Snakes and secret sexism | Karine Rougier and Bettina Hutschek

Just in time for St Paul’s, the snakes are back. Artist Karine Rougier and curator Bettina Hutschek talk about ‘The Snake Show’ – celebrating the archetypal complexity of the snake symbol and its inextricable connection to womanhood

Psyché and Cupidon by Karine Rougier (Oil on panel, 30x30cm, 2017)
Psyché and Cupidon by Karine Rougier (Oil on panel, 30x30cm, 2017)

The pop-up exhibition initiative Fragmenta is broadening its scope this week. Instead of their usual, spontaneous one-day events, ‘The Snake Show’, having opened on Friday, will go on until February 10, and incorporate a clutch of different artists in contrast to the singular focus usually accorded to their events.

Taking place at a newly-restored “classic” exhibition space at 188B, St Lucy Street in Valletta, Fragmenta founder and exhibition curator Bettina Hutschek, however, stresses that this more ‘centralised’ twist on the Fragmenta concept will not short-circuit its essentially loose and open exhibition policy.

“Apart from the exhibition at St Lucy Street, we’ve also designed a ‘parcours’ across the city, which will challenge visitors to find images in the public space that correspond to St Paul’s parish,” Hutschek said. St Paul, of course, being a powerful religious figure in the ‘story of snakes’. But, getting to the core concept of the exhibition, it is precisely the negative connotations we attach to snakes – and the attendant sexism therein – that she wanted to challenge.

“In all of the ancient world religions, the snake is held up as a positive symbol – particularly for women,” Hutschek stresses.

But then, Christianity came along.

“I believe that Christianity has destroyed a lot of our old force, power and wisdom. Christian thought uses the ‘heathen’ picture-language of the snake to express the idea of both suffering and salvation, but the ‘snake of the world’ makes for a more poetic mythology. I find this particularly interesting in the context of Malta, on the one hand because of St Paul, on the other hand because of women’s rights issues,” Hutschek says, adding that she believes that the merging of the image of snake and woman throughout history “has helped misogyny take root in society”.

Making the best of a rich and potentially incendiary theme, a number of artists will be participating in the exhibit, among them Ryan Falzon, Carl Gent, Anna Block, Sharon Kivland, Sarah Maria Scicluna and Pippin Barr. It will also feature the work of Karine Rougier, an acclaimed French-Maltese surrealist painter and the great-great-granddaughter of the celebrated Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali.

Rougier was immediately struck by Hutschek’s approach to the exhibition, and its underlying message. “As a woman, I couldn’t afford to be ignorant about the snake story and its implications,” Rougier said, before delving into how one of her contributions to the exhibition – ‘As You Like It’, reproduced on page 31 – directly confronts some of the problematic received wisdom we have about snakes... and the attendant gender dynamics of that symbolism.

“With this piece, I wanted to present the wild snake in a more positive way – as if it’s engaged in an endless game. Here, the snake is drawn into a sensual position – not a ‘devilish’ one. And with the female figure, I wanted to show her as someone of strong character, who is in control of her life. And her cheeks are red with pleasure...”


Fragmenta’s The Snake Show will remain on display at 188B, St Lucy Street, Valletta until February 11. Painting on cover image, page 31: ‘As you like it’ by Karine Rougier (gouache on vintage paper, 13x10cm, 2018)