In A Woman John Called Mary, artist Delphine Somers models her own “personal icon of freedom and unruliness” out of an image that has long traversed Western cultural tropes. Her paintings, sculpture, film and performance stage an image borne out of a deep fascination and fear of the wild, untamed nature of things that exist beyond control. She digs into the phantasmagoric image of a dreadful nature that runs through myths and folk tales representing the wildman as a hairy creature living in the woods, all the way to depictions of Saint Mary Magdalene dating back to the early Middle Ages. The hair-covered body of a part- sexualized, part-animalized woman fascinated Delphine Somers, and constituted the point of departure for her journey through the man-made fabulation of an image of sin and evil conflating parallel myths, folk tales and archetypes of femininity as (in)docility.

The concept of ‘nature’ as opposed to ‘civilized’, regulated life was forged as a way for patriarchal societies in the West to justify the disposability of such a wondrous yet monstrous entity. The thought system that birthed this artificial divide between Man and Nature felt threatened by unruliness and unsubmission, so it built a fence to contain the otherness that resisted its grasp. And those who dwelled there were called primitive, criminal, clandestine and mad. This idea of nature goes hand in hand with a disavowal of the wild as a space that refuses to be explored, owned and exploited. Doesn’t the wild, then, offer the perfect plot for unmaking and disordering the given order of things? Someplace that holds, without consuming, the ungraspable, the fugitive and the disobedient? Disguised as the biblical character of Mary Magdalene, the artist slips under the fence and invites wilderness into the picture.

It is said that Mary was born in Magdala, a fishing town in Galilee, in the land of Palestine that is now torn by a genocidal war. Others trace her designation back to the Hebrew term for tower, alluding to her position as a stronghold in the movement surrounding the prophet. Or perhaps were they referring to the spiritual tower connecting earth to heaven? Or was it the walled garden that literature so often built to sequester young virgins like Rapunzel or Saint Barbara? Some say that, before meeting Jesus and rising to fame as the apostle who first witnessed his resurrection, Mary was possessed by seven demons. In the 6th century, pope Gregory I drew from several biblical characters to write his version of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who repented in the desert for 30 years. There, she miraculously grew hair all over her body to hide her sinful nudity. This version entered the imaginary of Christendom, where her image was used as a symbol of penitence. So Mary joined the witch and the savage in the landscape of others that served as a necessary counterbalance to the powers in place. They even gave her name to those carceral-like institutions for outcast women called the Mary Magdalene laundries or asylums.(1) This story is emblematic of the misogynistic foundations on which the Church was built. It shows a narrative machinery at work in crafting a monster. Perhaps re-telling Mary’s story is a way for the artist to outplay the story that she has been told and re-pair (with) the wild that lives in and around her.

In her performative intervention, Delphine Somers challenges the fantasies that have been projected onto Mary’s body. Her hairy costume recalls images connected to animality and the wild life that strives outside of civilization’s enclosure. All around the rocky cave that Mary used as shelter in her reclusion, the artist dispersed fragments of an iconographic library that she has been gleaning from different sources, mainly from Medieval and Renaissance representations of hairy Mary. Mary’s body covered in a cloak of hair is reminiscent of the wildman that starred in many legends ranging from ancient Mesopotamia (Enkidu) to Eastern Asia (Yeti) and North America (Big Foot). Ejected into wildness, she moves away from order and drifts closer to the realm of untamed desire. Her body is abjected; she embodies sin and utter devotion; she is eternally blameful. Some images show her breasts peeping out of her hair cover. Others reveal the silky white skin of a bare shoulder in a meditative pose. None give shape to the voice that spoke up in the boys club that discredited, distorted and repainted her image.

But here, through self-portraiture and a form of pastiche hagiography, Mary’s Life and Works take on a funny turn. With appearances as a referee in a clash of ideas, a servant to Mistress and an insurgent serf, her story sounds like an offset fairy tale where the princess strikes men in their nightmares and embodies desires that have long been repressed. Delphine Somers draws on the narrative motifs imposed upon Mary Magdalene in The Golden Legend (2) to re-imagine the tropes of sexuality, repentance and luxuria as potential spaces of liberation. And in the end, Mary lives happily ever after in a plot that “comes after nature, after queerness, and before the world they have dreamed” (3). One that lurks in wilderness.

Into this space walks a figure we cannot classify, who refuses to engage us in conventional terms but speaks instead in a gestural language, one that finds solidarity, connections, and, yes, hope in the continued commitment to the dark, the lonely, and the wild. (4)

1. The Magdalene asylums operated throughout a period in which paradigms were being invented in order to rationalize a colonial order. The image of something feral was projected onto women who were being internalized, and onto Black and Indigenous lives that were being brutalized.

2. A collection of hagiographies written by Jacobus de Voragine around the year 1290.
3. Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, DUniversity Press, 2020, p.49. 4. Ibidem, p.126.

Text: Sofia Dati


















Het leven en de werken van Maria Magdalena (2024) - 9 panels of 30 x 40 cm - Acrylics on wood







Germination (2024) - Triptych- 3 panels of 120 x 140 cm - Acrylics on wood


 

Wildevrouw (2024) 120x140 cm - Acryliics on wood





De norm is niet in form (2024) - 3 panels of 15 x 20 cm - Acrylics on wood

















Installation shots ‘A Woman John called Mary’ at Kusseneers Gallery