Artful Musing

ARTFUL BLOGGER: One week only! La Petite Mort Gallery showcases Olivia Johnston — resurrecting forgotten women from the Bible

Some names are familiar, Eve being one. But others are less known and, centuries later, still influence the way women are viewed and treated in Christian countries.

Lot's Daughters (Clare, Emma). Photo by Olivia Johnston

Eve, Jael, Tamar, and Susannah are all women found in Old Testament Bible stories. Eve, of course, is the world’s original temptress, supposedly responsible for all men’s sins and for all the pain women must bear in childbirth. Not exactly a role model. The other women were raped, abused, maligned, and treated like chattel.

Ottawa photographer Olivia Johnston has created a body of work, titled Fallen, in which contemporary women pose as these various Biblical characters. The work will be exhibited at La Petite Mort Gallery from April 26 to May 2. The vernissage is April 26 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

I received, online, an advance peek at some of the portraits. They are haunting and powerful. But one can expect nothing less from Johnston, a Carleton University art history student who is fast becoming one of Ottawa’s more intriguing photo-artists. The following is a partial transcript of an email interview with Johnston:

ARTFUL BLOGGER: What was the inspiration for you to embark on this photo series?

OLIVIA JOHNSTON: I have always had an interest in women’s and gender issues, and my interest in this merged with thoughts of historical art and the Bible when I began seriously studying art history.I recall a moment when I was sitting in class, looking at a print depicting the Virgin Mary. I began to imagine a scenario where, on her deathbed, she had sudden doubts about the existence of a Christian God.

The women of the Bible are presented to us in the context of the men in the Bible, so their voices are effectively silenced. I began to imagine who these women of the Bible might have been. What kind of women would they have been? Who would they have loved? What were their everyday concerns? How did they deal with the harsh and unforgiving culture in which they lived?

Jephthah's Daughter (Nancy). Photo by Olivia Johnston.

AB: What kinds of instructions did you give to your models? Were they asked to assume a certain look or a certain pose?

OJ: I instruct my models, but gently; each sitter brings themselves to the shoot. For these images, my sitters knew that they were portraying characters, and had read the stories of their respective characters before the shoot.

Despite the fact that my models are depicting characters here, I brought as much of my models’ own physical presence into the image as possible. Consequently, these images are a curious blend between the stories in the Bible, my literal and visual interpretation of those stories, and all of the emotion, preconceived notions, personal interpretations, and everyday concerns that my sitter brings to the shoot.

AB: The photographs portray women that, to me, echo Old Masters paintings yet the women simultaneously look contemporary. Was this your intention?

OJ: I’ve always had a great deal of admiration for works by the Old Masters, and my studies in Art History have definitely influenced my aesthetic. The majority of Biblical artwork was not created in contemporary society, and so I think it is important to reference the history of these images when recreating them.

Historical artwork plays such a fundamental role in our society’s understanding and interpretation of art. By referencing these works, I can tap into people’s subconscious knowledge, and contextualize my own images in historical art. However, it is also extremely important to contemporize these stories so their significance is not lost on modern audiences. In creating these images, I was very conscious of their historical references, but also of maintaining their relevance for modern audiences.

AB: Does the Bible still influence the way women are seen today in Western society?

OJ: In my opinion, yes; the Bible is still studied by an enormous number of people and its word is still taken as unquestionable truth by many. Consequently, this text cannot help but affect people’s views and beliefs, including their views and beliefs about women.

This series’ intention is to highlight the female characters who are present in the Bible, to re-contextualize their stories, and to push the viewer to question the presence and influence of these stories on society at large. More generally, it is important to acknowledge and understand the impact of any historical influence on a society that is striving for social progress.