Dear Sor Juana,
The celebrated portraits of you show you wearing a nun’s breast shield, so large in one portrait you would have been unable to turn your head. Unable to avert your gaze to what is in front of you the background of your books, scientific equipment and accumulating wisdom from study and prayer you look directly at the viewer. There is a clock behind you keeping time which would have regulated your behaviour, although I have a sense that this discipline was also liberating for you. The works of the founder of your order St Jerome lie on the table top in front of you and I am curious as to what rule is talking to you from the page. (Jerome would have a lot to say right now about the state of the clergy as well as a great student of his day, his letters on sexual morality and corruption of priests were a clarion call in the 4th century.)
We adorn ourselves and our surroundings with images, objects, badges and jewellery, there is a conversation about how we are held by them and how they hold us.
This week I bought a painting, a portrait of the stars, my favourite constellation the Seven Sisters – Pleiades. It is one of the deepest of the songlines in Australia, spanning half the continent. The artist of the painting I have is Dean Jakamara Briscoe, this is his country and his sky. His ancestors have looked into the skies for aeons and told their story of Jakamarra (Orion) pursing the women unable to attain a union with any of them. My ancestors from Greece had a story of seven sisters fleeing across the sky too and being the source of advice for sailors. Although I am estranged from my Greek heritage and it is hidden from me, I love the thought of our common ancestors looking to the heavens, being guided by the same constellation, salt water and fresh water people – we are all one. The artist and I met in the Adelaide Mall by a 4 metre high pair of silver spheres, I saw the artist approaching in the reflection of the balls and the iridescent yellow Toys R Us plastic bag protected the 45cm square dot oil painting from the August elements of drizzling rain. Taking the painting out to reveal more protection, a black cotton cloth securely and gently being held in place by tape in common time Dean told me his story of the Seven Sisters. I like the idea of this painting being a portrait of the cosmos, captured in time on a canvas, like a photograph, frozen for a moment so we can catch our breaths and stare at their beauty, yet all the while knowing they are moving.
Here is Dean’s story in his words:
For many years the seven sisters lived peacefully and when a man called Jakamara found out about the sisters he fell in love straight away and didn’t want to be alone anymore. Wherever the seven sisters went Jakamara would follow and would beg them to marry him, the sisters tried to hide from him but couldn’t so they fled to the Milky way where they are seen now and Jakamara ( Orion ) still chasing after them.
Perhaps your shield served the purpose, of holding you in your place in the astronomical journey of your spirit traversing the night the sky despite being pursued by your own version of Jakamara, that pesky Bishop of Puebla.
Like your portrait Sor Juana, the cosmos is in the background with all the lessons and knowledge the universe can muster up to deliver to you as you soak it all in, yet gaze only forward. Dean’s Seven Sisters will look at me each day and farewell me into the night as I have put the painting by the front door and next to the light switch, which is one of the last things I do before I go to bed is to switch off that particular set of lights. As I sleep they can watch over me and this household. A breast shield for our home protecting us and leading us forward into the new day and each new season.