As told in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Philomela was a Greek princess who was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus. Rather than slink away and suffer silently, Philomela screamed that she would shed her shame, and shout to the world what Tereus had done. Horrified by this thought, he cut out her tongue, imprisoned her and raped her again for good measure. Not to be so easily silenced, Philomela managed to communicate her story by weaving a tapestry which she sent to her sister (and Tereus’ wife) Procne. Revenge — in the form of infanticide– ensues, and the story ends with all three adults being turned into birds by the Gods.
From this gruesome story, artist Jacob Yanes teases out the themes of power, violation and communication. Installed in the upstairs gallery of Steve Turner Contemporary, the striking figure of Philomela stands in front of a tapestry that weaves together Ovid’s text with slave narratives and Yanes’ own words.
The sculpture is smooth, shiny and slick, her eyes staring with an intriguing mix of innocence and removal. Like Yanes’ Soldier, 2010 there is an undercurrent of socially inappropriate eroticism. Is she removing her clothes, numbly participating, or pulling them back on? There is nothing disheveled about her appearance, yet she has already woven the damning tapestry, suggesting that we are coming upon her after her imprisonment. So why the suggestive unbuttoning? To show us her scars? Because, having been abused by Tereus she now mistakes her own vulnerability for love?
As noted in the LA Times review, the blackness of the sculpture smartly inverts the classical Greek tradition. It also further connects the piece with the slave narratives that intertwine beautifully with Philomela’s story on the tapestry. Her silencing and abuse become tools for thinking about a wealth of abuses, and art (both visual and verbal) becomes a coded method of voicing abuse in a hostile environment.
Alone in the small room with Philomela, I felt uneasy. With her disconcertingly large eyes blazing out of the intense darkness, I thought of a bird emerging from an oil slick. As I tried to combine my thoughts and feeling into a cohesive experience, I didn’t know where I was in relationship to her: fellow victim, potential perpetrator or silent witness?
The piece is on display at Steve Turner until May 26th.