A Medusa for #metoo

A new look for Medusa, reimagined as a feminist hero. Video still courtesy Lala Raščić

Projected against a white wall, she stands in a familiar athletic pose. Her arms crooked at 90-degree angles, one behind a copper shield and the other pointing to the earth. She moves with martial precision, wearing a matching breastplate wired up with contact microphones, the sole soundtrack of a myth in the making. This is a new look for Medusa — her once decapitated head shorn of snakes and reunited with her body. In the video projection, she’s a reanimated cyborg hoplight in flickering life. 

Video and performance artist Lala Raščić has remade Medusa, rescuing the fearsome, petrifying monster from Greek myth and giving her a second act as a feminist hero. Her installation and video performance Gorgo, debuting as a work in progress at Acadiana Center for the Arts this month, is an act of resistance by revision. Medusa was the original sexual victim blamed. She was made a monster for the sin of being raped. In Raščić’s sequel, she emerges a rebel against generations of misogyny. 

“Why don’t we depict a woman who was completely victimized, bring her back to life and give her this armor,” Raščić says of her re-imagining. “It’s a symbolic or metaphorical way of calling for resistance.” 

Gorgo marks Raščić’s third manipulation of Greek myth in this fashion. Creating an alternate mythology that reverses the role of the female figure, she’s gone straight for the jugular of Western thought. The Greek canon and its fables underpin Western morality and culture, Raščić says, and continue to communicate a heroic picture of violence in which women are prizes, pawns, or, like in Medusa’s case, villains. 

In one variation of the myth, Medusa got her serpentine curls as punishment for being raped by Poseidon; she was too beautiful for the sea god to resist. Athena, jealous of her beauty, condemns her form to a monstrosity whose gaze would turn onlookers into stone. Adding insult to injury, she becomes an adventuring foil for Perseus, who is heralded a hero when he cuts off her head. Athena brandishes Medusa’s head as a medallion — the gorgoneion — upon her shield. From there, it’s become a ubiquitous symbol. 

Gorgo, a nickname for Medusa coined by Raščić and derived from “gorgoneion,” doesn’t remake the myth; rather, it joins a continued mythical universe in which the traditional value system enshrined in classical mythology is pricked or even slain. Generations of school kids receive this mythology uninterrogated, taking rape for granted as little more than literary device. And that has ramifications, Raščić argues, in contemporary attitudes toward gender and power. 

“It’s not been questioned ever,” she says of the reverberations of rape mythologies from ancient texts into contemporary culture. It speaks to the heart of the West itself; the European continent that is its cradle derives its name from Europa, who was raped by Zeus while he was in the form of a bull. In statues and artworks across the world, Europa rides a bull, smiling.  

Raščić took interest in remodeling mythology after encountering traditional bardic singers who serve, in her native Bosnia, as vessels of tradition like the fabled blind Greek poet Homer — singer of Odyssey and the Iliad. In Raščić’s work, she often takes on the Homeric role herself, another subversion of an historically male role, immediately re-contextualizing the narrative by substituting a female narrator. She and her collaborators — Bosnian poet Andrea Dugandžić and Serbian academic Jelena Petrović — thus control the story, re-centering female roles as heroes and freedom fighters. 

A still from Raščić’s 2014 video performance “The Eumenides”

The defiance is not-so-subtle in its political overtones. Raščić’s Greek appropriations have paralleled political unrest in Sarajevo. Her first work in the series, 2014’s The Eumenides, responded to a failed uprising in Bosnia, contemplating the previously meek and out-of-sight representation of the tragic figure Electra as the torch-bearer of resistance. Performed in a clash of primitivism and stylized futurism, The Eumenides picks up as a fourth act to French philosopher and playwright Jean Paul Sartre’s play The Flies, itself an adaptation of the Electra myth and a coded comment on Nazi-occupied France. 

The Gorgo debut at AcA includes projections of all three video works in Raščić’s Greek explorations, including EE-0, an entry to the myth of Arachne, who bested Athena in a weaving competition by making tapestries that depicted the rapes and violent acts of the gods. A familiar refrain, Athena punishes her, turning her into a spider. In EE-0, Arachne embraces her new form, collects the muses — demigods of inspiration — and rockets off in a spaceship that sails through suspended narrative time called “mythic time.” Arachne and the muses now take the reins of mythology. Screw Homer. 

That’s where Gorgo itself picks up. Arachne and the muses find Medusa and reanimate her, outfitting her in armor forged by the only female coppersmith in Bosnia. It’s that video that opens the show at the gallery’s entry: Raščić herself in the Bosnian armor, tethered to wires that trigger a soundtrack of rebellion in the clatter and vibration of armor. She’s swapped the Homeric incantation for a loose choreography of movement and clamor. Her hair trim and snakeless, she strikes military poses fit for the side of a grecian urn. She commissioned the armor, also on display in the main gallery for the opening, for Gorgo, along with a video documenting the armor’s production by centuries-old tools traditionally passed from father to son.  

Futurism meets primitivism in “EE-0,” a sequel to the myth of Arachne

Raščić has included in the show pieces from three New Orleans-based artists working in similar themes, Nina Schwanse, Ryn Wilson and Christina Molina. In tapestry, photography and watercolor, their works harmonize with Raščić’s re-mythology but outside the Greek canon, subverting conventionally hostile conceptions of witchcraft and the feminine in nature. 

“As a community-based cultural institution, AcA’s duty is to explore ideas and tell new stories to our community — through visual art, theater, music and more,” AcA Director Sam Oliver says of the exhibition, which opens July 13 and runs through Oct. 12. “Lala’s work brings together many of those forms into a fascinating and beautiful exploration of storytelling and the human experience, and we are thrilled to host her exhibition here in Lafayette.” 

Despite the ancient source material, the show is contemporary and urgent, owing to its medium — digital video — and its political relevance in the age of #metoo, a movement that itself asserts female agency. Raščić says a deeper reading of stories like Medusa’s and Arachne’s echo the narrative defiance of those women who upended the world’s male powerbrokers simply by telling the truth. Storytelling and mythmaking is power, and Raščić revels in seizing it. 

“What Arachne is saying,” Raščić says, “is we’re going to be the ones telling the story.”