Sara Dolfi Agostini on Michele Oka Doner’s The Palm Goddess for Malta
7th November 2022
The Palm Goddess for Malta represents an ancient idol of an indistinct past civilization, its green patina mimicking the bronze’s natural process of oxidation under the elements, as if centuries old. The body is an abstract combination of a palm trunk and an anthropomorphic creature, standing and leaning forward. The title clearly identifies a female figure, yet not a regular woman — this monumental sculpture is a goddess. From 10, 000 to 5, 000 years ago, most of the emerging civilizations around the Mediterranean basin had a mother goddess as the principal deity, and archeologists have counted hundreds of goddess-based religions. By the fifth century A.D., however, they had almost all been mysteriously eradicated. The Neolithic civilization in Malta was one of them.
The artist’s acquaintance with Maltese goddesses dates back to 1980 in London, when upon passing the window of an antiquarian bookshop, she noticed Stone Monuments, Tumuli and Ornament of Remote Ages: With Remarks on the Early Architecture of Ireland and Scotland (1870), published by John B. Day and written by English architect John Burley Waring (1823 – 1875). The book explores the characteristics of the Megalithic temples in Malta and Gozo and other powerful symbols of lost civilizations. It also dares to draw a correspondence between the architecture and shape of the temples and the bodies of the Maltese goddesses. Back then, the artist was making her renowned tattooed porcelain dolls, which were also inspired by the cross-pollination and hybridization of natural forms, human rituals and the landscapes we collectively inhabit.
Michele Oka Doner’s interest in books, history and archeology comes from embracing a very personal path of aesthetic investigation, which has encountered both critical and public praise. In fact, when she graduated from university, everyone was conforming to the charms of Pop Art and Colour Field Painting, yet she decided instead to pursue her research on the human form in a primitive way, through readings, rituals, explorations and old school, labour-intensive art making. What seemed a foreign language in her work was in reality an expression of the “mere being” of life, to quote Wallace Stevens’s famous poem. Today, her practice invites the audience to partake in a sensory discovery of ancient cosmologies and natural elements which interrogate where we come from and unveil the communal roots of human identity.
At a time when the Western World is resuming wars after only a few decades of relative peace following WWII, deterrents once again have been turned into weapons, and climate change now exposes an urgent need to redefine the relationship between humans and nature, a palm goddess seems prescient, a timely epiphany that what is past is prologue. The nature-inspired element of the goddess, the palm tree, is a universal symbol encompassing many goddess-based civilizations and religions of the Western hemisphere. As the tree of life, the palm tree has been associated with Mesopotamian sects, Jewish mysticism, the rise of Islam, and it has been a recurring presence in the Christian Bible. For the artist, born and raised in the strip of land that constitutes Miami Beach, the palm tree is also a reassuring vision of nourishment — grace and shelter sprout from a fragile ecosystem threatened by rising sea levels, which seems to epitomize the crucial questions of climate change during the so-called Anthropocene, the current epoch in geological time of dangerous human domination over nature in the name of progress.
The Palm Goddess defies a modern definition of time based on speed, performance and appearance, confronting the consecrated columns of turbo-capitalism, to honor the slow cycles of nature that connect past to present. An archetype that is both sacred and worldly, the palm tree embodies protection at a transcendent level the artist has conveyed with both figurative and metaphorical elements. The ancestral branches on the trunk of the tree – both relic and record of what once was – are very pronounced as if they could expose the invisible layers of history. The body of the sculpture is turned and twisted, spiraling upward and forward as if the higher branches were in fact wings unfolding behind it. Michele Oka Doner displays the accretion of time, and as she reconnects past, present and future, she also pays discrete homage to the Nike of Samothrace and the Statue of Liberty, two familiar icons – of the old and modern worlds, respectively – which combine strength, welcoming values and forward vision.
In fact, The Palm Goddess’s multifaced bronze surface seems to hide a rougher, more intuitive soul, one that encapsulates the ever-changing nature of truth, while its many angles command an aesthetic experience that can neither be commodified nor consumed for instant optic gratification. In a way, the sculpture ostensibly resists Susan Sontag’s 1977 prediction that everything exists to end in a photograph, as different bystanders will see different images in it, or change their initial first-sight impression as they confront it over and over again. Getting to know the Goddess truly requires a slow process of appreciation. As often happens in the artist’s practice, the artwork is a device to think of a future in pre-industrial terms, when change was inscribed in geological rather than human time – in harmony with nature and the astronomical cycles, before human hubris had endangered the planet.