“Julie Oakes: Genesis” by Ashley Johnson in Vie des Arts
This article appeared in Vie des Arts English Edition, N. 217, Winter 2009-2010.
Genesis is the Biblical version of the beginning of the world. Stories like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark, stream through kindergartens replete with talking snakes. Western culture is imbued with medieval attitudes towards race, sex, gender and the animals that stem from accepting the Bible either literally or metaphorically. Even the theory of evolution follows the religious paradigm and hypothesizes a linear ascent of humans.
The centerpiece of Julie Oakes’ latest exhibition is a spectacular reinterpretation of Biblical mythology through the medium of an art installation. The artist is preeminently a storyteller who uses the mythology as a vehicle for expressing contemporary issues. There are several other paintings in the exhibition that explore Buddhist mythologies.
The landing of Noah’s Ark, and subsequent dispersal of species across the earth, represents a point of redemption for humanity. The savage God has made a covenant promising not to destroy humanity again. Thus Oakes’ choice of this age-old story is particularly apposite in the present environmental crises. Indeed, with the glaciers melting, many places will experience flooding again.
A huge grey painting of the ark’s prow is set against a troubled lilac sky. Below, brilliant green grass waves in the wind. Streams of camels, elephants and monkeys are painted in lines that follow the boat’s timber construction. At the centre, a coiled serpent presents an oval exit point. It’s significant that the much-maligned snake is the doorway. Ever since Adam fell from grace, the snake has been the personification of evil.
Lilac plinths coil outward and spiral into the gallery space. A procession of animal feet marchesalong the ramp, representing 30 species ranging from exotic forms like the Aye Aye, Chinchilla, Flying Frogs to wolves and zebras. Each foot seems hollow and ends at the top in a ragged area of skin. The inside is painted scarlet, rimmed with a gold line, echoing Victorian porcelain. It’s reminiscent of both flowers and raw flesh. Toenails, hooves and claws are all painted in gold leaf as a feminine touch. These cartoon-ish and decorative qualities ameliorate the macabre vision of severed feet. Significantly, the last foot leaving the ark is black. The interior foot os ;o;ac. suggesting that scarlet tones accrue over time.
It’s a sad feature of the effect these stories have on our culture that racism was for some, endorsed by the Bible. Noah had planted vineyards and drank wine until he passed out. His son, Ham, observed him naked, and because of this incurred a curse from Noah on his 4th offspring, Canaan, who was doomed to serve other men for eternity. The deeply conservative and religious Afrikaners in South Africa used these stories to justify Apartheid and designated Africans to be ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood’. Thus they were deprived of education for decades.
The gorilla’s hand and the elephant’s foot also remind me of African curios like ashtrays made from severed animal parts. It is indicative of a flawed relationship with animals and the environment that religion seems to foster by valuing humanity more than animals and suggesting there is a heaven or nirvana separate from this world.
Julie Oakes’ treatment of the theme is extremely feminine and embracing. Her love of embellishment and floral line is in stark contrast to the dour patriarchal outcome these stories have had upon our culture. THere is strength in the fragile beauty of this work that confronts the emergency we face to reevaluate our relationships with each other, animals and the environment. In a sense, this installation is a visual prayer.