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Since time immemorial, the idea of the ‘Divine Feminine’ has been at the core of humanity’s conscious memory and mythology. Recorded history’s emblematic portrayals – from Aphrodite to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, from Jezebel to Anahita, Mata Hari and many more – must tell us one thing if nothing else: that humankind derives greater purpose thanks to women’s prowess. The power of femininity, though it may have been denied or suppressed, is undeniable in its allure and irrepressible in its formal and artistic expressions.


My personal journey through photography as a means of artistic, cultural and social dialogue has not only been a search for self-identity; it has also been revealing through its practical and intellectual peaks and troughs. It is about an exploration of the Sublime Feminine, adding a heightened dimension to my work, a majestic reach above and beyond the ordinary. I defer here to the poet Audre Lorde: ‘These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep … joyous and sublime.’


The Sublime Feminine lives within us all, and it is in no way a feminine convocation. Call it Shiva or Shakti, Yin or Yang – whatever you choose, these sublime energies co-exist in conflict and/or in harmony in each one of us, regardless of gender, tribe, creed, sensibilities or, come to it, capabilities. 


Across cultures, the Sublime Feminine is associated with a spiritual force best ennobled through creative expression. Some would argue that honoring our Sublime Feminine is no less than an attempt to reclaim our identity – a beautiful, soulful, sensual and intellectual expression of the feminine divine. We should not forget that the Sublime Feminine carries within its womb the greatest mystery of all: that of human creation. In its physicality, it is viewed through the ‘Mother’ concept extending through the all-encompassing notion of Mother Earth. The Feminine is the guardian figure of our planet in a manner of speaking. In its sensuality and expressions of sexuality, its power can become bewitching at times, overwhelming at others.


From a personal perspective, the Sublime Feminine has always fascinated me, and I have sought out this interest photographically through the past decade, in different places and environmental spaces. This socio-cultural quest has become a personal journey of sorts, more recently in the arid plains and canyons of New Mexico, in the scented lavender fields of Provence, and in the lush forests and riverbeds of the Catskill Mountains. I have tried to trace and visually revitalise this energy, embodied in the female form and set against the grandeur of nature. 


For my first public series back in 2015, I followed the footsteps of the great painter Georgia O’Keeffe, experiencing first-hand a small part of her journey among the truly grand barren landscapes of New Mexico, even visiting Ghost Ranch, her beloved home and studio near Abiquiú. The experience, haunting and vital, set against unimaginably sharp blue skies and rock-strewn valleys in shades of rust, known for their prehistoric fossil remains, made me whisper O’Keeffe’s own words to the wind: ‘Such a beautiful untouched lonely feeling place, such a new part of what I call “the Faraway”.’ 


I’d gone to New Mexico searching for hidden corners of my own soul, and to seek a clearer sense of union with untroubled nature, that silent witness to the vicissitudes of time and their transformative presence. I spent days in the majestic, inhospitable New Mexican landscape, a unique visual and sensory feast. Lost in time, trying to tie purpose to creative endeavour, matching Nature’s true art, which O’Keeffe did through her magical canvasses. I began a visual dialectic with the sources of my budding inspiration and came to understand the outlines of my own poetic adventure. Thus was born the search for Eve, Mother Earth’s first muse. I saw her standing atop rocky inclines, as sensual and powerful as the monumental nature surrounding her. This, my imagination suggested, could have been one of the locations in and out of which Eve would have darted, between the borders of reality and fantasy – an act which the Divine Feminine has performed so well throughout time, between the ephemeral and the sensual, lost in the iconography of art and nature.


As to Provence, what can one say? Another of nature’s paradises, where the light and the moods of the seasons mix with scents and aromas conjuring every flavour known to humankind. Why have so many great artists followed each other to this magical region? It was this uniqueness which attracted me to the area in 2016, and inspired me to extend my search for Eve to another plain, one with more colourful tinges than the rocky crags and arroyos of New Mexico. Think of Paul Cézanne’s sensual Provençal landscapes. Look again at Vincent van Gogh’s Road with Cypress and Star. Provence has been a place where nature and humankind have united to bring elements of magic into feminine portrayal, employing varied media through the range of pastel reflections – sunlit pinks, shades of scarlet, yellow sunflower hues – for which the region is renowned. 


I happened upon the Carrières de Lumières (Quarries of Lights) as my starting point. A little stark perhaps when compared to lavender fields, yet revealing unique colours magicked out of shapes, shades, textures and light – a perfect setting to seek out mythic antecedents to my searching narratives. This extraordinary site was once a bauxite quarry in the bowels of the Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell). Jean Cocteau located his epic 1960 film Le Testament d’Orphée here, replete with a cameo by Pablo Picasso. I even discovered the ghost of van Gogh almost next door, lurking in the shadows of the Saint-Paul de Mausole psychiatric hospital, where he was confined for a year in 1890.


From time’s perspectives, I could only glimpse the reality of solid rocks and boulders, broken shards of basalt and dust particles sprinkled through the air – but also through the hair of Eurydice by the hands of her unattainable love. Was her enterprise a labour of love, or was she a slave to the sentiments of time and humanity? Not too dissimilar to servitude in Hell, written of in the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. She was locked away in the Underworld, with Hades as her guardian and unloved companion.


It’s easy to get lost in one’s own fantasies in such settings. Was I in a quarry located next to an asylum? Or was this some kind of mythic location with its dark forebodings? Elysian Fields surrounded by the deep still woods of the Thracian mountains where Orpheus once played his lyre? Could I hear the sound of a nearby stream, or was it the roaring flood of the River Styx?


Time to marry reality to myth, and photographically explore universal themes common to all cultures and literature: love and lust, temptation and unconquered passions, set against humankind’s insignificance, amid the grandeur of nature.


Hello again, the Sublime Feminine.


In 2017, the yellow brick road led me to the Catskills, a place of some mystery, alive with its own spiritual and folkloric tales hewn out of the land. The region is the New Yorker’s true getaway paradise, delighting the eye with its thickly forested mountains, its lush green valleys and its stone-bedded rivers and streams. Lost again in my unconscious wanderings, I heard the crunching of every twig beneath my feet, as I looked out for the elusive woodland nymph. There, by the copse? No, hidden behind the yellowing Birch tree, glimpsing out of the abandoned woodshed over and beyond. Last imagined singing on a swing? I was desperately enchanted by her fantasy. 


Along the way, I discovered a beautiful and vibrant land, with its own raw spiritual rhythms, a special place where art meets life. For centuries, the Catskills’ virgin landscapes have attracted artists from all over the world. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Hudson River School’s women artists ventured fearlessly into the wild woods, exploring and painting the landscape around them despite all the challenges, both societal and climate-driven – female trailblazers in the wilderness, with their courage driven by the springs of creativity. They, too, inspired me.


It’s easy to dream in such surroundings, transported by childhood memories and magical fairytales of enchanted water sirens and forest nymphs. But also of Ophelia, effortlessly floating on the ponds and lakes, and of the elusive Nymph perched on a swing hanging from a tree branch! All were mesmerising creatures, reunited in an unlikely and imaginary melting pot.


It’s fair to say that I have been driven by fantasy in such settings as New Mexico, Provence and the Catskills. But it is the skill of the eye that trains the lens when it comes to capturing a magical creature in its fleeting, prancing moment; and the stardust thrown up by Orpheus on Eurydice, or the rock of the Feminine Sublime rearing out of the mountain face. 


That is when dreams have the ability to turn into reality.


It is with this purpose that I present these works as a paean to femininity and to the female form. And perhaps a salute is due to Homer, to Shakespeare and to Fragonard, as well as to all the poets who inspired me along the journey across time and space. Finally, reverence should be paid to all human imagination, born out of earth, water and light, nature’s touchstones from which my works have drawn both their energy and their purpose. 


Maryam Eisler
London May 2018

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