Launched in 2020, VOMA (Virtual Online Museum of Art) claims to be the first entirely online art museum. Existing solely online allows it to act as a liminal space where it is possible to experiment and push our understanding of art history and museums. Freed from physical reality, the museum hosts unique exhibitions, accessible to anyone with an internet connection, which bring together works of art from across the globe that would otherwise be almost impossible to do in real life.
VOMA’s current Reclaiming the Body exhibition explores ‘how art has historically helped to bake social prejudice against women into our cultural fabric, and presents a new affirmation, in the renewal and reclamation of the female body by contemporary artists’. The exhibition takes place in Gallery 0, Room 2 – a spacious room in which Luciano Garbati’s bronze sculpture Medusa with the Head of Perseus (2018) is centrally placed, confronting the visitor as they enter the exhibition space.
Garbati reverses the Greek mythological story of heroic Perseus beheading the evil Gorgon Medusa, encouraging its re-examination. When reviewed, Medusa’s story is tragic. Once a beautiful priestess, Medusa is transformed into a Gorgon after breaking her celibacy through being raped. Anyone who meets her gaze turns to stone. Perseus, blessed with gifts from the gods, manages to avoid this fate and beheads Medusa in her sleep. He then weaponises her severed head to save princess Andromeda, receiving regal favour and hero status from doing so.
Unfortunately, female demonisation is a common trope in art history. Peter Paul Rubens’ painting Samson and Delilah (1609-10), also featured in the exhibition, depicts heroic Samson falling prey to the deceptive and seductive ways of Delilah, resulting in the source of his power, his hair, being cut.
On the other side of the coin of art history, artists (predominantly male) depict women as an ideal. Sandro Botticelli’s representation of the goddess of love and beauty in The Birth of Venus (1484-1486) is a prime example of this. In this painting, Venus is the pinnacle of chaste. She has been born a fully-grown woman, as pure and perfect as a pearl. Although naked to still be admired, she remains modest, attempting to cover her nudity with her hands and hair. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story from Greek mythology is predicated on male power and violence. Venus’s conception resulted from Saturn castrating his father, the god Uranus, and the genitalia falling into the sea.
Hung alongside Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait The Broken Column (1944). Produced following her spinal surgery, Kahlo is wearing a metal brace. A tunnel of her flesh is missing from her neck downwards, exposing a broken column in place of her spine. Such columns support temples dedicated to Greek goddesses. These goddesses, including Venus, are characteristically physically strong and fertile – the opposite of Kahlo at this moment, who was infertile and could barely move. She depicts herself in a desolate landscape with tears washing her face and nails stabbing into her body, offering a highly visceral portrayal of the artist’s enduring and isolating pain. Equally, the painting captures her strength. She looks defiantly at the viewer, confronting her pain head-on and transforming it into art. This work provides a woman’s complex representation of herself.
Ana Mendieta’s photographic self-portrait Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) (1972/1997) explores gender identity and the artist’s sense of self. In this early example of Mendieta’s work, she photographs herself gluing a male friend’s cut facial hair to her face, highlighting the role hair plays in our sense of identity. Forced to move from Cuba to the US at the age of twelve, the theme of displacement and otherness is central to Mendieta’s art. The themes of prejudice and violence are also recurring in her work, aiming to wake people up from a blind acceptance of their prevalence in society.
The contemporary artist Adelaide Damoah, in a recent talk hosted by VOMA titled Ana, Frida and Me details how the artists Frida Kahlo and Ana Mendieta have inspired her art. Her work A Litany For Survival (2019), which takes the form of a physical canvas and video piece, explores the theme of struggle in response to the Refugee Crisis. Using a band, Damoah attaches herself to a pillar. She then employs her body, covered in paint, to make marks on a canvas. The band continuously pulls her back and then eventually snaps. This work is a physical embodiment of struggle, and the band snapping represents hope for the future. Suffering from chronic and often debilitating endometriosis, the theme of pain and suffering is prevalent in Damoah’s work. She aims to challenge outdated ideologies of colour, creed, race and gender. As a British-Ghanaian female artist, her work provides a different perspective from the cis-gendered heterosexual white male who has dominated art history. As Damoah states, we can only overcome the constructs of art history by providing wider representation. Damoah also warns of the ‘superstar effect’ that leads us to believe that there has been more progress than there has been. She comments that just because a couple of women have found their place in the sun, this does not undo the centuries of marginalisation and lack of representation.
Other artists featured in the exhibition include Huguette Caland, Trulee Hall, Artemesia Gentileschi, Michael Petry and Ilona Szalay. Reclaiming the Body is available to visit online until the 2nd of June 2021. Also on view is VOMA’s Breaking into Colour exhibition as well as several artist showcases and a reading room for further education and discovery. VOMA aims to be a collaborative space, hosting various talks, screenings and events to encourage wider discourse and debate. The museum hopes to break down barriers, provide different perspectives and challenge what we have come to accept as immutable.
With thanks to Amy Miles for this review.