all images by Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2021
I have been looking through the thousands of images that I made with photographer Luís Branco in October at the OBRAS Artist Residencies in Portugal. We had a very productive time—our work has become increasingly theatrical, though always improvisational and never choreographed. Sorting the meaning and impact of the images takes time, reflection (and editing) to figure out.
It has been difficult to look at these images where I act out and embody the heroine Salome. Who was Salome anyway? Salome has been portrayed by poets and painters, in theatre and opera, and in film; as an alluring beauty, a chaste princess, a licentious woman, an evil seductress, a murderous vamp, an orientalist female visage, and more. Salome’s representation has evolved over the last two thousand years from its biblical beginnings, however her manifestations have never lost their misogynist overtones. She is adorned in jewels, semi-naked and swathed in diaphanous fabrics. She is often pictured with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, sometimes kissing his bloody head. Flaubert, Gustave Moreau, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Richard Strauss, and even Al Pacino have all had their way with this damsel. Performers and actors; Mata Hari, Maude Allan, Rita Hayworth, Jessica Chastain have donned her immodest silken veils.
And why have I, a 66 year-old feminist conceptual artist, chosen to portray Salome?
By embodying Salome, I am beckoning the sexist male gaze that has tainted this mythical creature from her early beginnings. Concurrently I am questioning this gaze.
I arrived in Portugal last October with costume jewelry and gold and silver fabrics to bedeck myself. I found a fabulous brass tray at the Saturday market in Estremoz, the perfect platter for the imagined head of John the Baptist. We shot many images in the studio at OBRAS with a simple black background, the tray, the necklace and me. I am exposed (my sagging skin, my aging body).
When my partner, Jamie, saw these last few images she asked “What were you thinking about?” I was, actually, thinking about Oscar Wilde’s Salome and her unrequited love for Jokanaan (John the Baptist), of her kissing the decapitated head of her beloved. Yes, O.W.’s Salome is pretty weird . . .
We were also shooting Salome in the castle at Evoramonte.
She is a dream, an apparition . . . much like Gustave Moreau’s painting “The Apparition” and the golden and silvered wall of the castle appears like a mirage or a beautiful abstract painting.
One of our last photoshoots, Salome at Sunset, was Luis’s idea and I improvised my Salome in the rental car at sunset, not quite so self-serious . This was fun.
Luís and my rendition of Salome is that of an aging princess, a slutty siren, a phantasm, a self-reflective woman, a wannabe movie star. My Salome is sometimes sexy, vulnerable, a little bit witchy, mystical, even funny. She shows her age, her make-up is a little overdone, her countenance confident, her body still strong and able. I can beckon Salome, I can beckon your gaze and my own gaze at myself.
I am looking forward to returning to Portugal to produce more “heroines” this spring. Luís Branco and I will have a large exhibition of our work “The Mirror Between Us” installed in the beautiful Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal in April of this year. We would like to thank Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden of the OBRAS Foundation for their continuing support of our work.