One of the most compelling and beloved figures in the Bible is the subject of an exhibition of photographs at the International House hotel in the Central Business District this month.
But given the season, it might not be the one you expect.
“Magdalena,” which features work by a dozen artists, explores various aspects of the figure who, in the words of the exhibition organizers, has been “viewed as everything from the archetypal goddess of wisdom to the bad girl of the Bible” over the centuries.
Produced in conjunction with the citywide PhotoNOLA event this month, it is the hotel’s third annual juried art exhibition to focus on the figure of Mary Magdalene, the follower of Jesus who some have identified as his closest friend, spiritual associate and even lover.
According to International House art director Britney Penouilh, it’s also one of seven “ritual” art events produced annually at the hotel.
“Each ritual is an elaborate installation in the hotel lobby in conjunction with some sort of event, toast, bottled elixir or panel discussion,” Penouilh said.
But the “Magdalena” show is more than just a way of showcasing examples of creativity. In Penouilh’s view, it’s also a means of redressing certain historical and spiritual imbalances in our very concept of the divine itself.
“Virtually every religion has a god and goddess except for Christianity,” Penouilh said. “With this annual exhibition we are restoring the goddess to her throne. While Joseph is certainly the hero of the Christmas story and Jesus the protagonist, we are looking at the longer narrative of the man’s life and the remarkable women in it. Our Magdalena show is a celebration of the divine feminine.”
In keeping with the universal nature of the show, the photographic works in “Magdelena” encompass a wide range of styles and moods — and even media.
“One is a photograph done in encaustic, which is wax,” Penouilh said. “It’s tactile, hazy and has this wonderful aura emanating from the figure. Another is an iconic image on hand-sewn panels with rusted iron and aluminum mounting. There’s one that’s a beautiful tea-stained cyanotype. They’re just incredible and powerful.”
Photographer Nicole Campanello’s ebullient image depicts the Magdalene emerging from the sea, almost like a Christianized Venus. Matthew Finley’s enigmatic nude figure finds herself enveloped in sinuous layers of cardboard, which he says represents “our obsession with packaging ourselves and the isolation that can create.” And Jill Sutherland’s evocative portrait references the “seven demons” who were said to have been cast out of Mary Magdalene by Jesus himself.
Exhibition juror Aline Smithson says the many different ways artists chose to depict the Magdalene in submissions for this year’s show made the selection process difficult.
“I could have easily selected twice as many images,” she said in her introduction to the show’s catalog.
In the end, however, “Magdalena” still provides a fascinatingly diverse look at a complex and multilayered subject.
“Magdalena was a witness, a seer and an anchor,” Smithson said. “Each one of the photographs in this exhibition speak to these qualities, and when combined create a layered portrait of the potential of womanhood.”
John d’Addario writes about art. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.