The Statue with the Stone Gaze: Medusa and Feminism

Medusa is undoubtedly one of history’s most notorious villains. I definitely used to think as much learning about the myth surrounding her gory demise growing up. Heroic Perseus, son of Zeus and slayer of Medusa, bringing justice to the earth and stars. Not once did I stop and wonder exactly what Medusa was meant to have done wrong, nor what exactly she did to deserve such a gruesome end.

Ovid’s telling of the myth describes Medusa’s human form as being incredibly beautiful; a beauty enough to enrage the Gods. What is often left out of retellings is the fact that Medusa was raped by Poseidon at Athena’s temple, and it was Athena’s rage over the desecration of her temple which caused Athena to transform Medusa’s hair to snakes and gaze to stone. This did not seem to be enough for Athena however, who’s rage fuelled Perseus’ beheading, using Medusa’s powers against her and allowing a victorious Perseus to gift Athena with the monstrous head of her own design.

In the modern day, Medusa’s narrative has been reappropriated, crowning the “snake-haired monster” as a symbol of women’s power, feminism and threat to patriarchy. Given that Greek mythology in particular was an attempt to understand the earthly through the celestial, feminists learning more about Medusa’s story re-conceptualise her stone gaze as one which men cannot control, and therefore must destroy. Some see Medusa as “both fear and desire”; an embodiment of feminine anger and sexuality. Something universally agreed, however, is that it is evident that her assault is potently ignored in the retellings. Perhaps this is why the artist Luciano Garbati decided to immortalise her and tell her story the way so many see as being deserved to be told.

Garbati’s 2008 sculpture piece Medusa with the Head of Perseus is both an obvious nod to and a feminist subversion of Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th Century sculpture, Perseus With the Head of Medusa. The latter piece having Perseus hold Medusa’s severed head whilst stepping carelessly on her headless corpse captures her as a trophy and as an object, rather than a woman with a story. Although Garbati’s work may not be accurate to the myth, Medusa with the Head of Perseus envisions Medusa as a victor, as herself a slayer, as being the main character of her story. It is an ode to Medusa, but also an ode to women everywhere who are themselves victims of sexual violence in the way that she was. Unlike Cellini’s Perseus, who holds Medusa’s severed head high in triumph, Garbati’s Medusa holds Perseus’ head low, her expression cold and certain, eyes fixed on the future she deserved to have.

Garbati donates 10% of all of his proceeds from his work to the TIME’S UP movement; a charity who aim to end sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond through education and pushing for changes in the law. He has also stated that he receives many messages from women who have been helped by his work, and has commented that he hopes it encourages victims to not feel ashamed for “speaking out” and “demanding justice”. The statue was brought to New York with the help of Garbati and the “Medusa With The Head Project” who donate some of their proceeds gained from merchandise to the National Women’s Law Centre; a lawyer-run non-profit who fight for gender equality. More specifically, the statue is currently placed so that Medusa’s gaze faces the door of the NYC court in which Harvey Weinstein is currently on trial.

Although this work seems to have been well received by many assault survivors, art critics, feminists and the like, Garbati’s Medusa is not without criticism. Like every other industry, the art world has a serious problem with allowing space for women artists and minority artists in general. In Linda Nochlin’s 1971 Article “Why Have There Been No Great women artists?” (in which many of the observations made then still ring true today despite the article being written 50 years ago), she rightly points out that there have been no “women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne…” etc. This doesn’t look like it is going to change any time soon either, as in the US alone, only 11% of art displayed in permanent gallery collections were by women, and of these 5,800 women artists, only 190 (3%) were black women. Garbati’s being a white man obviously does not help these statistics.

In addition, given the subject matter that Garbati’s Medusa portrays and the meanings it has been given by assault victims, it is not unreasonable to be let down that a man’s artwork has been pedestalised for the #MeToo movement. Some feel that because #MeToo was started by a Tarana Burke, a black woman, to use Medusa – someone who is most often characterised as being white – as a #MeToo frontwoman undermines the work black women and other women of colour have done for the movement.

The impact of a work like Medusa has empowered and re-enfranchised so many survivors of sexual assault. As a standalone piece, it shows a darker, erased side of both mythology and reality. It immediately calls issues of sexual violence to attention, and its placement outside Weinstein’s trial court and popularity in its own right demand conversation for anyone who walks past it. Digging deeper however, Medusa also demands further conversation about lack of representation and diversity in social movements such as #MeToo, as well as in the world of art which, ultimately, is the real challenge of artists in the present day.

Photo courtesy of Olena Lev

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