September 1, 2007
The Canberra Times

For art’s sake, let’s stop mortal spin on Mary burqa

So now the Virgin Mary and Mother of God wears a burqa. Albeit a rather fetching short one, but a burqa nevertheless. What was the artist thinking? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. But artist and former alter boy Luke Sullivan’s passion for Our Lady of Fatima and the apparitions of 1917, have been all but drowned out by the hail of abuse.

A front-page story is a splash. But the story about Sullivan’s entry in this year’s Blake Prize for Religious Art was splattered. Thursday’s Daily Telegraph pulsated with indignation over the piece, under the headline ”For God’s Sake”. The artwork – a 1.3m-high statue of Mary draped in pink and mauve robes, rosary beads and wearing a half-length blue burqa with an eye-net – was demonised as an outrage and an affront. As was another art piece in the Blake Prize collection that showed an image of Jesus Christ morphing into a genteel looking Osama bin Laden.

On cue, like Bill and Ben the flowerpot men, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader both danced to the tune of moral outrage. Howard called the art works ”gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians”. He was joined in chorus by the NSW Premier who said he hadn’t seen either piece, but thought them ”questionable” anyway. All three seemed to be affronted by an apparent attack on the sanctity of Christianity – or at least Christian icons.

The Osama-Jesus image was blunt in its double edged message about the glorification of prophets and false prophets. But it was the burqa wearing Virgin that has caused the greatest sting, and indeed the most intrigue. Was this a straightforward iconoclastic attack? Or was it about the emerging power and influence of Islam in the West: a power so arrogant it would shroud even the Virgin Mary in a burqa? Or perhaps it was a more prosaic statement about the cross-cultural oppression of women.

Ultimately, Sullivan’s artwork is all three of the above – and more. As such it is a tremendous piece of art. In the tradition of some of the greatest art scandals, Sullivan’s work has challenged, provoked and unsettled everyone who has laid eyes on it. And yet no one is more surprised by the response than the artist himself, who didn’t even expect it would be chosen for exhibition.

The key to the pubic reaction is found in the burqa. Or more specifically, the powerful symbolism of the burqa. Had Sullivan presented his beautifully restored statue of the Virgin Mary – a statue that has been in his family for years and he repainted in the colour scheme of his grandmother’s kitchen – without the addition of the burqa, no one would have paid it any attention. But that simple addition has infused the artwork with layers of complex meaning.

Sullivan’s work is titled Fourth Secret of Fatima : the ”secret” being the key to understanding what Sullivan was trying to prize open. Although now a lapsed Catholic, he says he has always been fascinated by the story of Our Lady of Fatima and the ”Three Secrets”. A softly spoken and thoughtful young man, Sullivan clearly has held on to this story, from his youthful church-going days, as an example of the grace and mystical nature of spirituality.

According to Catholic doctrine, the Virgin Mary appeared in a series of apparitions to three Portuguese shepherd children in 1917, in which she entrusted them with three prophecies. These were held as ”secrets” for decades. In 1941 the first two secrets were revealed: the first being a vision of hell, the second a prophecy of world war, and the third – only revealed in 2000 – was an apocalyptic kind of prophecy involving martyrdom (which was considered to be ”disappointing” even by the Vatican).

But for Sullivan, the question has always remained: What if there was a fourth secret? What would the Virgin Mary’s message be if she were to appear now?

Sullivan suspects today’s message would be about women – and men’s fear of them. ”Women are a great source of insecurity for men,” Sullivan says. ”Their power and particularly their sexual power can be terrifying for men”.

One way of taming that power and harnessing that fear is to dominate and oppress. And that’s what he believes both the Christianity of his youth, and a doctrinaire Islam is doing to women. ”Male insecurity about women is worst in very devout religious men, and that insecurity is alleviated by placing constraints on women”.

Sullivan says Christianity does this by upholding Mary the Mother of God as a chaste and pure Virgin mother (an illogical impossibility), and an embodiment of the feminine ideal. And he believes Islam does it by insisting women are covered up, hidden and effectively de-sexed by the shroud of a burqa.

So in Sullivan’s art the fourth secret message could serve as a warning to the world to acknowledge the hypocrisy of religious values that serve to oppress women.

Ultimately the artwork has done us a favour. If it was iconoclastic in the true sense, Sullivan would have chopped off Mary’s head and perhaps ripped up the burqa. Instead he’s merged two very different cultures, via use of their most dominant female symbols, to pose a simple question: ”What does this mean?”

Pity we will never all agree on an answer.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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