Since the snake has been a symbol in the arts and mythologies of ancient times, performance artist Carolee Schneemann researched this symbol during her studies in the '60s. From her studies she concluded that ancient goddess statues that attributed the snake could have been made by female artists. Later she would perform herself with these goddess images in mind.
After this, other female artists followed and expressed their own interpretation of the mythological being of the serpent in relation to women in ancient stories, connecting these images to their own contemporary views.
In this case, Carolee Schneemann started off by interpreting the coiled snake as a primitive way to symbolise the uturus and vagina. It was a way to represent the energy that houses there and is ascribed to the Mothergoddess figurefrom these ancient times. The Mothergoddess would be both giver of life and representing fertility, but also death and decay, having the power to take all life away. In this sense the snake is closest to the Earth, always having full body contact with it. This idea of the Mothergoddess and the female energy that was symbolised with the coiled snake, is also a way to go against Freudian ideas of penis envy, because there wasn't a gaping hole were a penis ought to be, but a self-contained fertile power that could bring life on its own.
In this sense Schneemann tried to recreate the Mothergoddess iconography, for instance in her documented performance piece Eye/Body in 1963, which was photographed in her studio. The artist tranformed herself into the materials she needed to objectify her body as a medium in the environment she created there. In one of the photographs she is seen fully naked with two snakes draped across her body.
Another perfomance artist who carried out a spritual energy in relation to the serpent is Marina Abramović, who believes snakes follow the Earths rays of energy, and also the energy from the human body. In some of her performances, Abramović would have a living snake present, trying to grasp its attention by sending out energy herself. In some of her work she represents the figure of the Medusa, by placing snakes around her head and staying still for long periods of time while snakes slithered around her face, like during SSS from 1989 and a series of works called Dragon Heads from 1990.
Abramović managed to bring the mystery of the snake as a spiritual symbol into her biography as well as her art.
Spero started depicting bombs as human figures from pictures shared by popular media. In some of these the male bombs show a phallic snakelike figure that is sticking out its tongue. This figure is returning later in Speros complex Codex Artaud, in which she uses often misogynistic or violently depressing quotes from the French playwright Antonin Artaud. In this sense Spero seems to connect the war as well as her own frustrations as a woman artist with a male rage that she represents with these statements and phallic figures.
Spero often chose symbols andfemale figures that show an active power, such as this Serpent with Eve, but she also brings Medusa out of her context and shows her without the men that would play the main characters in the story where she is defeated by a male society. By doing this she shows that the women in these myths have their own existence, without the supremacy of the men that were originally portrayed as protagonists in their stories.
Mutu uses collage to show deformation and destructed images that make up her hybrid figures.The mostly female figures in her work show scars from violence, but they also show a sense of pride. The way the artist makes these figures out of violently ripped and cut images, and the way they are made into disfigured women can be seen as the violence black women have endured in Mutu's youth in an unstable country, but also as a contradiction to the ideal that is portrayed in mass media and the vision of Africa that western people have. The hybrid figures show a disrupted identity that Mutu shares as a Kenyan woman, educated and living in the Western world.
Le Noble Savage from 2006 is a clear reference to this western idea of the African woman, who is one with nature and surrounded with animals. Her appearance is based on that of Josephine Baker, who made white male fantasies come true in the 1920s, by magnifying the African stereotype that was sexualised. The woman in this work by Mutu might have ben made of torn pieces, but she still stand proud. The snakes that are placed around her head suggest a Medusa like figure, which could mean that even the stereotyped, black woman is seen as a destructive force.
The snake plays the role of attribute to the Mothergoddess, who was overturned by a patriarchal society and turned into the destructive and feared figure of Medusa, to whom all these women artist relate in their own way. In this sense the snake refers to a matriarchal past, that the artists introduce into their contemporary visions.