We may be literate now, yet much of our cultural conditioning is still through visual means. However, unlike the Middle Ages when, every Sunday a parish priest would commend to his flock by the example of those saints whose feast days were approaching, using their pictures and images as visual aids, we are now left to our own resources to decipher the icons and symbols around us. It’s easy to look at the ways women are portrayed in the media and say “I’m not like that, that’s wrong”, but is that alone enough to change attitudes which have taken hundreds, or possibly thousands of years to develop? Surely a more effective change will come when we know where these images originated and particularly, what they meant within the historical social context of their time.

The Life of The Virgin is one of the great themes of Christian art and an illusory model of perfection that women strove for centuries. As a means of separating the artistic appeal of traditional representations from their intrinsic propaganda, I fashioned The Life of A Virgin’, an allegorical Mary of the late twentieth century. This ‘paper’ Mary is the product of nearly two thousand years of religious ideas, moulded and transformed by the demands of paternalistic culture. While the female Saints are inexorably bound up with devotion to the Virgin, I have, through the images and sculptures of The Seven Saints, attempted to reveal thefallacy of their status from a different perspective to that used in the Virgin series. These ‘sainted’ women are empowered by their own physicality, possibility of change and freedom of choice. Each sculpture or relic that accompanies them is also a personal statement, reflecting certain stages of my life and growing  awareness.

Despite the fact that Saints Barbara, Margaret and Catherine are completely fictitious and in 1969 were ‘struck off’ church calendars, saccharine pictures and story books promoting their purity, beauty and obedience are still sold through specialist religious shops in Australia for the edification of young girls. This bargain basement Christianity fits hand in glove with banal media stereotypes of the ‘ideal’ woman and the roles prescribed for them by ‘get God quick’ fundamentalist sects. Whether or not these saints existed is of little importance because it’s not so much facts that shape our ideas and society, as what we perceive the facts to be. Our notion of ‘woman’ and the images that personify her are neither universal nor set in concrete. They were and are designed and constructed by religious, political and economic forces to meet specific requirements within a given patriarchy. One of those requirements is the attempt to control women by stripping them of clothes and personality in order to ‘own’ their bodies without emotional involvement. For years, nuns have served those fantasies probably because of the power and self-possession they do have.

The seriesFoolish Virgins’ is about lampooning authority and therefore traditionally, the male viewer. These nuns obviously bear no resemblance to the real world but are a useful symbol of compliance and humility to throw back at monolithic male-dominated institutions.

Each of my ‘icons’ are intended to reflect the sanctioned images of women and describe who we really are – now, by revealing the dilemma of those who try to live out the disparate ideals of ‘femaleness’ that still haunt and confront us. I designed the pic tures to be entertaining, thought provoking and to encourage debate, but not to provide answers; they will be different for each of us. Any discoveries I made came through the journey of creating them, and were not so much ‘answers’, but rather parts of an unfolding whole.