New exhibit at Petaluma Museum honors Women’s History Month

"Black Madonna," by Sue Ellen Parkinson. One of many works on display in the Petaluma Historical Museum's new exhibit.


“During dark and challenging times, it’s important to shed a light on stories of hope and inspiration,” suggests the internationally celebrated cultural historian Kayleen Asbo, co-curator (with Nancy Castille) of the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum’s new exhibit, “Women and the Search for Wisdom.” “This is a time of enormous challenge and division between people,” Asbo says, “and Women’s History Month seems like a good time to examine women’s search for wisdom across the centuries.”

The stunning new exhibit — a multi-artist show representing the works of over 30 artists from around the world — is part of a month-long celebration of feminine power, beauty, and wisdom. The month includes lectures, poetry, musical performances, and themed salons, all focusing on the images, stories and histories of specific mythological and historical female icons, from Eve, Salome and Mary Magdalene to Hildegarde von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

“A lot of incredible stories never make it into the history books,” says Asbo. “Stories of women and Women’s history definitely fall into that category.”

The artists whose works are displayed in the exhibit include women from across Northern California, some of them nationally renowned.

“I’m stunned by the art we’ve gotten for this show,” says Asbo. “It includes two local 14-year-olds from Sonoma County. This work is mythological, inspiring, and just gorgeous.”

The month kicks off this Sunday afternoon with an exhibit-opening gala and concert featuring the Paris-based Braslavsky Ensemble, featuring vocalist Catherine Braslavsky and percussionist Joseph Rowe. Their music is part of what initially inspired Asbo’s quest to learn about the histories and music of iconic figures such as the 12th Century German saint, mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen, some of whose songs Braslavsky will be performing at the concert.

“I first encountered them fifteen years ago,” Asbo says of Braslavsky and Rowe. “Their music inspired me so much that I’ve been traveling the world ever since, seeking out the stories in their music.” Most of the artists whose work will be unveiled will be in attendance Sunday as well. “The art is so beautiful,” she says. “Some just takes my breath away. There are images of Mary Magdalene that are so moving. One woman has sewn and stitched what she calls her ‘Bardo ball gown,’ the dress she hopes to be buried in. It has lines from Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’ stitched into it.”

Asbo says she is particularly excited about the salon series, with three events (including the kick-off gala) taking place throughout the month of March. On March 11, at 3 p.m., the subject will be Inanna and the Search for Wisdom, and the subject of the final salon on March 25 at 4 p.m. will be “Back to the Garden: Eve and Mary Magdalene.”

“The afternoon will include poetry readings reimagining the myth of Eden and Mary Magdalene,” says Asbo. “My hope is that everybody will come and see how much beauty, depth a meaning is hidden in the shadows of these stories.”

Additionally, the museum’s celebration will include a Monday night lecture series, presented under the title, “Women, Sex and Politics in Art, Music and Literature.”

“It’s a sensational title, I know,” laughs Asbo.

On March 5, 7 p.m., the subject will be “Divinely Erotic Love,” taking a look at the works of Hildegard Von Bingen, Julien of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, all early nuns whose writing about God collapsed the boundaries between religious devotion and ecstatic love.

“In their writing and music,” says Asbo, “they created a language of the divine that is extremely erotic.”

On March 12, 7 p.m., the subject is “Troubadours of Courtly Love: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her granddaughters.” March 19, 7 p.m. brings “Women of Questionable Virtue: Barbara Strozzi and Veronica Franco,” both famous courtesans of Venice, the latter the subject of the film “Dangerous Beauty.” Finally, on March 26, 7 p.m., it’s “Harlot, Heroine or Heretic: Salome.”

“The last story is also very timely because it happens on Palm Sunday,” Asbo points out. “Salome, as a character, has been incredibly sexualized in the hands of Richard Strauss and Oscar Wilde, who turned her into a sex crazed nymphomaniac. In the Bible, she was actually was a companion of Mary Magdalene, was a there at the crucifixion, and was a devotee to Jesus. We’ll look at Salome in art and music, and show bits of Strauss’s opera and Oscar Wilde’s play.”

Asked of the relevance to modern women, of such ancient female historical and mythological figures, Asbo replies, “One of the things I am constantly aware of as a teacher, is the importance of stories that can serve as role models. The composer Clara Schumann gave up composing, and wrote in her diaries that she’d given up because there had never been a woman who’s been successful as a composer. ‘How could I hope to be the first?’ she said. If only she’d known about Hildegard von Bingen and all of these others, maybe she’d have realized she was not the first to experience what she had, and that she could go out and do it after all.”

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