This summer, Diedre, a BFW mentor and woman of color shared with me that she could not identify with the Inanna in my earlier painting of “Inanna-Ereshkigal in the Underworld” because of her light skin tone and blue eyes. I did not paint Inanna in my image. Rather, I explained, in that painting I honored the historical record and intentionally drew inspiration from the ancient artists of Sumer who used lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, in sculptures and Inanna’s eyes to show reverence to gods and goddesses. Even modern Iraqis have light skin and occasionally blue or green eyes because 6,000-10,000 years ago Indo-Europeans migrated throughout the Middle East passing down the blue/green eye color trait.1
Two months later, here she is: INANNA BLUE (acrylic on Masonite, 48.5” x 24.5”).
Except for Diedre’s comments that day, I wouldn’t have painted another Inanna so soon. The painting wasn’t commissioned by Diedre, but her comments stirred an image and feeling in me and I began to paint, not from history as much as something stirring within me.
When Virginia and I visited the British Museum years ago during a workshop in London, we walked slowly through their exquisite Sumerian-Assyrian-Babylonian display, which was being as close to Inanna and Sumer as any of us would ever get. The great lions, cuneiform tablets and relics were breathtaking and we relished every minute, every fine detail in the artifacts and massive clay reliefs. I remember seeing this gold leaf-crown (or a similar one) and these bold gold earrings and decided to dress this Inanna as a queen. The details in the crown and jewelry were a challenge; instead of using gold paint from a tube, I learned how to paint “gold” using four or five other colors.
I was in a quiet, somewhat solitary place during the summer. Painting Inanna for hours, writing a lot, seeking authors, teachers, and healers. Unlike the previous Inanna, who had tears running down her cheeks (much like the artist at the time!) and skinned knees, the expression on this Inanna’s face is serene or stoic …. I get lost in this Inanna’s eyes. Sometimes we “talk.”
Owl represented death to Sumerians. During every epic Ordeal in mythology and in our short lives, there is a psychic death. I painted Owl on Inanna’s hand to show that Death is not waiting for the spiritual warrior in some far-away place sometime later at the end of life. Death is always as near as the next exhalation. Buddhists practice walking with Death at their side or on a shoulder. Knowing Death is near may help us to live more fully, generously, joyously, and be more able to receive and give love. Befriending Death confronts the looming fear of being no more, of being forgotten; it is a necessary part of preparing for the Crossing Over the Great Threshold. When hearing this timeless story, we walk with Inanna, as Inanna, feeling our own wobbly-kneed determination to do what we came to do even while denying and dreading every next turn in the Descent. Seven Gates, Seven Thresholds, Seven-times stripped of attachments to protection, safety, power, personal importance, past stories, pride, and future hopes. Inanna’s disrobing prepared her to embrace and endure her psychic death and near-physical death. It is the ultimate spiritual goal to die to one’s old self before physically dying. Her owl feather cape and wings signify her transfiguration into a higher spiritual state.
Reed post: When Sumerians were still using pictographs two reed posts meant “Inanna.” Sumer was between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and a wetlands where bamboo-like reeds still grow 25 feet tall and are important to this day in building structures.
Lioness: To me, the lioness represents fear, ferocity, and courage moving together. Sumerian artists often depicted Inanna standing on a lion perhaps to symbolize she subduing her fear.
Cuneiform frame: In the 4thmillennium, Sumerians began making pictographs in damp clay to record temple activity and market sales, but over time, using a wedge-shaped reed, they progressed to making an alphabet and forming words that conveyed spoken language. They even wrote letters and poems that were enclosed in clay envelopes; Virginia and I saw one of their clay “postage stamps” at the British Museum. Through cuneiform developed in Sumer (3200 BCE), we learn the Sumerians history, hymns, wars, recipes, and the epic myths of Inanna and Gilgamesh that would have—if left to an oral history--been lost. These great stories are great teachers have had a profound influence on my life for almost forty years—and I know these stories have also touched many of my readers in a deep way.
This painting is framed in messages written in cuneiform. Over her crown it reads “freedom.” Beneath the lioness, it reads “heart of a lion.” Ascending from the lower right corner it reads “queen of the earth, i.e., Ereshkigal.” The cuneiform beneath Inanna’s right hand (holding the lapis rod and ring) reads “Queen Inanna.” Look on the left side, parallel to the rope wrapped around the last reed post, see the symbols of the sun, moon and “T”? That was a pictograph that reads something like “Inanna Queen of Heaven.” In the frame are other words, “leader/strong,” “,” “hand,” “grain,” “harvest,””walk/stand,” “earth,” “water,” and letters of their alphabet.
I plan to frame this painting in the future. Confidence waivers regarding whether my art is good enough to show or sell, and I don't know what it is worth, but I am open to selling this painting. I can make archival prints in almost any size, if there is interest let me know.
Each morning I go to my studio and process my life through painting because I can’t not paint. Painting is a bridge to solitude, to a quiet-quiet mind, and a mythical world that saves me from this one.
Jesse Sleiman, Average Australian Citizen.Apr 24, 2018
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