Red, Black, Silver and White
In her fifth solo exhibition at Arndt & Partner Berlin, Mathilde ter Heijne is showing the first collection of her recently founded Goddess Label as well as an installation based on her project Mosuo Fireplace Goddess that was produced in China two years ago.
The works of the artist are predominantly produced in series, although they encompass a broad spectrum of different media such as video, books, installations and, most recently, clothing.
The works presented at Arndt & Partner, too, share a common theme. They have arisen from the artist’s research over the past three years on matriarchal societies and on the decoding of
prehistoric symbol systems. The works explore the role of women in shaping cultural identity and in the transfer of knowledge within societies with a matriarchal structure. The focal point of ter Heijne’s research is the archeological assumption that the cultures of the Neolithic period1, in contrast to the religions codified on alphabetic scripts – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – did not believe in a male creator; instead they worshiped an array of female goddesses. While it can be assumed that the invention of the Sumerian script and the emergence of the “religions of the book” served as catalysts in the formation of patriarchal social orders2, it has been proven that in the preceding Neolithic era matrilineal cultures existed. It is this correlation between religion, script or symbol systems and gender roles that the artist is particularly interested in.
Ter Heijne’s installation Export Matriarchy (2007) consists of a replica house, reduced in scale and made of polyurethane so that it can be assembled easily, of a 200-year-old traditional dwelling that the artist purchased from a Mosuo family in 2007. The Mosuo are a matriarchal people residing in the Yunnan province of southern China. The social order of the Mosuo is characterized to this day by genuine equality of the sexes and women’s right to choose their own partners, as well as by the absence of marriage, the nuclear family, private property and class differences. In the life of the Mosuo the house plays a central role, not only as a habitat but also as a sacred place for worshipping the goddesses, and as a symbol for social order and the community.
Ter Heijne is also presenting her comic The Empire of Women – Not a Fairytale (2007) at Arndt & Partner. The comic – free copies of which are available to visitors – uses several different text and image levels to illustrate the artist’s journey with her team to the Lugu sea, the region where the Mosuo people live. Through diary entries, descriptions of the daily lives of the Mosuo, and conversations with members of the tribe we learn about how the artist acquired the wooden Mosuo house in order to exhibit it as “tribute to a dying culture” in the Beijing gallery Currents.
The installation Red, Black, Silver and White (2009) belongs to ter Heijne's most recent body of works. Nine different ponchos, created in collaboration with the Berlin fashion label von Wedel & Tiedeken, are presented on clothes rails. They represent the first collection of the artist's recently founded Goddess Label. The ponchos, which are made of the finest cotton and babyalpaca wool inspire associations with warmth and protection - perfect in times of crisis. At the same time, the ponchos serve as an exclusive medium for specific messages: the geometric patterns on the outside refer to the Eastern European symbol system of an era that preceded the emergence of the Sumerian script. The system was deciphered by the prehistorian Marija Gimbutas(1921-1994), who succeeded in proving that the Neolithic symbols testify to the dominant status of goddesses over male gods and to the existence of societies with matrilineal social structures. Inside, the ponchos are decorated with texts intended to protect and empower the person wearing them. They are written in Pictish, an extinct script from the Middle Ages in what was later to become northern and eastern Scotland and which was used again in the 19th century by adherents of a neo-pagan cult in order to transfer secret knowledge between insiders.
By means of a decoder attached to the poncho's label the viewer is able to read the Pictish texts.