All images: WIP Sappho Series – Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, 2022
I have been editing the images I made in Holland in October with Luis Branco.
And I have been thinking about you Sappho, the feeling of you, my feelings for you, embodying you . . .
Claude Cahun led me to you— your words, your songs, the fragments. Cahun called you “Sappho The Misunderstood” in her essay on you in their 1925 “Heroines” text.
I have been contemplating the rumors, the conjecture and the fictional histories written about you. These unaccountable stories about you have been going on for more than two thousand years.
Did you love women, did you love men, did you jump off the Leucadian Cliff because the beautiful boatman Phaon jilted you? Well of course you loved women and you loved men and you went for that young Phaon. But I don’t believe for a minute that you would jump . . .
When I was shooting with Luis in the autumn landscape in Holland your words were kind of everywhere for me. This is fragment 168 C – translated by Anne Carson in “If Not Winter-Fragments of Sappho.”
the earth with her crowns
But the beauty, the colors, the roses, It can get a little overly romanticized with you. I like this one (I know I am overdoing the cigarette shots):
This following song/ fragment could have been written about any of your lovers or any of mine . . .
Sappho # 3 – Anne Carson’s translation “If Not, Winter – Fragments of Sappho.”
] to give
] yet of the glorious
] of the beautiful and good, you
] of pain. ] me
] you take your fill. For [ my thinking
] not thus
] is arranged
all night long ] I am aware
] of evildoing
] blessed ones
We did a series in the nighttime woods. I can’t decide between these two:
To read more about Sappho, her songs and her various histories and portrayals you can read my previous blog posts:
All images: WIP Judith Series – Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, 2022
I have been editing the images I made with Luis Branco in Holland in October.
The night that Judith took the head of Holofernes began with a feast. Holofernes got very drunk.
There are many readings of Judith’s story: that Judith was doing “God’s will” to protect her people with her own hand; or that she was/ is a feminist super heroine taking revenge on the evil general Holofernes (or even for all woman against all men who have abused them); or as Claude Cahun portrayed Judith in her 1925 essay as “The Sadistic Judith.” I see all of these readings in my performance of Judith. The revenge angle or the “me too” angle is the most compelling to me.
“The Sadistic Judith” is the 1925 essay by Claude Cahun’s in their Heroines text. Here Judith describes the fictional general Holofernes:
“ We have to believe that he despises women, and doesn’t hide it (after all, he himself says so); that he is coarse, as only a warrior can be. After he kissed his slave, he would furtively wipe his lips. He doesn’t remove his garments for fear of soiling his body more than absolutely necessary. During nights of love, his boots are stained with the crimson in which he wallows, symbolically dyed with the red poison of his victims, tracking everywhere, according to the season, the dust or mud of the roads, or worse. But as the cock crows, he has his bath, sends the girl away—and has the sheets changed (blood clotted on silk sheets).”
Here are a few of my representations / embodiments / drag portrayals of Judith after the slaying of Holofernes. This first one is after one of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith paintings.
This next one is after Jan Massys 1543 painting.
And this is after Giorgione’s 1504 painting. And the next three images show Judith’s ambivalence and horror the “morning after” after the act.
You can read my previous blog post with the stories and representations of Judith that I was thinking about before (and during) my own performances of Judith:
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1592
I have been editing the works I accomplished in April with my collaborator Luís Branco in northern Portugal. I had rented a stone house with a waterfall, a swimming pool, and a beautiful garden. My intent was to embody Helen; Beautiful Helen, Helen of Troy, Helen of Sparta—my own interpretation of this mythical woman with a contemporary 66 year-old feminist bent. I had done my research on Helen ahead of time. I had read much of the text and mythos surrounding Helen, and I had looked at how Helen has been “painted” over time.
I began with this question – how would Helen look back on her fabled life and her epic reputation, as an older woman, when all was said and done?
Did she fall in love and lust with the sexy Trojan prince, Paris, and leave her husband King Menelaus to sail off for Troy? This would imply a certain amount of agency on her part, which I am all for. Or did Paris abduct her— initiating a violent journey and her long captivity in Troy?
As either a ravishing seductress or a gorgeous victim, Helen has been blamed for the devastation and destruction of the Trojan War. Euripides, in his play titled Helen, portrays her as both a phantom temptress and a loyal wife. According to him (and others too) the Helen who stayed in Troy during those ten long years of the Trojan War was an eidolon / a ghost. And, while the ghost or the phantom of Helen was in Troy wed to Paris, the “real” Helen was waylaid in Egypt and remained a steadfast wife to Menelaus.
I love this Gustave Moreau image above of Helen at the main gate of Troy. Of all the Helens in all the stories, I relate most to this eidolon Helen, this doppelganger of Helen and these images below were inspired by her and by Moreau’s painting . . .
Then there are the “recovery” stories of Helen (whether she is the real Helen or the ghost of Helen) from the burning ruins of Troy by Menelaus. Euripides describes this reclaiming of Helen in the aftermath of the war in the play titled Andromache. Lord Peleus insults Menelaus thus:
“When you took Troy you failed to put your wife to death, though you had her in your power—on the contrary, when you looked at her breast, you threw away your sword and accepted her kiss, caressing the traitorous bitch, you miserable wretch, born slave to lust.”
The beautiful amphora above displays one of the earliest figurative depictions of Helen of Troy as she is being led back to the ship with Menelaus after the Greeks conquer Troy.
The “recovery” story is reenacted in Dutch painter Johann Tischbein’s painting above. Notice the dropped sword of Menelaus and Helen’s lightly draped and beautiful breasts. Menelaus intended to slay her for her infidelity but was so struck by her beauty (and her boobs) that he took her back to Sparta.
In any case, Helen does survive the Trojan war and, according to Homer in the Iliad, she returns to Sparta to live a harmonious life with Menelaus. I find this story line hard to believe. In another account by Euripides Helen is flown to Olympus by the gods after the war to live out her life as an immortal. This must have been the story line for Gustave Moreau’s Helen Glorified below.
Whether Helen is portrayed as a shameless queen, a brilliant specter or a virtuous wife—she has been constituted and reconstituted as a figment of patriarchal perception throughout millennia. If I were Helen (or her doppelganger) after all these journeys, wars, husbands – I would be exhausted . . . and want to live out the remainder of my life in a quiet fashion alone by the pool in Sparta (or wherever).
The image below is perhaps my favorite of The Helen Series.
All images are from the My Aphrodite series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022
I have been looking, sorting, making sense of and editing the MANY images that I took with Luis Branco on the Costa Vicentina in Portugal at the end of March. It is good to let the images breath . . . you become attached to the images when you first shoot them and look through them. The shooting process was arduous . . . Luis and I worked many days clambering down the cliffs on the Costa Vicentina—shooting hundreds of images on the beautiful beaches at first light and at last light. And the ocean at the Costa Vicentina is almost too gorgeous, too vast, too poetic— it was overwhelming. I also had to figure out the right fabric (it was the cheesy diaphanous blue fabric I bought at Joanne’s on a whim), the right dress, the right make-up (but not too much) and most of all the right Aphrodite Attitude.
And then I just had to let go of the concepts, the ideas . . . and I had to take on a “what the f…” attitude with confidence. I was embodying the immortal goddess in my 66 year-old mortal form. And Luis had to get every shot . . .
This all came together during our last photoshoot in the evening light at the Praia da Carreagem—My Aphrodite emerged. These are my favorite images from that last photoshoot and from the whole week of shooting on the Costa Vicentina. These are the My Aphrodite images.
I am happy with these images (I need to get some processing and printing done) and Luis wants to convert some of the images to black and white. I will go on to sort and edit the series we shot of Helen of Troy and Sparta in Northern Portugal in April. And I am looking forward to researching and enacting more of My Heroines (Sappho, the Virgin Mary? And many more…) Happy Summer!!
The Mirror Between Us is an exhibition of performative photographs made by Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco in the Alentejo region of Portugal between 2015 and 2019. The exhibit is installed in the Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora, Portugal and will be on view April 16- June 4, 2022. This exhibition was curated and supported by Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden, founders of the OBRAS Foundation and artist residency in Evoramonte, Portugal. The Municipality of Evora and Margarida Branco have provided the beautiful space in the church in the historic center of Evora. Andreia Vaz played her own composition on the violin, please look for the link to the video near the picture of her warming up on her violin.
Andreia Vaz played her own composition at the inauguration, here is a link to the video of Andreia’s beautiful performance on my Facebook page, Pedro Barral made the video:
Thank you to the many friends who have supported this work and this exhibition!! Margarida Branco, Senhor Mosco, Luis Pintassilgo, Pedro Barral, Andreia Vaz, Fatima Alvarez, Conor and Fiona Power, Martine de Kok, and all the many others in Portugal and in the US and around the world, and especially Ludger and Carolien! And my dear collaborator Luis Branco who only stands behind the camera, it is an honor and a joy to make work with you and we will keep making it!
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.
I have been home for a little over a week now—settling in and beginning to look at the many images I made in Portugal at the OBRAS Artist Residencies with my collaborator, photographer Luís Branco. It was the best residency yet at OBRAS Portugal, this was my seventh residency at OBRAS Portugal (lucky 7) and I have been collaborating with Luís in Portugal and in the Netherlands since 2015. I arrived at Herdade da Marmeleira (the site of OBRAS Portugal) and I was greeted by my dear friends Carolien and Ludger, the founders of Foundation OBRAS and my hosts and major supporters of Luís and my work.
My intent was to shoot (with Luís) my embodiments and reinterpretations of the heroines Eve and of Salome with some reference to their historic representations in painting and literature. The characters / heroines I am choosing are all based on the ultimate inspiration for this project Claude Cahun— both their 1925 text Heroines as well as Cahun’s more theatrical self- portraits and performative images. There are 15 heroines in Cahun’s text (Eve, Judith, Penelope, Helen, Sappho, The Virgin Mary, Cinderella, Marguerite, Salome, Beauty, THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess (whom I have already represented in THE UNKNOWN HEROINE book and exhibition), Sophie, Salamacis, and THE ANDROGYNE. Of course there is tongue and cheek involved with Cahun’s re-presentations of these heroines, and also my own – after all I am a 66 year old feminist artist embodying these fabled women and Cahun was a radical feminist, gender fluid, artist in the early 20th century rewriting the allegories and stories of their lives.
I was a little intimidated at the beginning, embodying these illustrious heroines seemed a daunting task. Luís and I began shooting Eve / the Serpent in the beautiful studio at OBRAS under more controlled conditions. This way I could slowly take on this “original woman,” mother of us all, and apparently the reason we are not all still in paradise. Working in the studio situation I began to get my dangerous woman Eve / Serpent ju ju going and Luis captured some great images. Here are a few:
There are lots of representations of Eve but this watercolor by William Blake “The Temptation of Eve” (created for Milton’s Paradise Lost) spoke to me. I love the organic quality of the tree and the fruit, the serpent wrapping around Eve’s body, and Adam seemingly unaware of the circumstances. I also like the conflation of Eve and the Serpent, they are one body. I am a Buddhist and not a biblical scholar, but I do sincerely question this idea that “they” (Eve and the Serpent) are responsible for the expulsion from Paradise. I had found this super cool holographic snake fabric and special gloves (during my preparations in the US) and I brought this new costume to use for this embodiment.
Then we started shooting Eve / Serpent Woman by the Marmeleira tree in the courtyard at OBRAS. As I have written before, I chose the Marmeleira tree at OBRAS because it is so beautiful and also because there is some research and speculation about the original “forbidden fruit” in Paradise. If our biblical paradise was located on this earth, it was most likely in some more southern habitat. Apples are a more northern fruit. Some say that the Marmelo fruit / the Quince fruit could have been the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The fig, the persimmon, the pomegranate, are also possible suspects. We did our first shoot with the Marmeleira tree at dusk. Here are a few of those images:
Luis came back a week later and we did two more photo shoots (one in the morning and one in the evening) with the Marmeleira tree, this time with lights. Here are a few images from these last two photoshoots.
Cydney Payton has been helping me go through the many images of Eve and the Marmeleira tree. I am really excited about this new heroine of mine. I have many other images to sort through including my Salome embodiments. Lots of really good work! Other friends have been helping me sort the images, thank you! I am also sure that this project will go on with many more of Claude Cahun and my heroines. Va va voom!!
My friend Karla Dakin found this excellent article which confirms my belief in the marmelo / quince – It wasn’t an apple:
THE UNKNOWN HEROINE is a 64-page limited edition artists’ book made by conceptual artist Sherry Wiggins in collaboration with photographer Luís Filipe Branco and curator and writer Cydney Payton. The book is comprised of text and images that are based on Wiggins’ interaction with French photographer and writer Claude Cahun’s essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess.” The book includes this essay by Claude Cahun as well as an essay by Cydney Payton. You can download Payton’s essay below. The book was designed by Joseph Logan.
PROLOGUE FOR C.C. – Sherry Wiggins
I am writing to you, C.C., about what happened in The House.
The House, named Grunfoort after a castle that disappeared long ago, was strange at first. It was beautiful, old-fashioned. White tulips grew in the garden. Aren’t they a symbol of loss? I saw them for their other meaning—regeneration.
Persephone called to me. Or was it Demeter? Daughter or mother? This always confuses me.
I brought your Heroines* with me. The stories (allegories, parables) are so good, so complicated, filled with references to history, to the Bible, to literature, mythology, fairytales, and they are so wickedly feminist and modern: EVE THE TOO CREDULOUS, Penelope the Irresolute, HELEN THE REBEL, SAPPHO THE MISUNDERSTOOD, SALOME THE SKEPTIC, BEAUTY (OR THE TASTE FOR THE BEAST), THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess, THE ANDROGYNE and the rest. I want to make all of your Heroines my own.
As I delved into the tale of “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess,” allusion by allusion, I understood that, though the story is yours, this is really my story. And though you tell the story well, I have lived this story. I also realized that The House was the perfect setting for the tale, a perfect abode for both THE WIFE and the the Princess.
That’s how it all began—the embodiment, this practice, this theatre—with me enacting the story—your version, my version, our version, in The House.
I took my role as THE ESSENTIAL WIFE quite seriously, and the the Unknown Princess emerged as well. I dressed in black. I pulled my hair back severely. Lots of makeup—Chanel and more. Was it a parody, a performance or truth? The truth, is an older woman looks better with makeup, not too much.
I am no actress. I have become a performance artist. Who knew? Maybe you knew, C.C.; you did all that theatre in Paris in the twenties. I love those images of you as The Devil, The Buddha, The Dandy, The Maiden. Identity is a fluid subject, but you already know that.
Day after day I performed quite well—almost not a performance— as THE ESSENTIAL (House) WIFE. What drudgery! What fun! Well, the the Unknown Princess certainly appeared too. It was all somewhat exhausting: the cooking, the cleaning, the play acting. I needed lots of cigarettes in the garden.
That last morning, while putting on makeup, eyeliner, red lipstick in the upstairs bathroom, standing there in my tights and Spanish socks, I thought, Why not? I went to the banister and posed. What do you think, C.C? Am I THE ANDROGYNE?
Still performing, I put on my robe and went into The Study, the most beautiful room in The House. The windows, the light . . .
What do you think, C.C.? What is a Masterpiece anyway? Masterpiece or not—who decides?
* Claude Cahun, “Heroines,” translated Norman MacAfee, in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, ed. Shelley Rice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), 43 – 94.
You can download the pdf of Cydney Payton’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” below: