Clara Jeanne Reed, Hystera, photomontage, 2022-ongoing
Hystera is the ancient Greek word for “uterus,” from which the word “hysteria” is derived. Hysteria was a medical condition used to summarize excessive emotional outbursts from women. Aristotle used this diagnosis of women as reasoning for their forbiddance from participating in politics. Hysteria was believed to have been caused by a woman’s neglect to conceive, a “wandering uterus,” or a womb that had not been impregnated.
The women in this visual narrative I have crafted are all products of “hysteria,” women who went too far, did too much, or spoke too loudly. They are fictional reimaginings of the women in stories of the Trojan War. Of course, we know Achilles and his gleaming shield, Agamemnon and his 1000 ships, Odysseus and his brain, Paris and his bow, and Priam and his children from Homer’s The Iliad. But what of the women whose names are merely mentioned on the page? What are their stories?
Using archival images sourced from historical documentation of abandoned archaeological sites in combination with self-portraiture, this project uses history and allegory to explore femininity in its most excessive natures. With blood and brutality, cleverness and bravery, sacrifice and family it aims to show that hysteria is powerful and lethal when kept locked in the cages of patriarchy.
Helen [of everyone but herself], photo/mixed media collage, 2022.
A woman stands nude on a display, in a pose that is fit for a statue but feels more like an auction stand. She presents herself for a crowd we do not see. She is in slight contrapposto, precisely mimicking the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles, except she has red fabric draped over head, like a veil. Around her neck she wears a sign that reads in bright red lettering “FOR SALE TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER.” The scene is a fictional reimagining of Helen of Sparta’s marriage market, when the many kings of Greece flocked to her side in an attempt to win the hand of the fabled most beautiful woman in the world. The intention is to strip her down of any identifying markers that might remind us of her humanity. She is solely an object for sale. Her anonymity removes our guilt and her voice. We cannot see her and she cannot see us. Are you curious yet? To see if what lies underneath the veil lives up to its name?
Klytemnestra [woman scorned], photo/mixed media collage, 2022.
A woman lounges in a bathtub. Historically, the bathroom has been gendered and defined as a woman’s room, a rare space in the home where women held the power, as they bathed their husbands and children in their most vulnerable and exposed states. The queen of Mycenae, Klytemnestra, is the woman in the tub. She is the wife of Agamemnon and mother of Iphigenia. When her husband sacrifices their eldest daughter for a fair wind, a violent rage and desire for justice consumes her. She waits ten years for Agamemnon’s return from Troy, haunted by the ghost of her daughter, biding her time. When he marches home triumphantly with concubines in his wake, she draws him a bath. Like a spider she weaves a web of comfort, and slices his throat when he is most unguarded. After ten years of sparring for male dominance of land and women, he is killed by his own wife at the hands of his own fragility.
Iphigenia [a sacrifice for the winds to change], photo/mixed media collage, 2022.
A girl dressed in white lays flat across an altar. Her throat is slit, and blood drips slowly from the wound staining her virginal drapery. Behind her, a long colonnade stretches across the horizon with the ocean in the background. She is on the shore of Aulis, where the Greek army was becalmed for weeks waiting for a strong wind to sail their ships to Troy. An oracle informed Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, that he had wronged the gods and the only way to appease them and bring back the winds was to sacrifice his eldest virgin daughter. He invites his wife and daughter to Aulis, under the pretense of marrying Iphigenia off to the greatest soldier in the world. A wedding is prepared at dawn, but instead of being greeted with husband at the end of the aisle, her father slits her throat. According to the myth, she dies submittingly and silently. As her body is burned, the winds carry the ships off to Troy. But her spirit follows, and so does karmic retribution.
Penelope [cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in a woman], photo/mixed media collage, 2022.
A woman loosely holds in her hands strips of linen that belong to tapestry she is in the process of unraveling. Across the tapestry in bright red letters read the words, “CLEVERNESS IS A QUALITY A MAN LIKES TO HAVE IN A WOMAN AS LONG AS SHE IS SOME DISTANCE AWAY FROM HIM.” The words are from Margaret Atwood, and speak to the woman in the image. The woman is Penelope, wife of Odysseus. The scene is a fictional reimagining of Penelope’s famed unraveling of the burial shroud for her husband told in Homer’s The Odyssey. While she waits 20 years for her husband to return home from the Trojan War, hundreds of suitors flock at her doorstep. She promises to remarry one of them once she finishes the weaving of Odysseus’s burial shroud. She spends all day weaving only to spend all night unraveling in an attempt to delay her suitors. She is the epitome of good nature and chastity, a woman with her legs closed, waiting decades for her husband. But the scene is eerie, you can discern her cleverness and almost assume ulterior motives are at hand. Is she really patiently waiting for the return of her lost love? Or is she merely biding time.
Kassandra [MY GHOST WILL HAUNT YOU], photo/mixed media collage, 2023.
A girl stands on an altar with her hands tied behind her back. Her mouth is covered by the hand belonging to a disembodied man invisible to the audience. This man is Ajax, great warrior of the Greeks, who raped her in the Temple of Apollo during the sack of Troy. The girl is Kassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba and princess of Troy. As a young girl, she devoted her life and celibacy to Apollo and became a priestess. Inspired by her devotion Apollo visited her in his temple and made advances to take her virginity, when she refused he cursed her in punishment for attempting to resist the desires of a god. From then on Kassandra was gifted with the powers of prophecy but at a cost. She could watch the events of the future unfold before her eyes, but if she ever spoke about what she saw, she was cursed to never be believed or understood. She watched her city fall, she watched her own rape, she watched her family's murders, but no matter how she tried to warn those around her, she was never believed. Instead she was deemed crazy, forever screaming with a voice that never made a sound.
Briseis [TANGLED IN MY OWN STRING], photo/mixed media collage, 2023.
Wearing nothing but rope, a woman is binded against a doric style column. She is on display for a crowd, in a contrapposto pose reminiscent of iconography of the martyr St. Sebastian. Briseis is a Trojan villager, captured during a Greek raid, and given as a war prize to Achilles. Forced to share a bed with the man who murdered her father and brothers, she is then stolen by the king of the Greek army. She is passed from man to man like goblet of wine, shared and used until the men have drank their fill.
Aphrodite [For the Most Beautiful], photo/mixed media collage, 2023.
The woman who arguably started it all, the goddess of beauty, passion, and love. She is spread seductively across the canvas, tangled in a piece of fabric that cleverly hides her genitalia. Behind her is the figure of a large horse head, reminiscent of the fabled Trojan Horse. Its occupation in the background of the image serves as a looming reminder of the impending threat the Greek's pose to Aphrodite's treasured pawn, Paris. The words sprawled across the bottom half of the image, are the same words carved on the golden apple Paris gave to Aphrodite when he deemed her the most beautiful in a contest between three goddesses. It was a rigged contest, for beauty, is a trait all goddesses share, and yet they still wished to be judged supreme. Aphrodite's story is a myth that highlights the consequences of beauty, as it speaks to the need to be desired by another person, in order to attain a sense of self-worth.