Monica Sjoo was born in Sweden 1938.
She first came to the UK in 1958: 'We lived a winter in St. Ives
where we were able to hire a large studio/home above the Penwith
gallery. I was starting to paint then and we were drawn there because of
the artist colony centred around Barbara Hepworth and others. I
discovered, though, that there was a tyranny of abstraction, and
figurative art was unacceptable'.
The iconic feminist art-work, 'God
Giving Birth' was painted in 1968 and shown for the first time in 1970
in St Ives Town Hall. The Mayor of St Ives objected to the painting, and
ordered it be removed on the grounds that it was blasphemous. '"God
giving birth" and some other of my paintings were censured and not
allowed to be shown anywhere in the town. It caused a scandal and I was
traumatised as I was breastfeeding at the time and felt vulnerable. I
was shocked also that the artists, like Barbara Hepworth, in St Ives
made no protest nor did they give me any support at all'.
This incident marked the beginning of
Sjoo's career as a radical feminist artist, and though based in Bristol,
she went on to have a long relationship with Cornwall and other mystical
'Celtic' landscapes. Here she describes the meaning and significance of
The mysteries of life, birth and death
violence, love and beauty
Out of body – Tearing Blood Pain
Comes tenderness in a whisper-said love
For created being
Poem, Bristol, 1965
painting was based on the natural home birth of my second son, Toivo in
1961, a birth that I experienced as a first initiation to the Great
Mother who is both imminent and transcendent, both dark and light.
For the first time I experienced the enormous power of my woman’s body,
both painful and cosmic and I “saw” in my mind’s eye great luminous
masses of blackness and masses of radiant light coming and going. The
Goddess of the Universe in her pure energy body. This birth changed my
life and set me questioning the patriarchal culture we live in and its
religions that deny the life-creating powers of the mothers and of the
In ancient matrifocal cultures during the Neolithic, women gave birth in
the sacred precincts of the Great Goddess where they were attended by
shaman priestesses who were midwives, herbal healers and astrologers.
Birth was a sacrament and Vicki Noble once wrote that the original
shaman is the birthing woman as she flies between the worlds bringing
the spirits of the ancestors back into this realm, risking their own
lives whilst doing so. We are spirit embodied.
I had given birth to my first son in a hospital in Stockholm and it had
been a disaster for both of us. This home-birth, without medical and
technical interventions, opened me up to the powers of the Great Mother.
In all patriarchies, women are de-sacralised and diminished and medicine
and religion have been taken over by men who envy women’s creative
I wanted to create a painting that would express my emerging religious
belief in the Great Mother as the Matrix of cosmic creation. I didn’t
want Her to be a white woman. As a result of this work I was nearly
taken to Court and my painting was censured many times during the 70s
and 80s It was considered “ugly”, “obscene” and “blasphemous”. A modem
day witch-hunt was carried out against me and my work. It was racist
also. I didn’t know at the time I did the painting that the entire human
race is thought to have originated from one or a handful of African
women in the mists of time. This has been traced through the
mitochondrial DNA which is only carried through the mothers/women. In
1968 there was also no women’s arts movement or a Goddess movement and I
felt totally alone. I had a sense though that ancient women, who
coincide with us in another time-space, were communicating with and
through me. I was their medium and gateway into this world.
There are black stones or meteorites associated with Goddess sculptures
worldwide such as Diana/Artemis at Ephesus. She is a Starmaiden and many
legends tell of how the divine woman, such as Asht’art of the
Phoenecians at Byblos in the Near East fell into a sacred lake from the
sky as a flaming, whirling ball of light and fire. The “dark holes” in
space might be entrances or gateways, the birth channel, to other
universes. She is both the divine light and she is radiant and pulsating
black light. She is infinite space. She is the She-serpent, Kundalini of
invisible fire. I “saw” the radiant black light as my son was born and
it changed my life forever.
Without the sense of being one in a long line of women active and
surviving through the millennia, I would probably have gone out of my
mind with anger and loneliness as well as grief at what we women of
today have lost.
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.
Giving Birth” was persecuted during the Arts Council sponsored arts
festival in St. Ives in 1970 and then in London at Swiss Cottage
library. In 1973 we had a pioneering collective women’s art show that we
called “5 women artists – Images of Womanpower”. This was when I nearly
ended up in Court on the charge of “obscenity and blasphemy”. It was
fundamentalist Christians who instigated this. Many years later I had
the satisfaction of carrying a black and white poster of my painting
into Bristol cathedral as part of a women’s action. The year was 1993
and we were holding a national women’s conference in Bristol organised
around opposing racism and to Break the Tabus/Breaking the silence and
the chains that bind us. We were Ama Mawu, the Bristol women’s
spirituality and Politics group. We had set the date for the end of
Patriarchy and were intent on celebrating it on Silbury mound, Earth’s
pregnant belly, in the Lammas August full moon. We believed in making
our dreams become realities.
In fact I had for thirty years harboured a waking dream that I wished to
walk into a cathedral or church during mass to tell the priest or bishop
that he and the church blasphemes against the Mother and to remind the
congregation of the three hundred years of witch-hunts that took place
in Europe not so long ago. Neither the Catholic nor the Protestant
churches have ever apologised in public for their genocide of women, the
wise women of old. Well... now years later (1993) there was a group of
fifteen or so women from this conference who were unafraid and
courageous and wanted to do the action with me. We walked into Bristol
Cathedral during mass on Sunday and lined up in front of the high altar.
After a debate between me and the Dean of Bristol, we insisted on
singing all the verses of “Burning Times” to the congregation. It was
extraordinary and cathartic and real and scary we broke a major taboo by
what we did and we refused to remain silent. If I hadn’t done God Giving
Birth, this action would not have happened.
The painting was bought in 1994 by the Women’s Arts Museum (Museum Anna
Nordlander) in Skelleftea in the north of Sweden where it is an
important part of their collection of women’s art.