Gender Construct and Creation Myth (with video)

I am currently working on a public program with Para Site. It is one of the video highlight tours of the current exhibition Garden of Six Seasons. Below is my original script writing and the video(updated 29/8), talking about Citra Sasmita’s Work ‘The Habor of Restless Spirits’ in terms of mythology, narratives of history and construction of gender.

Citra Sasmita, Timur Merah Project II: The Harbor of Restless Spirits, 2019.

The Harbor of Restless Spirits’ by Citra Sasmita is from part of the artist’s Timur Merah Project, also means east red in English. As you can see, the work illustrates the scene of the most fertile season of a Balinese calendar, with the turmeric text translated from an ancient poetry. The work depicts the nature in its blossom time, where trees are growing from the wombs of women, and the fire inside the female bodies, often in the uterus, or attached to the new born trees or heads, brings life to the earth.

Detail of Citra Sasmita, The Harbor of Restless Spirits, 2019.
Detail of Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1515

The female hybrids in the work reminds me Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. In his work, the nature is spawning. Both Bosch and Citra’s work depicts the creation of the world based on folklore and mythology. It is interesting that myths from different cultures often share a number of features. One of the common themes in creation myth is the creation from the dismemberment of primal beings or first parents. Often the sacrificial being is female, probably because of their life-giving powers. The limbs, hair, or organs of the primal being transform into sky, earth, and creatures. These myths tend to emphasize creative forces as animistic in nature rather than sexual. This primal being (or the creation force) can be seen as a symbol of androgyny. The essential androgyny of Earth-Mother is inescapable, since Earth is the ultimate source, who needs no male consort to create. 

Some scholars believe that the Androgyny originated in primitive myths suggests there was a Golden Age of Matriarchy, or gender egalitarian societies in human prehistory. The matriarchy was based not on domination by any gender, but upon maternal values which will exhibit as care taking and nurturing negotiation-oriented communities, with complementary equality for women and men alike.

In the book “Mythologies”, Roland Barthes(1957) said there are no eternal myths; for it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and the death of mythical language. Gender construction in history is reflected in the evolution of their mythology away from the androgynous ideal. While the human society was undergoing the transition from declining matriarchy to thriving patriarchy, the images of androgyny (the goddesses) declined in prestige and power, whereas gods grew strong in the ancient mythologies. In Hinduism, the female qualities (creative and powerful) of goddesses are considered dangerous if they are not controlled by masculine forces. The male is seen as representing the consciousness while the female represents the wild and untamed. There are no goddesses in Hindu tradition who are at the same time independent, creative, powerful and role models for women. A gender system is constructed and a patriarchal order is manifested. The role of women in historical records and readings is often missed in human history, and the text are always written in the point of view of men. 

Mythic stories serve the function of legitimatizing the cultural norms and social values. The patriarchal culture and religious conservatism cause the gender inequality prevent girls and women from fulfilling their rights in many places. In present days, Indonesian women often have a weaker position of than men. Child and polygynous marriage are still common, and the legislation to protect women from sexual harassment and domestic violence is weak. 

In the book “Landscape & Memory”, Simon Schama said landscapes are culture before they are nature. The constructs of the imagination projected onto nature objects. A certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way to make metaphors more real than their referents, and become part of the scenery. 

In Citra’s Timur Merah Project, she creates a new visual narrative of creation myth, portraying women as the central figures. Here she references the marginalized narratives in Bali that has correlations with other Austronesian regions, representing the heroic sides not through the masculine but another perspective. The artist said the aim of this work is to reflect the environmental problems that occur when humans gained knowledge and learned to conquer nature. To me, the moment that humans conquer nature, it is also the moment they construct culture with their narratives.

The artist used a variety of visual symbols to construct the feminine narratives of creation and fertility. The name ‘Timur Merah’ means East Red. In the work ‘The Harbor of Restless Spirits’, there are many red fires inside the female bodies, often in the womb or uterus, or attached to the new born trees or heads. In the older common Austronesian mythology, red represents the Mother Earth. In Hinduism, fire represents destruction and rebirth. It is also seen as a form of divine feminine energy called Kundalini, located at the base of the spine. Since it’s a feminine energy, it is represented by a female coiled snake, as the shedding of snake skin that represents death and rebirth. In this painting, the fire is the fertility power that give birth of the nature, and there are some serpent girls hanging around. 

Some of the women’s heads are linked together by their long hair. Not only does it represent the connection, cooperation and Inheritance between women, but it is also about the politics of women’s bodies. Hair is often a metaphor for a woman’s identity, body and beauty in different context. Muslim women are required to wear a headscarf to covers the head and chest to maintain modesty and privacy from unrelated males. Their beauty can only be seen by their husbands and family. The patriarchal ideology imposes a husband’s authority on his wife’s body. The female figures however in this painting is free to show their natural form, and express femaleness, as a symbol of creation, to its fullest extent.

Garden of Six Seasons

May 16 – Aug 30
Para Site + Soho House Hong Kong

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