home exhibitions | interviewsfeatures profileswebprojects archive

The Artist as Reluctant Shamanka

Monica Sjöö


In struggling to speak for Mother Earth and her spirits, for Gaia's laws of respect for everything that lives, and for witches, I am most certainly outside the patriarchal status quo, which believes that Earth is simply a human resource to be exploited by 'mankind'. I believe that we are conscious and alive only because She is. Earth is our great planetary Mother Spirit. As a mainly self taught artist and writer, I never desired to be part of the male mainstream, an art world that is geared to the consumer interests of corporate businesses, lacking any kind of ecological or political awareness and now cynically celebrating the death of nature.

Western art was always sponsored by the rich and powerful; by church and state. Renaissance male artists painted idealised and sweetly smiling Madonnas adoring their sons, while actually living peasant women - poor, old, lesbian single mothers, women with healing and psychic powers, knowledgeable in herbal medicine and midwifery - were burned at the stake as witches outside the cathedrals of Europe during the three hundred years of the 'burning times'. l speak here as a practising feminist, goddess-centred pagan.

Westem bourgeois art then went on to celebrate the patriarchal family with dominant father and subservient women and children. Part of that tradition was the continuous stream of female nudes, the pornography of its day. Women were always to be seen and consumed. I speak from experience. When I was sixteen years old, a runaway and dirt poor, I worked for several years as a nude model in art schools in Sweden and privately for male artists. I was the object in their art and was treated either as an object, like an apple or a chair, or as some kind of prostitute. This came as no surprise to me since my own peasant artist father bragged to me in my childhood about having sex with his women models. I always refused to be painted by him in the nude and it was ironic and mortifying to be working as a semi-professional artists’ model, just like so many women driven by misery and poverty into all kinds of sexual exploitation.


Meeting the Ancestors at Avebury (1993)

I grew up in Sweden, first in the north where my mother’s family came from, then in Stockholm, where I and my artist mother lived as outcasts in great poverty. My parents split up when I was only three years old. My father was from a south Swedish peasant/working class background and had no formal education. He took himself through art school and academy, where he met my mother, keeping himself by doing painting and decorating. Although I did not get on with my father, I did admire his honesty as a painter. He always remained faithful to the poor and austere landscape and peasant cottages of his childhood, and used mainly earth colours at a time when this was most unfashionable, as the art world was dominated by the followers of Matisse. In spite of this and his impoverished background, my father made it and the same art critics who at one time had criticised him now praised his 'sensitive use of colour'. My father thought precious little of the art world and its favouritisms and hypocrisy. This knowledge stood me in good stead when I was later criticised for my own art.

My mother, who had no women’s art movement to look back to, lacked my father’s confidence and toughness and she never succeeded in spite of being a talented artist. She remarried a Russian aristocratic emigre who became my step-father for five long years. I loved her dearly. She was a great dreamer and mystic and an early drop-out who, by marrying my father, had married below her class and was excluded because of it. I ran away at the age of sixteen to get away from my cruel and rightwing step-father. This is the background which formed my early life and later radical political views.


And her belly lit up the world (1996)

Traumatic life experiences 'of birth, death and rebirth' have pushed me over the edge - influenced my art and made me “see” the invisible world that exists around us at all times. This is the realm of the Great Mother who is both dark and light, of this and of the Other or Spirit World. She gives us life and She takes it back. It was the natural home birth of my second son Toivo in Bristol in 1961 that first made me aware of the immense powers of woman’s body and sexuality. In amongst the huge contractions and a sense of being physically torn apart, I 'saw' in my mind‘s eye great masses of velvety luminous blackness altemating with masses of blinding light. Both were benevolent and visually incredibly beautiful. The Goddess revealed herself to me in that open and vulnerable state.

In 1964 I was offered a show in a small local gallery, and in it I had just one figurative colourful painting that I called “Birth”. I was attempting to explore in it the combination of physicality with space and spirit, and was horrified that I was attacked for it. The visitors’ book was full of abusive comments about how such a disgusting image should not be allowed in a public space. This set me questioning this culture that declared women’s sacred experiences of menstruation and birth an obscenity. I declared there and then to dedicate my life to exploring our woman experiences, both physical and spiritual, in my art. At that time I saw abstract art as something for the privileged who can afford to play games with the surface of reality. From then on I dedicated a lot of time to finding out about ancient neolithic Goddess cultures. I wanted to understand their beliefs and values. The information I gathered resulted in the book “The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth” (with Barbara Mor, pub. Harper S.F. in I987 and 1991).

I spent two years in Sweden, 1965-67, working with the Vietnam movement, which brought me into working
relationships with radical leftwing artists and black awareness artists, one of whom became the father of my young son born in 1970.

In Bristol in 1968 l was a founder of the first women‘s liberation group and did the painting 'God giving birth'
which challenges the Christian notion of “God”. The painting was first shown in St. Ives in Cornwall in 1970,
together with others of my paintings with erotic and multi-racial themes. There was a scandal, especially as the paintings had been hung in the local Town Hall and they were banned. Next time I exhibited it was with a group of feminist artists in the 'Womanpower - 5 Women Artists' show at Swiss Cottage Library in London, 1973. 'God giving birth' was nearly taken to Court for 'obscenity and blasphemy'. As a result the painting became very famous and is now seen as an important icon and consciousness-raiser. It belongs now the Women's Arts Museum in Skelleftea in North Sweden.

In 1978, during a magic mushroom trip, I became aware of Earth mysteries and the neolithic sacred sites of the Goddess and was initiated into the ancient Mother on Her pregnant womb at Silbury. I experienced how She grieves and I experienced Her pain as She is daily abused, raped, polluted, exploited, in my own body. I literally saw Earth alive and breathing and since that time I cannot doubt that She is our living and conscious greater Mother. We can know and hear her as She sings and speaks to us in visions and dreams. Until my initiation, my work had been large, figurative paintings of women of many cultures and races. I went to live in Wales away from the city and close to Her, and now the land itself came into my paintings for the first time and I did a great number of paintings inspired by the sea, the sacred sites, and the Goddess in the landscape.

My paintings feel ancient and archaic, as if coming from another space and time. I feel that past-present-future coexists with us now and that those ancient Sisterhoods of many races can communicate with us in the present from other realms. Are my paintings some form of psychic gateways for their re-entry into this world?

I was an unwilling Shaman, and I have been thrown in at the deep end again and again my life in order, it seems, to gain understanding of other realities. When my young son, only fifteen years old, was run down and killed by a car in 1985, my life as I had known it stopped and I no longer wanted to live. I had never experienced pain like it. The only reason I am sane and still alive is because I saw with my own eyes that my son in death looked utterly peaceful, as if he had been met by loved ones. I experienced travelling with him, flying on great white wings into a great light and the words that came to me were 'the only thing that matters is love'.

I went through a hideous time of fearing everything I had been involved in: my painting, my book on the Great Cosmic Mother, the Goddess, Women’s gatherings, beauty in nature, the sun. I wanted to be in perpetual darkness and winter because my son had died on a beautiful southem summer day.

When I retumed to doing some work again after several years' absence, I sought the otherworld experience and the astral light presence I had had with my son. However, I did not become a "New Ager”. I had very negative experiences of that movement when my older son, Sean, developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, diagnosed soon after my young son’s death in France. We lived together during the two years he had left to live and during that time we explored spiritualism and sought out healing and meditation circles and attended the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. My son got involved with Rebirthers, a New Age therapy with an extreme patriarchal and right-wing ideology. My son died on a full moon in July 1987 and after he died I made a thorough study of the New Age movement and wrote a book, since updated and re-published under the title “Retum of the Dark/Light Mother or New Age Armageddon".

In recent years I had re-discovered my Northem heritage and travelled in 1994 in the North of Sweden with a large exhibition of my work. In 1999 I wrote 'The Norse Goddess', which also discussed the history and beliefs of the Shamanic Saami people of the North, perhaps the most ancient people of Europe. I have been giving talks, slide-shows and exhibitions at intemational Goddess conferences, and for more than ten years have been working with a Bristol Women’s Group. We do rituals at full and dark moon times and the eight festivals of the year. as well as being involved in magical, political action and anti-racist work. This group has given me sustenance, hope and friendships and has been a lifeline in these so difficult times.

I have also taken part in recent years in various large group exchange exhibitions of women's an and have travelled widely. After I was operated on for breast cancer five years ago l had a sense of urgency to see, do, paint, write and travel as much as I could while still strong enough to do so. I have recently developed secondary cancer and I do not know what the future holds. It is therefore, important and urgent that this exhibition takes place now.

Blessed Be. Monica Sjoo.


This essay was published to coincide with pioneering feminist artist Monica Sjoo's retrospective at Hotbath Gallery, Bath 2004.