“Crucifixion of the Feminine”

“Faces and Facets: Photographic Works by Shai Zakai”

“Beyond the Looking Glass: Contemporary Women Photographers”

The ordering concepts of society are always in transformation. Contemporary culture creates the impression—possibly accurate—that this process has been accelerated, and that old ideas and their symbols are not only worn out but dangerous. Gender relations and religion inspire particularly strong redesign impulses—yet those struggling to create new models find old symbols surprisingly tenacious.

As Carl Jung observed, the present is only a thin veneer through which ancient habits continue to seep. In visual art, this process is especially potent because it employs many of the same forms and symbols for new ideas that it did for old. The Christian symbol of the cross and images of woman and “the feminine” are currently examined in three exhibitions at Washington galleries. Taken together, they demonstrate some of the hazards and challenges of contemporary critiques of religion and gender—as well as the rewards of new ways of seeing.

“Crucifixion of the Feminine” at Wesley Theological Seminary’s Dadian Gallery is the most provocative of the three, and the only one with shock potential. It not only contains irreverent and punning references to ritual and sacred traditions, but displays Edwina Sandys’ famous—and in some circlesinfamous—bronze sculpture Christa,a nude female body nailed to a cross. The piece is vaguely naturalistic in the Rodin tradition of modern sculpture, and has generated controversy wherever it has been shown—especially in churches, a testimony to the potential for high-stakes fallout when two powerfully charged symbols are combined. Only when groups and/or individuals are passionately invested in a symbol system can art generate such energy.

Dadian Gallery Director Deborah Sokolove reports that “nobody is neutral about this exhibition.” During my visit, a man, quivering with rage, came in to tell “whoever is in charge” that “this show has no place in a Christian institution.” Some objections to the show seem to be prompted by the nudity of many of the female figures depicted, but the more radical challenge is to the concept of the masculinity of God.

Christa is the only work in the exhibition that presents that challenge explicitly. The remainder of the works slip around the gender identity of the Judeo-Christian God to explore ways that women suffer in Christianized Western society. The show was organized by Martha Mabey, director of Richmond, Va.’s Mabey Gallery, who asked artists to create works around the title theme. Some of the pieces already existed; others were made just for the show. As a consequence, the work is uneven: There’s little evidence that many of the artists have thought much about crucifixion—other than metaphorically—or have a clear definition of “feminine.”

Because of the powerful charge of its symbolic language, however, the show is enormously thought- provoking and occasionally moving (in spite of the insipidity of many of the images). Sokolove reports that visitors, even those who are initially hostile, are usually absorbed by the show and often confide intimate stories of suffering and fear evoked by the images. This, again, is a tribute to the force of the concepts carried by the symbols. Most of them deal visually with political and power situations rather than psychospiritual and philosophical issues. But it is this very complexity of possible approaches and reactions that makes “Crucifixion of the Feminine” such a satisfying show. The opportunity to see Sandys’ Christa in the flesh, so to speak, is worth the trip out Massachusetts Avenue.

The power of the female body and its image is something Christians have striven to control since the early days of the Church, and these are still contentious issues today. In spite of New Testament language suggesting the incorporation of all humanity into the notion of Christ and the prevalence of early Christian images showing an androgynous Jesus, rejection of women’s creative force—except for reproduction—has been the rule. But like the cross, the idea and form of woman is a potent symbol, operating with unpredictable, uncontrollable effect whenever it appears.

Eloquent testimony to this is offered by “Faces and Facets,” an exhibition of Israeli artist Shai Zakai’s photographs at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum. The 36 photographs are portraits of accomplished women who represent many aspects of female achievement in contemporary Israel. The majority are Jewish, but there are portraits of Christians and Muslims as well, and they range from a brigadier general to a Bedouin goatherd. Each portrait label identifies the sitter and her profession, and many labels feature text excerpts from the photographer’s interviews with the subjects.

Like the Dadian Gallery Show, “Faces and Facets” works on many levels. As works of art, the photos are luscious, deeply saturated with rich color and the vivid detail of the sitter’s face or surroundings. I’m unfamiliar with Zakai’s other work, so it’s difficult to judge whether the subtle glamour pervading each photo is characteristic of her approach to photography or just to images of women. The glamour certainly links these 36, placing them in a similarly idealized aesthetic space.

The works are also rich in visual and social narrative. In some cases—such as the image of sculptor Eva Avidar, who is pictured seated on a stool holding a ceramic head next to a life-size painted ceramic figure in a similar pose—the photograph literally speaks for itself. In others, it is considerably enriched by the text nearby. Bedouin goatherd Fedaia Ramak reports that if she had her own flock she’d “have everything and be satisfied. I don’t know what sorrow is, I don’t know what anger is.” A bust-length portrait of soldier Sorika Braverman Shpachner’s worn face is accompanied by her simple autobiography: “I did what I believed needed to be done. I believed in Zionism so I immigrated to Israel. I believed in work, so I went out to a farm of working women and learned agriculture. I believed that one must defend our land so I enlisted in PALMACH, the Haganah, the Women’s Army.”

Zakai chose her subjects not only for their public accomplishments, but also for their relationships to others. Almost all of them are mothers. She was looking in the photographs for evidence of “some small revolution that caused them to do other things, or at least to view themselves from another perspective.” The images don’t always accomplish that, but by reflecting an extraordinary range of women’s participation in Israeli society they suggest something about the potential of women as a group. They propose a visual solution to the question left unanswered in “Crucifixion of the Feminine”: There is no single definition nor single image of woman that can embrace the diversity actual women represent.

In fact, Zakai’s images suggest a composite portrait of “the Goddess,” an image as multifaceted as the idea of God in a theistic tradition. The term is associated with a popular and frilly sentimentality, but Zakai’s female images have the solidity and sublime self-confidence of visual representations of the female image of the divine. The idealization and iconic structure of many of the photos contributes to this effect, but it also derives from the positive assertion of authority so evident in the bodies, faces, and occupations of these women. Theirs are faces in which feeling is transfigured by passion and hard work into an inner radiance that’s not just the effect of studio lighting. What was depicted at Dadian as an identity of subordination and persecution in which variety is subsumed is proposed in Zakai’s work as an identity—multiple, not singular—of subdued triumph.

In the David Adamson Gallery show “Beyond the Looking Glass: Contemporary Women Photographers,” the gender issue is present mostly through the sex of the artists. Many of the photographers in the show deal with feminist and gender issues either directly or obliquely, but that was not the criteria for their inclusion. Independent curator Sabrina Raaf chose the artists rather than the images, and the result is a show of contemporary photography in which quality and achievement are the issue, not gender politics. Works by Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Ilyse Soutine, Barbara Ess, Alexandra Solmssen, Joyce Tenneson, Toni Zernik, Annie Leibovitz, Diana Gibson, and Gwenn Thomas might be said to have feminine and/or feminist readings, but such readings are not any more important than the technical and metaphorical concerns that characterize successful high-art photography.

“Beyond the Looking Glass” is impressive in many ways. It’s a museum-quality show, it’s beautifully hung in David Adamson’s large third-floor gallery, and along with the general high level of production, it is characterized by a refreshing diversity of subject matter. Technical variety also enlivens the viewing—the works range from gelatin silver prints to giant cibachromes, solarizations, and photograms. It’s the sort of show that comprises a gradual but constant shift in tone and/or content, like a leisurely conversation with frequent digressions and asides. It also provides a summary gloss on the Dadian and B’nai B’rith shows, with many of its images—particularly those by Soutine, Goldin, and Mann—demonstrating oppression and discrimination that still permeate the art world. But the work itself and the evidence of these photographers’ lives demonstrates something else as well: the realization of women’s potential.