The moon is one of the only celestial bodies with features graspable by an Earthling's naked eye. She is a shapeshifter, slinking away from a full orb to a mere sliver and back again. Yet, despite the eternal flux, her identity remains constant. She balances darkness and light in always shifting proportions. Her cycles lead the way for others to follow -- from the ocean's tides to women's bodies. There is an undeniable feminine energy to the satellite, thus the nickname "she-moon."
Bombay-born, Barcelona-based artist Rithika Merchant is a weaver of visual myths, and the moon's feminine mystique is her inspiration. Specifically, Merchant is drawn to the moon's associations with madness -- or lunacy -- darkness and the occult. "The Moon teaches us to balance different aspects of our personality," she said in an interview with Decadence Darling. "It teaches us that to be whole we have to accept the darker side of our selves -- be it the destructive aspects or the more taboo (as judged by society) aspects of ourselves."
In her delicate visions, an owl's head merges with a human's body and blood red mushrooms sprout from ghostly human silhouettes. The moon, in one shape or another, presides over all, looming above or below her many creatures as they shape shift and coalesce.
Merchant applies light touches of gouache and ink to color-stained papers, allowing the layers of pigment and line to float and settle into the page's atmosphere of their own volition. The unbound roundness of the work alerts the viewer that they're in a purely feminine domain. "One rarely sees a straight line in nature," the artist explains in a catalogue accompanying her exhibition "Luna Tabulatorum."
"The circle is a more organic shape," she continues. "Circular shapes are also reminiscent of eggs, birth and cosmogony. The straight line and by extension a phallic shape represents causality or viewing a situation as purely getting from one place to the other. The circle by contrast expresses the idea that there is interrelation and more than one way to express an idea. It also holds the sum of many different parts."
The overt and covert femininity of the images is crucial to Merchant's practice. As the artist explained: "So few stories are told from a woman’s perspective and/or place women as the protagonist." One of the few literary spaces traditionally dominated by women, however, is mythology, a tradition Merchant honors and cultivates. Folkloric myths and fairy tales have historically provided means of escape for women trapped in social roles, whether in the Greek tales of Artemis and Selene or the tales of the Brothers Grimm.
Artist Natalie Frank explored the feminist roots of the Brothers Grimm stories in a gruesome gorgeous exhibition last year. "They are folktales that are pulled and collected by women," Frank explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. "It was the first time in literature that women had a voice in this way. These 19th century Grimm versions were the first time women were able to shape their own representations, evil and divine.
"The [tales] definitely struck me as feminist because of the range of roles that women play in the stories," she added. "From witches to helpers to evil stepmothers to children -- the pure breadth of roles was something that struck me as very feminist. And the way that women were treated both as aggressors and lesser characters."
Both Frank and Merchant were enchanted by the dark nature of their respectively intriguing mythologies. Feminine storytelling in all its forms embraces death, nightfall, cruelty, change -- notions not usually embraced in sanitized fairy tales. "I have found that often creation comes from a dark place, which is why I find creation myths so compelling," Merchant said. "These myths are found in almost all human cultures. There are numerous myths and ideas which speak of creation by the dismemberment or out of some body part or fluid of a primordial being."
Rithika Merchant's "Luna Tabulatorum" is on view until Oct. 18 at Stephen Romano Gallery in New York.
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