By placing the Virgin Mary at the center of their work, Nik Keter (they) aims to rewrite the prominent patriarchal narrative in Catholicism today.
“I want to revitalize and revolutionize Mary within Christianity, both in the way that we worship and in the way that we conceptualize Mary,” the 19-year-old Maltese artist Nik Keter explains. “Rather than seeing her as a mediatrix, a missing link between humanity and Christ, or as a special, chosen human, we should see her as a goddess. We should see her as the mother God — as being the Earth itself.” It is this ideology and Keter’s Marian devotion that fueled their recent series of acrylic paintings on wood paneling, titled In the Name of the Mother and the Daughter.
As they were growing up, Keter came into contact with a number of spiritual and religious influences. The Mediterranean archipelago of Malta has a strong Roman Catholic tradition, which can be seen in the numerous churches dotted about the islands, at the traditional village feasts, and in the ideology of many Maltese people themselves. In Keter’s village of Mqabba, the two village feasts Tal-Gilju (Our Lady of Lilies) and Santa Marija (Our Lady of Assumption) are in honor of Holy Mary, and the local chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. This meant that Mary was always present in Keter’s immediate environment. Although Keter’s parents are Maltese, they have a strong affiliation with Hinduism. They were the first yoga teachers on the islands, and they taught their daughter to practice mindfulness and meditation from an early age. Hindu mythology was also a big part of Keter’s upbringing, as their father had spent a significant amount of time in India. “I grew up reading stories of Krishna, Ganesh, Shiva and Parvati — the myths and legends of Hinduism,” Keter recalls.
In Hindu mythology, the ‘feminine’ is repeatedly associated with strength and power. “The Prakriti, which refers to the feminine aspect of all life forms, is what animates and gives purpose to the Purusha, which is the masculine aspect of all life forms,” Keter explains. “Purusha is the passive male principle, the structure of everything. So, for instance, if you’re analyzing a building, then everything that they use to build the building is the Purusha. Prakriti is what brings life into the building. Suddenly, there’s a reason why it exists. It has a purpose because of the Prakriti. She animates, and because she animates, she is always active and therefore she transforms.”
Keter found these empowering female narratives to be oddly lacking in Catholicism. When instructed how to do the sign of the cross in a religious education class at school at the age of five. Rather than saying “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Keter changed the genders of the key protagonists: “in the Name of the Mother, the Daughter and the Holy Spirit.” This early act of rebellion demonstrates the extent to which Keter was already rethinking what Catholicism meant to them. That early utterance, which irked Keter’s religious education teacher and led to a sudden drop in their grades in that subject, ultimately laid the foundations for what was to become a lifelong dedication to Mary on both a professional and a personal level.
“I am just the violin in her hands, and I hope that I can be tuned correctly,” Keter comments. “I have always had this affinity with Mary, even though I hated the church and most priests. I mean I have always been very anti-authority and anti-dogma.” Keter’s tendency to question authority and the status quo led them to question the role that had been ascribed to Mother Mary within Christianity. “I have this goal of revitalizing the mother. In indigenous cultures, which actually live in harmony with the Earth, they see the Earth as a sort of mother goddess. I want to revive Mary in this more indigenous, connected way. Imagine if we treated the Earth the same way that we treated our mothers. Imagine if you understood that being in tune with the Earth is just the basis of all life.”
Nature and the seasons play an important role in Keter’s work. They portray Mary not only as traditionally maiden-like and beautiful, but also as a wrinkled, mature elder. This approach highlights the seasonality of life and the transformational state of flux that Mary, Mother Earth and indeed all humans find themselves in. “It’s not just about portraying Mother Mary in the different stages in her life,” Keter emphasizes. “It’s about re-contextualizing Mary as being on a par with God the Father. It is the idea of Mary as the second Eve. it is Church doctrine to call Christ the second Adam, which makes Mary the Second Eve. For me, being the Second Eve has to do with the understanding and mitigation of fear and desire, which are the two tenets of life itself. The connection to fear and desire comes from Eve’s temptation scene in Genesis. There is a dual temptation: both a desire to eat, and a fear of God not speaking the truth. Mary, as a mother, is important as the second Eve. She is an answer to this dichotomy because mothers have a dual protector/nurturer role. Divine protection is the ultimate answer to fear, and divine nutrition (connected to the idea of mother’s milk) is the answer to desire. If all your needs are provided for, there is no desire, and if all your needs are provided for, there is no need for fear either.”
Inspired by Byzantine art, Keter seeks to imitate tempera techniques in their acrylic paintings on wood panels. In the medieval era and the early Renaissance, wood panels were commonly used for church paintings. Painters used to dilute their paints and build them up, layer by layer. They would let the layers dry before recommencing work on the painting. For this reason, Keter chose to work with acrylic paint, which dries much faster than oil paint. “It’s very much a stream of consciousness when it comes to painting, so I need to stay in the same place mentally,” Keter comments. “The fact that acrylic dries so fast allows me to work continuously without stopping, which helps me.” Keter’s paintings are all done on three-ply wood panels which are mounted onto frames to offer them extra support and stop them from bending in humid conditions. By not priming the wood before beginning a painting, Keter ensures that the natural grain of the wood is still visible under the acrylics.
Botanical references in Keter’s work are the result of hours of research conducted during walks in the Maltese countryside. Keter strove to incorporate familiar plants that the general public would be able recognize — plants that they had seen, but that they rarely took note of in their busy day-to-day lives. Keter also researched the phenomenon of Mary gardens, a tradition which harks back to the monasteries and convents of medieval Europe. “Marian symbology is connected to flowers and fruits,” Keter explains. “In Mary gardens, they used to grow fruit, flowers and herbs. The tradition was literally that you would worship Mary through your connection with the Earth. So, she becomes like this nature goddess, like Gaea or Demeter — you know, all these goddesses of harvest and bounty.”
The flowers that Keter used in their depictions of Mary all have symbolic meanings that are connected to their original meaning in the Mary gardens. “In the painting of the Dormition, there are marigolds at the top, then there’s cypress, and then there is bleeding heart vine around her neck. There is also myrtle in her hair. The cypress is associated with funerals and cemeteries. I used the bleeding-heart vine to connect with the other hearts that are present in the other Mary paintings, but at the same time, she doesn’t have a physical heart in this one, because she’s physically dead.”
When it comes to monastic practices, Keter is also inspired by ritual and discipline, the approach known as ora et labora. This is the idea of alternating between prayer and work to achieve a sense of routine and purpose. “It’s very much how I work when it comes to my craft,” Keter says. “I pray and I work. I pray and I work. It’s really basically all I do. It’s very methodical. You are able to focus, and it brings new insights into your mind that you wouldn’t think you would come up when you’re so being so structured. It stops distractions from clouding your mind.”
By reframing Mary within a new, refreshing context, Keter encourages a discourse about the potential that a reworking of the priorities within Catholicism could achieve in the real world. For Keter, art is a means to an end, a tool to change people’s perceptions about the way they interact with Mother Earth. “Something I’m very concerned about is the idea of accessibility within art. For me, art is a method of transmitting messages and transmitting meaning. The respect we give to Mary is the respect we give to the Earth. That is my message.”