The ideograms of woman

by Angela Biancofiore

Translation by Richard Wyatt

When I work on the complex material of my paintings, when I plunge my hands into this shapeless paste of glue, hemp and newspaper retting in the water, I have the impression of combining the raw elements into chaos which becomes transformed into a cosmos, so as to return, always reversible, to its chaotic state. Sometimes I superimpose the layers of a thin Japanese paper, wetted with glue and pigments, golden ochre, warm ochre, rubric red, bladder green, cerulean blue, madder red: the surface thus takes the form of a stratification where the colors and the paper are mixed in a new unity and the original value of the colors and the materials is transfigured in the play of mixture and transparency. Earth itself becomes an integral part of the surface of the painting: in The multiplication of One (1987)


signs drawn in oils on a paste of glue and earth emerge from a background of identical images multiplied seventy times. The image is the photo of a woman’s initiatory mask , from the Mende ethnic group of Sierra Leone. This helmet-mask may only be worn by women belonging to a secret society possessing a political power within the social group. In fact it is a rare case for Africa where a feminine mask is used by women; most of the time it is men who wear it; The photo of this mask is repeated within the economy of the painting (200 x 100 cm), while the sign imitating the mask, drawn with earth, is superimposed on the series of the photos.  The multiplication of a ritual object, the serial production of an object which is posed in the symbolic economy of a social group, abolishes the power of the symbol which is, etymologically, that of putting together, of joining what has been separated, and of constructing the text, the symbolic tissue on which the life of the community was based.            

 Our age has been strongly marked by the infinite repetition of the image. The multiplication of the Unique, i.e., the multiplication of that which cannot be reproduced, distorts the mechanism of the symbolic exchange, whether in Western or in African societies. A new order is imposed, with the force and the obtuseness of a stereotype; the image asserts itself henceforth as a simulacrum, as a copy of an original of which nothing more is known. Here is a woman who destroys her own image:

The voice of Medea contains the ideogram of a woman who kills her children. Destroy what is linked to an image of the past, a past once intensely loved and now unbearable in the present. The ideogram of Medea presents itself graphically as the feminine version of the minotaur: a figure who kills in retreat, who carries out the murder as if to execute, in spite of herself, the previously drafted letter of destiny. Medea is here a diabolical figure in the etymological sense (dia-ballein = to separate): she who separates, who cuts the vital link with her children, who had originally severed the relation with her lineal family  by treason and murder, and who now breaks irrevocably with Jason, by a terrible vengeance. Medea is not only she who separates, she is equally the separated, the separated, the excluded, the foreigner at the court of king Creon of Corinth. A survival from world where everything is sacred, the world of peasant rites of Colchis: Medea, the image of the eternal exile, disappears in her chariot of fire.   

      In his paintings one sees a single letter only, a graphic substance imitating the murder: what is fixed in the letter is essentially a ritual gesture performing a function of recollection. This character, specific to Chinese writing, constitutes the writing as the expression of a civilization, as the ideograms, though their etymological value, appeal to a collective memory. The ideogram carries within it a collective body of knowledge which has little by little become a detached from the icon which produced it: the emergence of the arbitrary character of the hieroglyphic sign denotes its declining force in the sphere of communicative exchange. To capture in the graphic substance a ritual gesture: there we have a fundamental aspect characterizing the gestation process of writing in general.

I draw the outlines of a great snake goddess: she is holding two snakes in her hands, she holds them like two scepters, as if she completely dominated their energy. These outline signs barely stand out from the green background, painted with vegetal colors. An animate bond united woman and snake (to the point of forming, in their union, the ideogram of a siren). Formerly it was believed that the snake fed itself upon earth. It is the animal which is always in contact with the surface of the earth. Its form can evoke either phallic symbol, or with its meanders, the interior of the female body. 

    In the course of archeological excavations at Knossos, in Crete, two small earthenware statues representing the snake goddess were found. One can barely make out this faintly drawn ideogram, with its improbable outlines – the image of fertility and the vital natural cycle – lost against the green background, torn like a cast-off snakeskin, like an archeological discovery : the metahistorical dimension of the myth dissolves at the surface of the painting where one can read the writing, of time on the material.

      This ideogram is only a vestige, but as such, it can be read in all of its dimensions: “A Cryptogram  is complete in all of its dimensions only when it is one of a lost language” (Lacan, L’instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient).   

   An ideogram which is my artifice, which is a part of my semi-symbolic code, which is the product of a linguistic work of separation and of juxtaposition of elements in the economy of a narrative. A narrative thread connects all these characters, all these hieroglyphic figures: the circle, the woman, the snake, the labyrinth, the warrior, the Minotaur, the boat, etc.  This linguistic work is dominated by one fundamental rhetorical figure: the synecdoche. An ideogram is by its very nature a synecdoche: it is the part standing for the whole (e.g., the head of the ox for the animal). The germination of a symbolic system of written signs is a subject to this law of reduction to the essential elements of an object, to the salient features which characterize it: graphically the part is substituted for the whole to the point of becoming detached from the initial representation which adhered realistically to the represented object. Writing comes into existence through this work of synecdoche, this reduction to the essential elements. That which has been designated is the product of an abstraction which can take place through our faculty for an ordered forgetting (Valéry) of certain qualities of the represented of the represented object. We perceive and communicate through a lexis, a system of abstractions, made up of “substitutive” representations, obeying the law of the minimal expenditure of energy and restricting a high level of the minimal expenditure of energy and restricting a high level of physic activity. The economic which dominates our psychic activity manifest itself in the different systems of writing: the signs making them up are the product of a process of stylization, or successive approximations, the product of a linguist work of a group. Writing in a larger sense, also includes the decorative elements of the craftsman, the architect, etc. Among all this different forms of a language, “There is a slender, but continuous, thread, which assures the perpetuation of a tradition almost as old as the art of drawing itself” affirms Février in his Histoire de l’écriture.  In the sphere of community writing, the representations of woman are superimposed and transmuted in continuous phenomenon of translation and betrayal, successively forgotten and take up again. Here is how the transition is made from the snake goddess to twin-tailed siren:

The “serpent” element this time partakes of the female body: the figure holds in its hands not snakes, but the tails in which its body ends. A disturbing image of a boundary zone between femininity and animality, the siren has always been linked to the funeral rite. ( In the national museum of Athens one can admire the Seirin Moirogousa, “the siren of a funeral lament”). She is thus the image of a rite of passage, of an interval or an interregnum. As a variation of the Mediterranean siren, with the appearance of a winged woman with the talons of a bird of prey, the fish- or snake-tailed woman is of Scandinavian origin. Her body in fusion, where the animal merge together, where the animal element, the tail, is split in two in two to form two circles: the obsession and with circularity. The female version of the ouroboros, the twin-tailed siren is the sign of a perfect continuity, she rediscovers in herself the resources for he renewal of life. The siren, this disturbing sign of the forces of the abyss, of he oceanic depths was the incarnation of the imponderable.

We can see how these ideograms assume different and even antithetical meanings through multiple reading perspectives. The ideogram always retains an uninterpreted residue – – it does not exhaust all this meaning. In addiction it is capable of engendering a new graphic substance in infinite chain successively taken up and forgotten: the form demands to be continually solicited, it returns under a different appearance with a different role at different periods. An unforeseen event can determine the process of proliferation of the form through the eruption of suppression, of monstrosities and destructions. Or the same form like a solid mold can receive other significations which are not related to the original meaning. In this phenomenon of the proliferation of forms, a remarkable role is played by the horror vacui: the development of prealphabetic Cretan writing can be ascribed to a considerable extent to the development, in the seals, of decorative elements whose function it was to fill out the empty spaces. These empty spaces could receive the abnormal prolongations of bodies, which bodies could thus be transfigured in plants or animals.

This Chora which I drew in its essential features is the icon of the receptacle, even in the Platonic sense of the term (cf. Timaeus). Chora is she who contains, she who receives, but also she who devours and transforms matter. Chora is the earth the exhausted earth who sighs: “I am filled with the corpses that I have devoured. Let me rest. Father, even the waters implore you for rest, even the trees, the animals” [The lament of the Last men, in Nimuendaju, Die Sagen von der Apapocùva-Guaraanì (Sagas of the Creation and Destruction of the world as the Basis of the Religion of the Apapocuva-Guaranì)] Chora is the space of the work, the receptacle which is full, not the unoccupied void (kénon) – the receptacle of the meaning which is born and transforms itself in the work. The work-Chora “hides and reveals the secret and the reality of several possibilities . . . . her character is to receive all of these possibilities” (Focillon, Vie des formes). The Chora is the space where the author withdraws outside of herself, in the work. Among the different designations of the term Chora finds the term “country”: she is the author’s country, his heimliche, his chez soi; the country of an author who does not speak, who writes outside of life, in his extrachronotopic place, and who observes life from the point of view of he absence of life.

Here we are confronted with a Female figure which stands out against an earth-colored background. It holds an object in its hand: a scepter, a weapon or a flag, a symbolic object which gives solemn and martial air. This ideogram of the woman is part of a system, and is connected with other signs in a narrative sequence where the repetition is significant.  It is the organization of the repetition which denotes the artistic work: from the distribution of the phonemes in poetry to the organization of the rhythm of colors in Peruvian rugs. It is this liberating repetition which introduces the artist in another  automatism, after the radical return to zero point of perceptual and interpretative habits (such as he automatism of dance, when all of our faculties are present but in another dimension, in another necessity which is that of the work).

And it is again a female figure which takes charge of the voyage to the land of the dead: Woman offering a ship to the dead man (1990). In this painting inspired by a Cretan painting decorating a sarcophagus (museum of Iraklion) the image the woman consists of a circle at the base, in the sign of perceptual motion and of autonomy,   offering a ship, this is to say the means of movement. Here the woman is not only the image of the life-giver, but she also initiates the dead soul in its voyage into the beyond: the woman is the intermediary between two words, she belongs to a boundary land, between death and life, she is the guide in the rite of passage. Woman and boat merge together form a single identity (they are drawn as one and the same body): continual displacement unfathomable depths, voyage with no return.

In the work we find once again a representation which speaks to us of the work as a voyage from which there is no return admits of no nostalgia (the nostos algos is this “return home sickness”) it is the exact opposite of the movement of the returning Ulysses, who then is confirmed in his identity as king and father  —  the voyage of the work is not a return to an original state, but rather a “movement of the Same towards the Other which never returns to the same” (Levinas, L’humanisme de l’autre homme).        

   The work is not the mirror which reflects the image of the author: on the contrary, the author fails to recognize himself, and what he finds is a far cry from his expectations. Paradoxically he is created by his work, he becomes the “child” of his work and adapts his own image to the organizing principle of the entire realized work. The author has produced more than himself, he has engendered, by an advantageous operation of the transformation of energy, a new source of value, a Chora with multiple meanings. In the work a feminine figure is looking for the text, represented the work a feminine figure is looking for her text, represented by a frayed weft floating in the middle of the painting. I’m looking for my text: the surface is cracked and very irregular, made out of a papier-mâché with a net glued on top. A surface, one might say, which had escaped from a shipwreck, which had been formed and deformed by the sea and which evoked an operation of falsification, or an imaginary archeology (Calabrese, Il sogno della materia, in La scrittura degli elementi, Bari, Edizioni dal Sud, 1988).                  


          To imagine oneself the witness to a past which has never been experienced, the martyr, the Monsieur Teste of a by-gone era, to record faithfully that which has never been seen in order to build the temple of an imaginary past, where collective and personal mythology intertwine, where the myth escapes pure representation, but plays a vital role in the narration. The mythic past, however, survives only with great difficulty — its surface is torn and leans toward the present. The web of the narration must be reworked, it is full of holes and floats in all directions. Sometimes, in the space occupied by a painting, in the painting which presents itself as an appeal to be looked at, my text is briefly reconstructed:

I am the Earth

which receives and destroys you,

the Earth which covers you

when you are living no more,

the earth which consumes you,

and soils you,

the earth which saves you

and gives new life.

The earth which transforms you and which gives you a new


Inside the earth

which becomes fire.

I am the earth

Which receives yours roots.

I am made of a thousand grains to receive you,

a thousand grains which nourish you and which you corrode.

Fire opens me seismòs

If fire opens me

I show the stratifications of my matter

the red and the black of the earth,

the incredibly light black of the volcano. Pyr lfaisteion

Fire alone transforms me

Fire transforms me myself. I transform you into water.

I transform your roots into water and lead you back to the sun from which you came.

Your roots pass through me, but transform me not; I nourish them as I catch hold of them.

I am the dangerous receptivity of the earth.

I am your surface.

You lie and walk upon me.

But I am made of a thousand grains

and I advance and transform myself without interruption. Sometimes I am your land,

your country

and you believe you are putting down your roots

in something solid and hospitable.

Illusion of Ptolemaic man (man will continue to be

Ptolemaic, forever geo-centric)

Chora   country

I am your country which moves

Qua vehimur navi fertur, cum stare videtur

(The ship which carries us appears not to move, and advances) I transform you into water

and you return to the sun from which you came.

Fire alone (pyr) transforms and opens me (seismòs). The fire

which is in me.


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