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Mathilde ter Heijne, exhibition view, SMBA, Amsterdam

With many of Amsterdam’s key contemporary exhibition spaces currently closed for renovation, the show currently at Stedelijk Museum’s young offshoot, SMBA, seems particularly conspicuous: Long Live Matriarchy! is Mathilde ter Heijne’s first solo exhibition in the Netherlands since 2000.

The exhibition opens with ‘Woman To Go’, 2006, an installation comprised of a series of free postcards inserted into a large wall-mounted display rack, the latter akin to the ubiquitous rack stands in museum shops. The front of these multiples feature various black and white photographs of unidentified women from 1839–1920. On the back of each card, ter Heijne has printed short but extraordinary biographical texts of women renowned in their lifetime but who have been largely forgotten by history. Notably, the photographed figures do not correspond to the texts which accompany them, and ter Heijne’s intentional discrepancy is emphasised by the postcards’ incongruous pairings where, for example, a story about a Chinese pirate is printed on the back of a card that depicts a Victorian era woman.

‘Woman To Go’ is a lucid work. It reminds the viewer that there are numerous untold narratives rendered invisible by history’s collective one. It also suggests alternative configurations to representing these marginal histories, and proposes another social sphere in which matriarchy is a means of social stratification.

This pertinent suggestion, however, is not consistent throughout the exhibition, which includes ‘The Reconstruction of the Communal House of the Qiau Zi Family’, 2008, a replica of a Musuo home that the artist bought during a visit to China, a shelved display of wood-fired ceramics engraved with goddess symbols, and a series of ponchos woven in apparently magical patterns. It is unclear if ter Heijne is toying with new age language, which at times has the effect of turning spirituality and feminism into pop commodities, or whether her use of symbols and references to goddess worship are literal.

Ter Heijne’s suggestion seems to be that matriarchy and goddess worship would lead to a more peaceful, humane society—an oddly naive proposition that undermines the suggestive power of a work like ‘Woman To Go’. As a result, one of the most interesting aspects of matriarchy—the idea of alternative organisational processes—struggles against stereotypes of femininity that rely on traditional gender classification.

Significantly, Long Live Matriarchy! is installed through a filter of ethnographic display. Pots are placed on a long, dimly-lit shelf, and the replica of the Musuo home is roped off. The artist perhaps suggests that these artifacts and symbols of matriarchy deserve more prominence within history.

Asserting these references within a traditional set of museological values, however, contradicts the subversive potential of a work like ‘Women To Go’, which instead positions matriarchy as a critique of categorical systems of knowledge. Ethnographic display implies a biased relationship that privileges the artist, the selector of artifacts. This strategy demands clarification, otherwise the symbols of matriarchy that she values risk becoming commodities in their own right. Given the artist’s engagement with ritualism throughout her practice, it is reasonable to think that she is genuinely committed to an exploration of transcendence; but the exhibition’s uneven relationships to language, reference and form make it difficult to tell if Long Live Matriarchy! is utopic, ironic or self-aware.

Alhena Katsof is an artist and curator based in Amsterdam