An Essay by Navine G. Dossos
‘It was all a dream, I used to read Art Review Magazine.’
Panicle Paintings has been my re-connection with studio painting after having my first child. Zephyr was born in May 2020 – right in the middle of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. I struggled through a fairly isolated pregnancy during which I didn’t get to experience the physical transition of my body nor my social self with other expectant parents in person. And whilst there were pockets of normality, community and togetherness during the first two years of my child’s life and my life as a mother, there was also the struggle to journey from one reality to another in a world that was constantly opening up and closing down again. This led to a lot of suppressed anxiety that eventually became a depression that went unrecognised and untreated for far too long.
Most of my close bonds with other parents going through similar experiences happened through my phone: Whatsapp groups, Instagram, Facebook, phone calls and messages on a daily basis comparing notes on sleep, food, breasts, moods, clothes, washing, bodily changes, sexual lives – everything. But I only started to meet these parents and their children many months after their births, despite knowing so much about these new humans through online communications. Travel plans to meet were made, cancelled, made again, cancelled again. And yet at the same time online orders were being placed and parcels sent; goods moved around more than people did.
This series of fifteen paintings began life as just three works, commissioned as a triptych for my long-time collaborator, collector, writer and friend Hooda Shawa. She had been researching the symbolism of palm trees in ancient Sumerian cylinder seals and she thought that the subject matter would resonate with me, given my previous project Imagine A Palm Tree (2016) at the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in Athens.
A cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, normally made of a hard stone, around 2-3 cm in height, and engraved with minute writing and figurative scenes. They were invented around 3500 BCE and used in Sumer to roll an impression onto wet clay, before the introduction of paper. Most seals have a hole running from top to bottom, so that they could be worn on a necklace close to the body. The seal was often used as a form of personal signature but could also function as jewellery or a magical amulet. Among other symbols, the language of trees, animals, and celestial bodies would often signify the birth date of the owner.
As I began to look into the symbolism of these seals, and the mythological associations of the palm tree with feminine fertility and childbirth, it became clear to me that there was much more to respond to than could fit into just three paintings. For instance, in Sumer, the word ‘palm frond’ was written as peš: n, which also means womb.[i] Women who had experienced a difficult delivery would transmit their trauma to a palm tree by clinging to it and reciting the following words: “Give me your capacity to finish without problems and take mine of not being able to do so.” The palm tree, which is able to bring forth fruits all the time, be they early or late in the season, was asked to take care of her.[ii]
The dates were the first thing that struck me in the seals: perfectly embossed little circles punctuating the images. As the fruit of the palm tree (painted as orange-yellow circles in these works) the date is a symbol of fecundity, appearing in all examples of the trees I came across, often in panicles – a many-branched inflorescence (meaning that there are multiple branches and each hosts small bunches of fruit or flowers at the end of each stem, like the pistachios that surround me on my island). Panicles of dates are the large heavy bunches of the fruit we often see hanging below the leaves of the tree. They reminded me somehow of the ultrasound scans of my ovaries, checking to see how ‘juicy’[iii] my own eggs were when we were trying to conceive, especially as many of the images of cylinder seal impressions I was looking at were grainy black and white photographs printed from a bad PDF.
The series unfolded as I came across more and more examples of trees in various cylinder seal designs – some recognizable as palm trees, others more fantastical, hybrid trees often mixed with aspects of the cedar, that carries its own masculine symbolism in this pictorial language of identity. The cedar is often stylised as an arrow, which in Sumerian – ti – is related to the idea of life, whilst tree – gis or gish – also means penis.[iv]
Hybrid trees with female and male attributes were something I had come across before. I had witnessed the maggio, or ‘Sacred Marriage of the Trees’, whilst researching an exhibition on the local folk traditions of Matera in southern Italy in 2019 to celebrate it being the European Capital of Culture. In the village of Viggianello, we watched the local community bring down a ‘male’ beech tree from one side of the mountainous valley, dragging it along behind dozens of enormous oxen accompanied by much festive ritual drinking. This tree was brought into the main square of Viggianello where it was bound together with a ‘female’ fir tree from the other side of the valley and erected in the centre of the village for the whole of the following year. I was just at the very start of my pregnancy at that time, so there was a synergetic and cyclical feeling when I came across this idea again in this research as a new parent.
As each tree emerged from the seals and into my drawings, I started to see that they were portraits of a kind, in the same way that the Sumerian cylinder seal was a personal signature, or a form of authentication of the person using it. The trees developed personalities and very quickly I began to associate them with different friends of mine who had given birth or become parents during the pandemic. They were a way to draw my friends closer; to have them present with me in the studio as I began to work again.
All these people whose portraits emerged happen to also be creative in their lives, whether as artists, writers, designers, thinkers or doers. And so the paintings do not just deal with the creation and nurturing of children, but how creativity or personal practice itself is an important part of each of us, and must be seen and respected as such. The palm dates therefore are a visual metaphor for the fruit of our bodies and of our imaginations.
The paintings exist as individual portraits, but in addition function in triptychs that relate more closely to the dimensions of a rolled-out cylinder seal image. They can also, when brought together, form a single continuous frieze-like work. This aspect of the work, as well as the colouring, is inspired by the archaeological remains and reconstructed parts of the Ishtar Gate, excavated in the early 20th century by Robert Koldewey in Hillah, Iraq (known historically as Babylon), but currently in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin[v].
Worshipped as the Mistress of Heaven, Ishtar (to the Assyrians) or Inanna (to the Sumerians) was the goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, and procreation, but her origins lie in more humble beginnings as a rural goddess of agriculture. The architectural friezes that flank the Ishtar Gate parallel the processional movement of the public towards the Gate that was opened only once a year as part of a religious festival marking the beginning of the agricultural year. The Sacred Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi was central to the fertility of the land and was re-enacted at important festivals (such as the Akitu Festival at Babylon) by the king and a priestess having sexual intercourse or, perhaps, symbolically mating in a kind of pantomime.
But Ishtar/Inanna is never a Mother Goddess: she is always represented as an independent young woman who does as she pleases, and this is something I appreciate as many mythological women are perceived as passive baby-making vessels. She is a lover and a fighter, strong-willed and often getting embroiled in disastrous situations of her own making – something I can relate to personally! A famous example of this is the ‘Descent of Inanna’ in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which describes her visit to the underworld, where she meets her highly unamused and vengeful sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Dead, whose husband Gugalanna – the Bull of Heaven – she has caused the death of. Inanna is only saved by the arrival of the gala (a word homophonous with gal-la, meaning vulva): beings created ‘neither male nor female’, and these intersex people continued to feature as priests in the temples dedicated to her.
These paintings mark a personal journey of my own, including my descent into murky waters, and my emergence from them with the help of my own παρέα, my community of friends, both in person and online. The paintings look to the ancient past for meaning, and to nature for symbolism. They move between the miniature world of the cylinder seal and the oocyte, between the architectural scale of a lost city and the superstructure of today’s networked world. It goes without saying that becoming a parent during a pandemic was a singular and difficult experience. But we can honour our pain, and cling to a tree and ask it for its compassion, in order to work towards a more hopeful and florescent future.
[i] Van Bakel, Tom, The magical meaning of cedars and palm trees depicted on cylinder seals, Self-published on Academia.edu, 2018
[ii] Stol, Marten, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible – Its Mediterranean Setting, Groningen Styx, 2000
[iii] ‘Juicy’ is the word my gynacologist used to describe my eggs during an ultrasound scan. The word was so fruit-like that even before making these works I think I had already formed some kind of unconscious association of my body as a fruit-producing tree.
[iv] Ryan, Patrick C., Proto-Language Monosyllables with their principal meanings, Self-published, 2008 (https://www.scribd.com/document/353794019/PROTO-LANGUAGE-MONOSYLLABLES-With-Their-Principal-Meanings-by-Patrick-C-Ryan)
[v] The government of Iraq has petitioned the German government to return the Ishtar Gate many times, notably in 2002 and 2009. It is frequently cited as a key example in the debate regarding repatriating artefacts of cultural significance.