‘When I was growing up, my father was a Catholic and he would talk about the two Marys – Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. So as daughters, you have this stark choice about what you can be – a saint or a sinner,’ reminisces Melbourne-based artist Sangeeta Sandrasegar.
Her latest solo show, ‘Quite Contrary’ at Murray White Room in Melbourne, delves into this paradox by interrogating historical depictions of Mary Magdalene. Specifically, Sandrasegar focuses on portrayals of Magdalene after Christ’s resurrection, when she wanders in the desert for 20 years to undertake penance.
Within Western culture, Mary Magdalene has been used to indicate female vice and sin, and is often sexualised and portrayed as licentious. For some she is seen as a feminist icon, and to others, a devout disciple. Such contradictory perceptions reveal that Magdalene is more than merely a religious icon or a biblical figure; she is a mirror that sheds light on shifting historical and societal values on women. Sandrasegar draws on this rich canon and reappropriates artworks from the Renaissance to Romanticism.
The works that Sandrasegar have selected to reappropriate are subversive in and of themselves as they have eluded the desiring male gaze. For example, she references German artist Tilman Riemenschneider’s late-Gothic altarpiece (c.1490-1492) where Mary’s entire body is completely covered by hair, and Donatello’s wooden sculpture The Penitent Magdalene (c.1453-1455) where she is a haggard, elderly woman.
In other works Sandrasegar portrays Mary Magdalene as a Renaissance scholar surrounded by books and holding a skull, a memento mori. These items are traditionally metaphors for wisdom, used in Western portraiture to illustrate intellectual pursuits in the contemplation of life, death, and philosophy. Ironically, in these depictions of Mary Magdalene as a scholar, she is surrounded by floral wreaths that evoke the decorative arts, a discipline usually seen as ‘feminine’ and therefore frivolous in comparison to the male-dominated realm of ‘fine’ or ‘high’ arts. By framing Mary Magdalene within these conventionally ‘feminine’ elements, it is possible to regard the work as a reclamation of the feminine realm, emphasising that agency, intelligence and femininity are not mutually exclusive.
Whilst in the Western tradition of art, Mary Magdalene has usually been immortalised in marble, grandiose oil paintings, altarpieces or triptychs, Sandrasegar uses her signature medium of paper cut-outs and watercolour. Delicate, fragile, and detailed, these paper cut-outs are hung precariously onto the wall, perhaps reflecting the female experience of feeling suspended in the tension between two extremes: existing on the precipice between demonisation and heraldisation. In this one-dimensional medium, the images of Mary are flat, mimetic of the simplistic caricatures that women are forced to occupy as they are denied facets and subjective nuance.
However, the shadows created on the walls behind by the paper cut-outs are far from simplistic. These silhouettes and shadows shift as the light waxes and wanes, emphasising that these shadows are just as much a part of the work as the material paper itself. They exist on a threshold and occupy a liminal space as the societally-constructed concept of ‘women’ is porous, and cultural perceptions of women are mercurial, malleable and altered by environmental conditions.
The Marys at Murray White Room are heterogenous – some are slimmer, taller, some have red hair whilst others have darker hair and skin – as Sandrasegar complicates the reductive binary to which women are coerced to adhere. By referencing such an eclectic and far-reaching range of art historical movements in the Western canon, Sandrasegar reveals that the image of women have been continually defined by the patriarchal mandates of their time, and that true parity recognises the individuality of every Mary and every woman. ‘Quite Contrary’ is a powerful statement, emphasising that whilst feminism might be seen as a discursive trend, the questions posed by feminism remain more relevant than ever.
Soo-Min Shim is an emerging art writer and curator based in Sydney.
Murray White Room
Until 25 August, 2018