"Match of the Matriarchs" in Boston through Nov. 4

by ChessBase
10/25/2018 – The Boston Sculptors Gallery (in Boston, Massachusetts, USA) has been hosting an interesting competition from October 3rd through to November 4th: the "Match of the Matriarchs". The exhibit is the brainchild of American artist Donna Dodson, who has designed a chess game with exclusively female figures inspired by marine animals. There is a closing reception the evening of November 2nd. | Photo: Boston Sculptors Gallery

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Cephalopods against Cetaceans

By Donna Dodson

This chess set is a tribute to my mentor Joseph Wheelwright, an amazing artist, chess player and founding member of Boston Sculptors Gallery. He passed in 2016. I found out about his illness a week before he died. That left many things unsaid for me, so I created this chess set to honour his friendship, support and inspiration in my life.

I started this series in 2015 with five mermaids that I created for a solo show at the New Bedford Art Museum. My contemporary take on female mythological figures was a response to the traditional ship prow carvings on the whaling vessels in New Bedford. I created a narwhal, orca, elephant seal, squid and octopus since these figures seem distinctive within the fish kingdom. Each one has its own personality and their unique features inspired my work.

Maple, birch, cork oak, mulberry, pear, beech, Douglas fir, cedar, apple, cherry, white oak and red oak

The premise of this chess set is that the giant squid and the whale are archenemies in the deep sea. Thus, the cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) face off against the cetaceans (orca, elephant seal and narwhal) in Match of the Matriarchs.

All of the figures are females in this chess set as opposed to the lone queen in modern chess sets. Historically chess sets had only male military figures: king, general, infantry, foot soldiers, cavalry etc. In the 16th century, the queen appeared on the chessboard and over time, she became the most powerful piece. As women, we are often told that “men” means men and women, and that everyone being male is normal, so I want my audience to consider a world where everyone being female is normal. An all-female chess set seems like an apt metaphor for this worldview.

Maple, birch, cork oak, mulberry, pear, beech, Douglas fir, cedar, apple, cherry, white oak, red oak

The starting point of this chess game is that the giant squid and the whale in the deep sea are deadly enemies. That is why the cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and sepia) fight against the cetaceans (orca, elephant seal and narwhal) in matriarchal competition.

All figures of this chess game are female, in contrast to the lonely lady in modern chess games. Old chess games were known only to male figures from the war: king, general, infantry, foot soldiers, cavalry, etc. In the 16th century, the lady appeared on the board and developed in the course of time to the strongest figure. Women often hear that "one" includes men and women, and it is normal for everyone to be male, and I want my audience to imagine a world in which it is normal for everyone to be female. A chess game with only female characters seemed to me the perfect metaphor for this view of the world.

Text: Statement of the artist

About the exhibit

Dodson cites the genesis of her chess set in her solo show at New Bedford Art Museum in 2016. She explained, “I created five ‘mermaids’ inspired by the history of ship prow carvings. I wanted to do more with the series, so I set myself the challenge of making an entire chess set.” This idea allowed her to build on the concept of sculptures that interact directly with each other, while reflecting on the interactions among species that have nothing to do with us humans.

Dodson delved into natural history books such as Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staff, Octopus: A by Sy Montgomery, and Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. “The existence of squid was discovered due to the scars on the sides of whales,” Dodson noted. “This deep sea battle between the squid and the whale led me to create a team of cephalopods — octopus, squid and cuttlefish — battling against the cetaceans — orca, narwhal and elephant seal.”

To learn about the game of chess, Dodson researched Birth of the Chess Queen: A History by Marilyn Yalom and Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport by Jennifer Shahade.

“The original chess set was composed of King, Vizier/General, and other male military figures,” Dodson explained. “The queen came onto the board around the same time that many powerful queens reigned in England, Russia and Spain.” Dodson reflected on that change, deciding, “My set is maternal — I am thinking about family matriarchies, the realm of power in women's lives, how women wield power and the bonds between women in families.”

Text: Press release of the Boston Sculptors Gallery


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