixd feelings about the exhibition, on the whole it was thoughtfully curated and a great introduction to women and power through the ages. If you’re in Canberra it is well worth checking out.