The early twentieth century saw an increased fascination with the irrational, “primitive”, symbolic and mythical. During this same period, archaeologists began in earnest to explore humanity’s earliest art. Discoveries such as the Paleolithic so-called “Venuses” seemed to testify to a heritage that was radically different, both in its aesthetics, and possibly in its social organization, from the periods that had stood in the center of historical research in the preceding century. Prehistory developed into a malleable complex that was held up to lend legitimacy to both radical and reactionary politics.
This talk will discuss how artists, scholars and political thinkers looked to theories of prehistoric matriarchies as inspiration for rethinking community. Using Jacquetta Hawkes’s archaeological display at the 1951 Festival of Britain as my example, I will begin by discussing the origins of matriarchal theories and how they became linked to modernist art and radical politics. In the talk’s second half, I turn to the resurgence in interest in matriarchies and archaeology among contemporary artists. I discuss how artists today are adopting the practices and rhetoric of archaeology to critically examine (often racialized and/or gendered) claims of “what has always been” and to imagine new ways of organizing society.
Frederika Tevebring is an intellectual historian working across queer & gender studies, the history of sexuality, and the history of archaeology and museums. Her work investigates how the ancient past has been reconstructed in literature, museums, and scholarship since the 19th century and is particularly interested in figures and tropes described as obscene or primitive that have challenged idealised notions of antiquity. She is currently a British Academy postdoctoral fellow in the department of classics, King’s College London.