Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bellies in Antiquity

While teaching a belly roll workshop in July, I attended a gallery talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled: "The Body in Antiquity," I was peculiarly aware of the amazing bellies that surrounded me in white marble, bronze, obsidian, and roughed up stone--bellies had withstood time.

The pictures at the right focus on women's bellies though there is one male scribe in the Egyptian section. I started with the Egyptian Wing at the Met and then went over to the Greek and Roman room, and finished in the achingly small (if one can complain about the riches of the Met) East Asian wing. I was overwhelmed and had to call it a day. (Works from the Greek, Roman, and East Asian rooms are coming.)

As I walked from room to room, snapping photos and leaning toward bellies, I became aware of several things.

One, though I knew women's bellies were sexy, I wonder if the process of teaching dance and breaking down and analyzing technique makes me about technical and detached from the subject, the bellies themselves. As I progressed through the galleries, however, I was beautifully reminded of how erotically charged this center is. I became increasingly self conscious as the beefy, male security guards followed from room to room. Though I presume they were tracking me to make certain I didn't raise my flash, my activity started to feel illicit and dark. I began to wonder--why? Was it because I was only photographing women and rather closely at that? I considered telling one of the guards what I was actually doing and giving them my card, but worried an anxious description of the project would make my intentions seem even more sketchy. I was breaking no rules after all.

I also wondered if they actually were tracking me. In truth, they were simply standing in their assigned rooms doing their jobs on a busy, summer, Saturday night. Why was I getting so anxious?

Secondly, though different cultures and eras define the body, the difference of the portrayal of men and women in striking. Men are always straight, standing tall, confident. Women curve and bend, more often caught in movement rather than being portrayed at rest. Even in the Egyptian wing--with the exception of the female Pharaoh Hatsheput-- the women's bare, elongated torsos often curve with a sense of movement. They are musicians and dancers. They work in the fields or nursing children. Even the Goddesses are doing something. Repose, command, and stillness, appear to be part of the male experience.

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