You have seen her for sure, the Venus of Willendorf. Discovered in 1908 in Austria, this tiny, round, faceless limestone figure is supposed to be around 25,000 years old. As you can imagine, there is a ton of writing, research and speculation about the Venus and a handful of other Stone Age figurines of women (to give you a sense of its ancientness, one of these figures is carved from mammoth ivory). For a long time, most of the research converged on the idea that the sculpture is iconic, representing the uber-fertile femininity that was apparently valued highly among the Palaeolithic janta. Or that it was an actual talisman to promote fertility. Or that it was (very high effort) porn.
Then, in the 1990s, Catherine McCoid, an anthropologist, proposed a radical idea which I adore. What if the sculptures were not made by men? What if the Venus was— *drumroll*— a self-portrait by a pregnant woman? Through photographs McCoid suggests that the so-mystifying, exaggerated proportions of the Venus could be very simply explained if you were a woman making a sculpture of your own body without the aid of a mirror. If you were simply looking down at yourself, your perspective would explain the sculpture.
Now if you look for notes on the Venus, you don’t often see this theory. And when it’s mentioned, it is mostly mentioned as the judgement of a dissenting bench, giving it the slight aura of a kooky conspiracy theory. Sometimes the later theories have essentially said, “Look folks, we will never know what Paleolithic people were thinking, so let’s not get carried away by our retro manly ideas or by retro feminism.” Which seems fine. But what has happened is that when the Venus gets introduced, the self-portrait theory is rarely mentioned. Why is it not a possible explanation as opposed to the confident ringing tones that continue to declare that Palaeolithic folks valued fat and fertility, as if they had three Palaeolithic best friends? Well, there is that other word that begins with PA and ends with CHY.
I am always excited by the self-portrait theory, not because I know so much about art but because it demonstrates what women with imagination do, even when told they are totally wrong. Both the unnamed sculptor of Venus and Catherine McCoid are people who refused to be limited by the boundaries of other people’s imagination.
For a few years in my life, when I was regularly writing about contemporary Indian art, I was jubilant about my self-education. By dint of sheer frequency, I went from not knowing an Anjolie Ela Menon if it stood in front of me with its phantom eyes, to being able to tell you where in Bandra you could find a Sudarshan Shetty, and one (superb/ignominious/you decide) moment taking my wedding party to a museum instead of a bar. I had colleagues with actual taste in art. I was just happy to be writing about art at a time when excellent contemporary Indian artists with a fondness for (what can only be described as “sidey”) jokes were on the job.
During this brief, decadent period of employment, I met the artist Gogi Saroj Pal. Pal was an excellent raconteur and I came away thinking about how some artists just cannot do anything but keep making art. Pal had been told how to paint and what to paint in art school. She ran away as soon as she could. She was told to be sensible and get a job either teaching art or in some variety of design department. She, in the most classical tradition of stubborn as mule artists, refused. She struggled to make ends meet for years but when 1975 rolled around, it was the UN Year of the Woman, and the kind of people who want that sort of thing wanted an all-women art show in Delhi—guess who was the only woman who had enough work for a full show? It was Pal, well on her way to her distinct style full of mysterious, celestial ladies. The afternoon I met her, Pal was painting. On her canvas that day was not the winged creature with knowing eyes that is associated with her work. It was an outsized painting of an onion. The most memorable onion I have ever seen.
One of the thrills about the half-open, half-closed, mostly infectious year of the Lord that we are currently living through is that you can go and see art shows again. As soon as I saw N.S. Harsha’s new show in Delhi, I got that “oh, we are back, baby” feeling. If you have not seen a giant mural of hundreds of people getting tested for covid-19, specifically a mural that includes a lion getting a throat swab, you haven’t had the specific jolt of bitter, sweet, insane feelings about the pandemic that only Harsha’s massive multitude of miniatures can produce. Desire is the root of all suffering, of course. I immediately wanted to see dozens more art shows about the world as we (don’t) know it now. And please, art by women.
I looked at images coming out of the ongoing Venice biennale (curated by Cecilia Alemani), which, for the first time in 127 years, is dominated by women artists. As fantastic as the art is, I have also taken perverse pleasure in reading the straight-faced quotes from participating artists, such as the 85-year-old Turkish artist Füsun Onur, who said: “Women artists are working hard, but they are not always recognised. It is always men first. Why it is so I don’t know.”
I just want to say that one of the arguments that contest the Venus-was-a-self-portrait theory is, “If it was a woman doing it and she didn’t have a mirror, couldn’t she have used a water body to sculpt her face, huh, bro?” In my imaginary Venice biennale, a woman is looking into a canal and laughing at this theory and others while she imagines her next piece of art.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.