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  • Writer's pictureTessel van der Putte


The serpent or dragon eating its own tail: this symbol, beaming with mystique and history, has been used by many cultures around the globe, throughout time. From civilizations in ancient Egypt to the Aztec empire, the ouroboros was seen as some kind of eternal cyclic renewal, or the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The skin-sloughing process of snakes in this sense, symbolizes transformation and healing - a process mirrored not only in nature but also within ourselves.

The symbol would, later on, be adopted by ancient Greece, followed by medieval and renaissance alchemists, who associated the ouroboros with eternity. In Gnosticism, too, the symbol became the embodiment of both the divine and the earthly human, which despite being opposites - and quite like the harmony of contrasts we find in the Chinese yin and yang - existed together.

For the painting titled ‘Ouroboros’, I used this symbol of the snake biting its own tail for the composition - and for inspiration to visualize the union of opposites, transformation and new beginnings.

How these themes are reflected in the painting

I started to contemplate what this symbol meant to me in 2020, its inherent contradiction yet perfect illustration of how growth works (which is, let's face it, sporadically linear) as well as life itself, as some might say. The result: a painting with at its core composition the ouroboros, where two bodies are intertwined in an eternal cyclical movement.

My main aim was to take apart one perceived view of “reality” in this painting (and especially some rigid ideas around the masculine-feminine dichotomy we sometimes see). By rearranging the scattered pieces that make up the two bodies in abstracted forms, deep contrasts, and expressive shapes of light and dark, the figures spiral into the shape of an ouroboros. Consequently, the painting can be viewed from different angles and positions. It can literally be turned upside-down (or, as a matter of fact, the painting has no one “up” or “down” side) and there is no clear start or end of the "cycle" either.

The feminine and masculine

The two figures in this painting are in many ways part of the same, emerging together in the center and spiralling into each other's opposites at the end of the frame. Following the shape and composition of the ouroboros, the figures embody a visual conceptualization of that which is feminine and that which is masculine in all of us, not as a binary but as a spectrum. In addition, both figures have masculine and feminine features, blurring the limitations of what gender expression can look like, while putting an emphasis on the internal experience of ourselves as both masculine and feminine beings holistically.

Colour and form

I have always been enamored with the raw authenticity we encounter in the wild natural world. So I chose a kaleidoscope of green colors for this painting while making reference to the organic shapes of plants and roots (the ultimate life force). In addition to the organic shapes, the painting also takes on cubist forms: hard-edged frames in and around the figures represent the social structures and expectations we create, sometimes unnecessarily, and the oppression that comes with this ‘boxed’ way of thinking.

By bringing these opposites together, the painting invites you to re-imagine and re-arrange our common understandings, concepts, and deeply embedded social norms around femininity, masculinity, and identity.

Healing and mindfulness

I often paint the figures on my canvases with their eyes closed. I do this to create the feeling of dreaming, or of being deeply sunken into a meditation. I also find there is a certain serenity to painting people with their eyes closed: as if they are not performing for the painter or spectator, but as if they are in the “now”. From a feminist lens, denying the eye-contact of the observer and the observed also symbolizes autonomy and denies the unequal “performance” aspect of the male gaze and female nude in art. Finally, the closed eyes point to another kind of perception not experienced by view, but by emotion, thought and senses: the body as a reflection from their inner worlds, rather than their physical existence.

The eye beyond the figures symbolizes our higher selves, the wisdom within and beyond us, that is always awake. The eye, alluding to a feminine breast or nipple-like shape (an epicenter of life, but also of oppression and censorship), symbolizes the intuition that guides our personal reflections.

It can often be such a challenge to find calm and peace of mind in the chaos we encounter moving through life. So pursuing one's inner balance, no matter the dance around us, is something I hope this work will convey to the viewer.

'Ouroboros' acrylic on canvas, 80 x 120 cm.


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