The time is NOW and it is late! – The Brooklyn Railroad
The time is NOW and it is late!
June 11–September 10, 2022
When Monica Sjöö’s canvas god giving birth (1968) was installed in St. Ives Town Hall in 1970, it caused immediate controversy. The challenge to Christian conceptions of God posed by its depiction of a woman of color delivering a child outraged the town’s mayor, who demanded its removal for blasphemy. When featured again three years later at an all-female group show in London, the artist narrowly avoided accusations of obscenity from religious fundamentalists. Now housed in the collection of the Anna Nordlander Museum, a women’s art museum in Skellefteå, Sweden—God giving birth is considered today as the most emblematic work of the Swedish radical and as an emblem of second-wave feminism.
Despite the image’s importance in British social history, Sjöö’s other paintings are rarely exhibited, even fifty years later. She is remembered primarily for her revolutionary writings and manifestos, such as The Great Cosmic Mother (1987), which she co-wrote with Barbara Mor, a staple of women’s studies curricula. But his paintings are experiencing a resurgence of interest thanks to an exhibition of more than fifty of his works, many of which have remained unpublished until now, at the Beaconsfield Gallery in London. Aligning with his inclusion in Tate Liverpool’s Radical landscapes exhibition and a small presentation of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Beaconsfield exhibition offers a long-awaited opportunity to revisit the artist’s visual practice through the lens of the climate crisis.
Sjöö’s language and approach are more relevant than ever. Born in Sweden but residing in the UK for most of her life, she was an ardent anarcho-ecologist whose radicalism could always be gauged by the analogous outcry she received from the white male art world. Despite Sjöö’s status as a pioneer of eco-feminism and an early proponent of the goddess movement – a matriarchal strain of paganism that emerged in the 1970s – she is far less well known than her friends and contemporaries. such as Judy Chicago and Lucy. Lipard. This is perhaps partly due to our inability to classify his politics as neatly as historiography would have it. Her beliefs spanned many of the radical left platforms that underpinned the counterculture movement: anarchism, feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, and anti-racism. Other beliefs she held sometimes seemed contradictory, even though they weren’t. She espoused that heterosexuality was unnatural and imposed by patriarchal culture, but sometimes had relationships with men; she practiced Earth spirituality and esotericism, but was unwaveringly critical of New Age religions.
This rejection of a single identity, however, is what makes his work resonate so strongly today. Aware that humanity’s brazen domination of the earth is inextricably linked to all forms of hegemony, Sjöö supported the liberation of all subjugated peoples. Made in 1968, the year that saw the artist spend time in New York, After the oppressive revolution highlights the activism of women of color during the heyday of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Several other works, including Housewives (1973) and Women’s work and crafts (1975), portray the backbreaking work done by women that is too often disparaged as simple or trivial. Moreover, in Our bodies ourselves (1974), the bare breasts of two women hug each other in a tender kiss – an embrace that is a shameless challenge to heteronormativity and a celebration of lesbian eroticism, a tribute to love freed from any notion of hierarchy.
The directness of Sjöö’s images can be striking, as in Birth and struggle for liberation (1970), which depicts a woman, encircled by the sun, giving birth quite graphically. “WE REJECT…the ‘art for art’s sake’ ethos of the privileged white middle class male art world… [Our task is to convey] God-Woman giving birth to the universe from her bloody womb, life, death, rebirth…” she and Anne Berg stated in their 1971 “Images on Womanpower – Art Manifesto”. Like her writings, her paintings do not mince their words. . They echo one of his most resounding proclamations, from which the exhibition takes its title: “The time is NOW and it is late!”
A later example of his career, Mother Earth in pain, her felled trees, her polluted seas (1996), is a brutally evocative image that equates ecological destruction with physical violence and serves as a living anchor for the exhibition. A female personification of the natural world weeps in pain, the visual hinge uniting an oil spill with the bloody stumps of a forest, rendered bloodily like severed limbs. Many of the works on display date from the 1990s, a period of particularly fiery spiritual introspection for Sjöö after the tragic deaths of two of his sons. Coinciding with the rampant rise of neoliberal politics that had begun the previous decade, as well as further environmental destruction at the hands of the global north, this period was dedicated by the artist to exploring modes of being more ethics, put forward by matriarchal cultures. Spanning ancient Africa, pre-modern Europe, and the Americas, iconography of goddesses is abundant in his later work, which is replete with allusions to spirit masks, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Celtic mythology.
Sjöö’s interest in this imagery deserves a more nuanced discussion than the logistical and thematic limitations of the Beaconsfield exhibition (as a preliminary reintroduction to his work) or that this review could ever permit. While her use of these forms may seem surprisingly appropriate at first glance, they are the result of careful study and a deep, earnest respect for belief systems that she perceived as rejecting modernity, control, and Western greed. She often defended their complexity and sanctity, joining activists of color in chastising New Age religions for what she saw as a gross simplification and exploitation of Indigenous culture. In this sense, his use of these images is less a Cubist-like aestheticization of the “primitive” than a desperate search for answers generated by an existential fear of global collapse. Given her understanding of patriarchy as the primary source of hegemony and ecological destruction, she viewed her engagement with these women as not only consensual but imperative in order to visualize a viable alternative world system. However, the politics of any transnational exchange between two highly unequal states is always fraught with complexity, and contemporary feminist and racial discourse could shed new light on this chapter of her work.
As our increasingly precarious existence is threatened by patriarchal treatments of the environment and society, where do we seek to find a way forward? Looking at his paintings now, a few propositions begin to emerge. What if we reimagined humans as symbiotic participants within a planetary ecology, as opposed to masters allowed to dictate, control, destroy, and consume what we wish? Could this principle, instead of hegemonic individualism, become the common thread of our society? What if, to conceptualize this way of life and exist accordingly, we follow the example of Indigenous voices, who have led the sustainable stewardship of the land for millennia? The fact that the future of the planet is no brighter than it was fifty years ago, that the arc of the moral universe may in fact not leaning towards justice, is certainly discouraging. But Sjöö’s paintings are more than just a reminder of that. They give hope that if the art of the past reflects contemporary problems, it could also provide solutions.