Musings on the Art of Monica Sjöö (1938–2005)
The works of Monica Sjöö, Swedish born artist a radical feminist, explore themes of feminine power and socio-ecological responsibility.
Highly influential in the Goddess Movement, some of her early works, which sit on the distaff side of politics and religious faith, were banned. “God Giving Birth” (1968) of God as a woman in full frontal parturition, made her the subject of furious debate and objections which propelled her into the public record.
Her creatures in trees, fungal fruiting bodies, the spirits of place, are seen at times grimacing in pain, or with blank, pitiless stares of the immortal, of the divine, or the numinous or the alluringly predatory.
Sjöö’s medium is oil and oil pastel on cloth and board. Her reverence for the environment, for women ‘losing their chains,’ as being repositories of a forgotten, hidden knowledge – were themes throughout her life. Depicting rounded and angular forms, portal and caverns, darkly or partially lit scenes, images of earth, sky, stones and vegetation, her work ornamented and embellished with serpentine, animalistic, shamanic paraphernalia.
Her brush strokes are frenetic, with something of Van Gough’s frantic ‘seeing’ of life. Textures of the canvas surface are agitated, inviting us strain the mind to see beneath the changed surface of water to visually travel toward things spiritual, ritual, primal, vital somewhere in our unconscious.
Women display archetypal symbols of female power; serpents, spirals, snakes, stone amulets, headdresses and staffs of office, as found in archaeological digs and descriptions from many of the world’s cultures.
Full-figured women with exaggeratedly rounded buttocks and breasts, flanked on thrones by power animals (lions, wolves, bears, bees), or strong, slim and proud figures carrying symbols of their power (Lilith’s the bar and ring, Inanna’s high hat, or fecund vegetation) enriched with ciphers and symbols, (zigzags, swastikas, cup marks, triangles, double axe heads, crescent moons, triple leaved flowers) speaking of many older cultures.
Monica Sjoo is best done ‘face to face’. Don’t be fooled by the reproductions of these works on line. The artist uses a range of moon-grey blues and whites as sacred colours for her forests, temples and in dimly lit subterranean landscapes. She picks out detail in visceral yellow and red ochres.
Entrances were often gateways to other worlds and other realities, being simultaneously both vulva and womb-entrance of the Mother. Monica Sjöö’s paintings carry that dual quality knowingly, with their megalithic tombs, neolithic chambers and holy wells. Proximity and special lighting revealed an extraordinary and singular experience of the hidden energy of her work.
It is well documented that psychotropic substances used by our ancestors and by certain tribes and clans to this day induce trance-like states for shamanic travel. The frenzied brush strokes and vivid, visionary quality of the some 40 pieces exhibited in her home town in Cornwall immediately after her death at the age of 66, worked on the audiences. We became a collective mind surrounded on all sides by the pulsing energy of all her worlds and all our pasts. As turning lights were adjusted to just a little more red, our already charged minds expanded; worlds and goddesses and shaman masks were moved. Psychedelic and surreal we were inside our own creative femininity.
In the words of one writer, the paintings “transformed ancient images and symbols,” returning them to our awareness, directly influencing the feminist and Goddess movements, awakening men and women to them as “contemporary icons of female power.
Fiona Hamilton is is a teacher, linguist, artist and modern prophetess. She lives and works in Cornwall, UK.
Volume 31 number 3 January / February 2017 pp 31-32