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British Museum announces first ever exhibition on female spiritual beings through the ages

2022-03-10
Circe, by John William Waterhouse, 1891, oil on canvas, Gallery Oldham, Oldham
Circe, by John William Waterhouse, 1891, oil on canvas, Gallery Oldham, Oldham

In May 2022 the British Museum will open the first major exhibition to explore female spiritual beings in world belief and mythological traditions around the globe. Tickets went on sale on International Women's Day, for The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic. 

This exhibition brings together ancient sculpture, sacred artifacts and contemporary art from six continents to explore the diversity of ways in which femininity has been perceived across the globe, from the ancient world to today. It explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with diverse areas of human experience, from wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice. 

For the first time, the British Museum has invited special guest contributors to respond to the themes in the exhibition, sharing their personal and professional viewpoints. The video and audio thought-pieces addressing each section will encourage discussion around the universal themes of the show. The contributions will conclude the exhibition alongside an area for visitors to share their responses as part of the conversation. The special guest contributors include: Dr Leyla Hussein, psychotherapist and award-winning international campaigner against violence against women will reflect on Forces of Nature; Professor Mary Beard, classicist, author and broadcaster will speak to Passion and Desire; award-winning writer and presenter of the podcast How To Fail, Elizabeth Day, will explore Magic and Malice; former British Army Major and human rights lawyer, Rabia Siddique, will share her thoughts on Justice and Defence; and Deborah Frances-White, the writer and comedian best known for her podcast The Guilty Feminist, will explore the theme of Compassion and Salvation. 

Kali 2021 by Kaushik Ghosh, Trustees of the British Museum
Kali 2021 by Kaushik Ghosh, Trustees of the British Museum

Objects from cultures across the globe will be displayed together for the first time including painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, vibrant Japanese prints and Indian relief carvings alongside contemporary sculptures. The exhibition will include over 70 unique and spectacular objects, drawn from the British Museum's world-class collection complimented by spectacular loans. The exhibition will go on an international tour later in the year starting at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra before being shown at five venues in Spain in partnership with Fundación Bancaria La Caixa. Also revealed today is a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection. As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today. Commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali's honour. Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields. 

Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known within Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition will include a ceramic incantation bowl from 500-800 AD Iraq, featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the named patrons from demonic forces and regularly name Lilith; sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural. In the nineteenth century, Lilith's cultural relevance grew to embody defiance of patriarchal moral expectations. On loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the sculpture, Lilith (1994), by American artist Kiki Smith. Smith's sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman, her piercing eyes of blue glass directly confront the viewer as she crouches on all fours against the wall, her anatomy hidden preventing a voyeuristic view of her body. This vision of Lilith is both defiant and unnerving, possessing an intangible quality, acknowledging her shifting identity through time. Kiki Smith said, 'Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn't want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.' 

Through material culture this exhibition explores how the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played - and continues to play - an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity. Supported Citi Belinda Crerar, Curator, British Museum, said "This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity - and indeed masculinity - enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people's lives today are defined and valued now and in the future." 

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, said 'The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum's collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose on-going support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.' 

James Bardrick, Citi Country Officer, United Kingdom says: "As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time." 

Following the display at the British Museum, the exhibition will be seen internationally, starting at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. It will then travel to on a five-venue tour of Spain in partnership with Fundación Bancaria La Caixa until 2025. Both international partners have long-standing relationships with the Museum, having collaborated on previous exhibition projects. National Museum of Australia director, Dr Mathew Trinca said, "I am excited to bring such a fascinating show to the country in December 2022, with Canberra as the only Australian venue. "Australian audiences will be fascinated by this show which melds historic and contemporary reflections on feminine power - the exhibition is the fifth in a series of British Museum exhibitions that have featured at the National Museum of Australia, and builds on our strong partnership."

Press Release