In September, Arusha Gallery reopened its doors to a world transformed. ‘Ancient Deities’ fittingly extends the viewer an invitation to consider our future by returning our attentions to the myths of days gone by. Co-curated by artist Rhiannon Salisbury, the show depicts a pantheon for the contemporary. 18 artists were invited to respond to a god of the past, reinventing them for a modern audience.
While the curatorial handling of this theme is uncomplicated - the show could have gone further in terms of interrogating the role of myth in societies old and new - the paintings on display are enchanting and well worth visiting. Across the gallery walls, an erotic millennial Pepto-Bismol pink unifies the painterly programme and suggests an outmoding of the old gods by a new feminine divine as several artists eschew traditional deities and instead elevate the sacrality of mortals, focusing on the transformational power of everyday women. Salisbury’s own work as well as that of Ella Walker are impressive in their painterly handling of myth as an aesthetic atmosphere, and shares with Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s dazzling ‘The Summit of Beauty and Love’ (2020) the virtue of impressive and unapologetically sensuous surfaces. Though not a deity, Salisbury’s ‘Lilith’ (2020) presents the insubordinate first wife of Adam as a biomorphic mass of flesh suggestive of the irresistible force of desire. In Rebecca Harper’s mounted canvas ‘Pandora’s Shrine to Hope’ (2020), the first woman on earth leaps through the cosmos on the back of her husband Prometheus, evoking a hopeful vision of earthly transformation carried out through the strength of mortal women.
A particularly successful underlining of the ways that ancient sacred symbols live on in the modern psyche is Lindsey Mendick’s ‘Hot to Trot’ (2020): a totemic sculptural work with a post-punk feminist accent that represents Circe – antiquity’s first sorceress. When her paradisiac life on Aeaea was interrupted by the arrival of Odysseus and his crew, the often vengeful Cire responded by transfiguring the men into swine. In a nod to the origins of Circe’s name, which derives from the verb “kirkoô”, meaning “to secure with rings”, Mendick presents a cauldron-like vessel in which a mucin-coated pig snout is encircled by deliciously grotesque fingers. Elsewhere in the exhibition, references to Kabbalah and the traditions of Western Esotericism abound, as in Leo Robinson’s striking ‘Black Faun’ (2020): a large-scale graphic work featuring the symbols of the “Royal Road”. Here the Faun - a forest deity in Roman mythology - is reimagined as a patheistic avatar. Occasionally, the notes of New Age revival are played a little too hard, producing experiments reminiscent of Goethe’s tale of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (1797).
The exhibition is a group show but in terms of material and surface rendering, there is a palpable formal coherence across the works on show, which is somewhat unsettling. Many works share the same colour palette, mottled patina and self-conscious naivety. That said, an anthropological reading of myth would hazard that this aesthetic conformity across discreet creative gestures highlights the collective character of myth as a shared symbolic language.
While the expression and representation of religious devotion has been the primary objective of creative activity for millennia, the ritual of art-making as an explicit sacrifice to capital alone is a relatively recent phenomenon. Though the secularising Enlightenment in Europe sought to sweep away the last vestiges of dogma and metaphysics to make way for a new faith in science, at the end of the 19th century industrial transformation and globalisation prompted a self-conscious sentiment of nationalism across the European continent. Shifting social and political identities prompted by internationalism and the flattening of difference were explored through a renewal of local and regional cultures, customs and folk beliefs such as Gothic revivalism and the Arts and Crafts movement. In the 1960s and 70s, the notion of a shared reality cracked open and gave birth to counter-cultural and New Age ways of life - being with others and with nature. In troubled times, when reason fails and irrationality reigns, we return to the old ways, embrace ritual and will ourselves to believe in myth.