The Female Pope | Rakini Devi

The Female Pope is a hybrid persona inspired by the 10th century Pope Joan and The Hindu Goddess Kali. It demonstrates “tradition transgressed” The formal setting of the Female Pope in the work is aesthetically disruptive of tradition, patriarchal roles, and colonial frameworks.

For MONUMENTAL (working title), Rakini Devi presented 2 three-hour durational performances of the Female Pope over two days in the main foyer of the AGNSW as part of a program featuring 15 artists from diverse practices, curated by Latai Taumoepeau and Brian Fuata, produced by Intimate spectacle.

Each version is different from the other, as experiments of a work in progress, but for Monumental 1# and particularly for Sydney Festival 2023 at Art Gallery of NSW, it became a fully realised work with all the elements I had envisioned. I consider this years’ version of The Female Pope #7 as a new work, as it has never been performed in this incarnation before. It is a durational work no less than 3 hours long.

The Female Pope is ideally framed in historical, architecturally grand venues including Museums and Art Galleries that will enhance, compliment, disrupt, contrast, and add relevance to my aesthetics of female, culturally-hybrid religious iconography.

Production history

The Female Pope is an on-going performance installation that continues to evolve with each presentation, inspired by the architecture and environment of the work, and was performed in the following locations:

2010 Friction International Live Art Festival Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden & Uppsala Art Museum, Sweden.
2010 Art Contact Helsinki, Finland.
2013 Performance Space, Carriageworks foyer, Sydney, Australia.
2014 The Grey Zone Artspace, New York.
2014 Ex-Teresa de Arte Actual Mexico City, Mexico.
2022 Art Gallery of NSW for MONUMENTAL (working title), The Female Pope version #6
2023 Art Gallery of NSW for MONUMENTAL (working title), The Female Pope version #7

About the artist

Visit Rakini Devi’s website

Dr. Rakini Devi’s work can be described as intercultural hybrid performance art, integrating her knowledge of Indian Classical Dance and her visual arts practice. Devi’s performance personas are visual enactments and evocations of the body as living, ritual artifact. The subject of her practice as feminist activism and her 2018 doctorate Urban Kali centres on the “erasure” of women from global misogynist atrocities. Devi’s use of hybrid religious iconography draws from Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist, influences. Her iconisation of the female body as symbol is illustrated in her performance installations including The Female Pope, The Widow, Urban Kali, Kali Madonna and Inhabiting Erasures, with performances in Australia, US, UK, India, Indonesia, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Spain and Mexico. She continues her research-based practice in dance, live art, visual art and academic writing.

In the face of ephemerality and its erasures, it is consoling to reflect that the richness and power of Rakini Devi’s Inhabiting Erasures emanates not only from three decades of practice, but sustainingly from a several thousand-year-old cultural heritage which the artist perpetuates and idiosyncratically opens out, defying transience. Her art is born of a culture often beyond my comprehension, but that’s not say it’s beyond meaning as Devi’s imagery incorporates itself indelibly into my own night work, where art is most deeply felt. This is art that is at once modern (full of self-recognition, as Bourgeois would have it), powerfully ancient (felt like a shock of the old) and compelled by compassion that both respects and challenges tradition.

Keith Gallasch April 2021

Born and raised in Kolkata, Rakini Devi has spent most of her artistic journey engaging with feminist issues, be it dowry deaths in India or rampant femicide in Central and South America. Her newest Sydney exhibition ‘Inhabiting Erasures’ is inspired by Hindu goddesses, and displays never-before-seen journal paintings, light projections, meaningful performances and deeply informed statistics relating to the oppression of women. Her profound awareness of global atrocities against women across all classes of society, coupled with a passion for religious female iconography, has transformed her into an art activist well-equipped to comment on the issue through a divine lens.

Bageshri Savyasachi 2021

This might be Kali, the mother her many followers believe her to be, and whom we finally meet fully face to face in the last scene in a blaze of glory, framed by a huge image of an eternally deep cave — not black, but a soft haven, a macrocosm seemingly made from a close-up of gently ruffled cloth and textured with a lovely half-melody. Urban and atheist as I am, I might not believe in Kali, but I welcome the emotionally complex connotations that swirl about her and acknowledge that for a secular society she has the power to evoke the sheer scale of the epic recurrency, individual and social, of the glory and the trauma that constitute life and death. Rakini Devi has given me a Kali to keep and reflect on.

Keith Gallasch 2017

Link to all Rakini Devi reviews in exegesis appendix: Urban Kali, From sacred dance to secular performance

Rakini Devi: Diasporic Subject and Agent Provocateur, Cambridge University Press, Theatre Research International. Helena Grehan, 2003.