ALTADENA, California — Halfway through “What if the Matriarchy Was Here All Along?,” artist Akina Cox’s short story about the Amazons suffering an attack by a tribe of men, a character named Melanippe gathers the group.
“The tribe to the north of us is friendly,” she tells her people. “They have many men who would be interested in a marriage alliance with those of you of age. They admire our fighting spirit and could give each woman a horse, and we would be welcome into their families.”
In Cox’s telling, this is an unusual offer, as most of the nearby groups hated the idea of women learning to ride horses, learning martial arts, and generally operating fiercely and independently of the nearby patriarchies. Debate ensues.
Horses figure prominently in Cox’s drawings, which grace the walls of the Altadena Library’s exhibition, What if the Matriarchy Was Here All Along?, curated by Jacqueline Falcone of Bed & Breakfast, an independent curatorial practice focused on unusual art spaces like bedrooms or, in this case, a library.
One shaggy horse dons a golden crown, and another incubates a human child. Both carry a daisy-like flower, a symbol of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of both love and war. In the Bible, the exhibition notes, Ishtar is represented as a snake meant to inspire disgust and fear. But in many pagan spiritualities, it often symbolizes new life, most famously depicted in the ouroboros, an image of a snake eating its tail.
Cox’s ouroboros encircles a daisy, backgrounded by brown earth. Per the exhibition description, the artist grew up in a cult, where all that she was “taught to be afraid of were actually things and people who were good for her.”
Outside the library, Ali Prosch’s oversized “Friendship Bracelets for Trees” hang from the property’s oldest tree (predating the library itself, whose history dates back to 1926). The popular craft started as a protest symbol and then extended to a general activity between friends and loved ones, especially children. Prosch worked with her daughter, Lucy, to create the two massive bracelets, one of which carries the phrase “Take Care” in giant beads and red and black rope.
If Prosch presents the tenderness of motherly love, the show’s third piece, Najja Moon’s “Your Momma’s Voice in the Back of Your Head” (2022) reveals its tensions. An electronic work installed inside gradient dichromic plexiglass, it provides a single pair of headphones to listen in on actual maternal scoldings from Moon’s community in Miami with their mothers in overlapping English, Spanish, and Creole: “Get your ass up and go.” “Be aware of the power of the penis.” “No empieces” (Don’t start with me). “Callate” (Be quiet).
Originally installed as a public artwork at the Bass Museum of Art in 2021, “Your Momma’s Voice” was vandalized and then destroyed; the work on display in the Altadena Library is made from its remnants. “Miami is seen as a place apart from the rest of Florida,” Moon noted in response to the destruction. “Folks believe we don’t have ‘those problems’ here. We can’t get to the better version of what is next, if we try to believe that is true.”
At the heart of the show is the idea that matriarchy never really died but rather has transformed. “Perhaps the the Amazon women took on a new form of existence,” offers Falcone’s curatorial statement. “Perhaps their legacy lives on both through their genes and folklore, but also whenever anyone has come together, from abolitionists, to suffragists, to women’s social clubs and quilting bees.”
That legacy may be most prominent in the Amazonian name. Today’s wave of unions, including those at the famed technology company, is driven by Black and brown women, and the river from which the company derives its name was designated for the fierce indigenous women who fought back against Spanish conquistadors.
This makes me think back to the characters in Cox’s story — what would they think of today’s society? If horses once represented freedom, they also represent conquest. At one important pivot point in the story, Daphne, an Amazonian woman considering the offer to marry into another tribe, thinks up another solution. “Do we really need the men?” she asks. “Let’s just steal the rest of their horses!”
While women warriors from the east have long been considered mythical, new scholarship shows just how real they were, in the form of Scythian women riding horses across the Eurasian steppe. Over time, we might come to recognize that the myth is not the idea of the Amazons, but the idea that they could never exist.
What if the Matriarchy Was Here All Along? continues at the Altadena Library (600 E. Mariposa St. Altadena, Calif.) through December 17. The exhibition was curated by Jacqueline Falcone.