Two years ago, Mary Frances Dondelinger, a conceptual artist, stumbled across a website claiming that then-First Lady Michelle Obama was a man. Simultaneously horrified and intrigued, she was amazed at how easy it was to pass off fiction as reality. The encounter inspired her to create a new series. She aimed to one-up online fabrications by inventing a wildly alternative history of ancient art.
“Could I create something that is completely false but present it as truth?” Dondelinger recalled asking herself. “Could it be done so the public, even if they believed the exhibit was truthful, would take away an expansive message as opposed to a destructive one?”
The resulting series, titled M.Flandia (a composite of the artist’s first two initials and the word ‘land’), consists of new pottery designed to look like a cache of recently-excavated vases, bowls, and statues. Her creations — which Dondelinger revealed in a staged excavation on an island off the coast of California — masquerade as the relics of a previously undiscovered civilization, and will appear in a forthcoming exhibition at Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. In M.Flandia’s ancient culture, women were revered as strong, while men were depicted as caregivers.
“I was interested in creating a society where gender did not decide the roles people played,” Dondelinger told Hyperallergic. Drawing on ancient sources from Greece (especially black- and red-figure pottery), Egypt, and South America, women are shown wrestling lions, reading scrolls, and throwing javelins. Female boxers pervade the series, and a couple reclining on a bed includes a nude man and a clothed woman.
The couple, who appear in the work “Where the Men are Always Naked and the Women are Not,” is clearly based on an ancient Greek kylix, or drinking cup. It bears particular similarity to one in the British Museum that depicts the Greek god of the underworld, Hades, and Persephone, whom he abducted. Raising a libation in his hand, Hades demonstrates to Persephone how she should worship a deity such as himself.
In the alternative history of M.Flandia, female worship of male gods — especially those who have dragged them to the underworld against their will — doesn’t fly. The figure based on Hades has been stripped of the draped fabric that covered him in the original, making him as much of an object as the bowl clasped in his hands. He holds it toward an assertive M.Flandian woman, who rests her hand on his upper thigh.
According to Renee Gondek, a specialist in Greek vase-painting and imagery related to gender construction, this dynamic would have been highly unusual in ancient Greece. “She is actually touching him, which would never be on a Greek vase,” Gondek said in an interview with Hyperallergic. Men always initiated touch, even in depictions of wedding processions. “A man grabs the woman, by the wrist or by the hand, and leads her forward. She doesn’t touch. She tilts her head downwards in this gesture of modesty and veneration toward her groom.”
The woman’s gesture in Dondelinger’s version suggests a more gender-equal society — a visual effect that’s heightened, Gondek said, by the fact that men and women share the same skin tone. In ancient Greek and Egyptian paintings, women were shown with lighter skin to illustrate what was likely an aesthetic ideal. (Dondelinger said this was a happy coincidence, but one that jives with the message of her series.)
Despite drastic departures from history in its depictions of women, the M.Flandia series may have clung to ancient Greek tradition in one sense. Images on the bottoms of kylikes were often intentionally outlandish, to be drunkenly discovered after guzzling the mixture of wine and water that the vessel contained. “You might invite people over to your dining party,” Gondek explained. “And as they’re drinking their wine and emptying their kylix, you might want to humor them with some kind of funny scene … It reveals itself to you as you down all of your wine.”
The scenes painted by Dondelinger would certainly be shocking to the men of ancient Greece. As for the contemporary viewer? “It’s harder than ever to figure out what is ‘fake news’ and what is real,” Dondelinger said. “This series encourages critical thinking on many levels.”