Biography

Monica Sjöö – self-described ‘radical anarcho/eco-feminist and Goddess artist, writer and thinker involved in Earth spirituality’ – was born in Sweden in 1938, moved to the UK, lived in Bristol and died in 2005. Her life was touched with tragedy but her resilience was immense; her art was intertwined with activism, feminism and goddess worship – she didn’t believe in a spirituality that wasn’t political. (Annie Johnston, her daughter-in-law, remembers that if Sjöö came across patriarchal language while reading she would cross it out.)1 One of her best-known paintings, God Giving Birth (1968) – which depicts the Creator as a monumental full-frontal, naked Black woman graphically birthing her child – resulted in Sjöö being threatened with prosecution for obscenity and blasphemy and was removed from display three times: from Drury Lane in 1969, at the St Ives Arts Council festival in 1971 and Swiss Cottage Library in 1973. (It was eventually acquired by the Museum Anna Nordlander in Skelleftea, Sweden.)

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In 2004, her health failing, Sjöö wrote a short autobiography. In it, she tells the harrowing tale of her childhood as the only daughter of two artists. She writes:

My parents painted side by side, lived in a tiny place in an attic where there were no cooking facilities, bath or hot water. I remember the smell of turps and paint but not of cooking. I suffered from a lack of vitamins but half rotting oranges stored in our backyard saved me from scurvy. My parents were totally unpractical and my father basically didn’t want me around.2

At the age of three, her mother moved with Sjöö to Stockholm where she tried, and failed, to support them with her art. Sjöö remembers how she painted trolls, ‘magical nature beings who are neither good nor bad and who could be as large as the mountains or as small as a pebble’. In 1949, her mother married an impoverished and paranoid Russian aristocrat; Monica was forced to sleep in the kitchen. She holidayed with her father, came across a book in his studio of William Blake and ‘was awestruck by its visionary qualities’. She visited exhibitions and was impressed by ‘Pre Aztec and massive Aztec sculptures, Catholic art and the vibrant revolutionary paintings by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and other artists’. She befriended young Marxists, who took her to films by Sergei Eisenstein; she left home at 16, ‘almost catatonic from depression and rejection’ and for the next few years worked as an artist’s model, hitch-hiked through Europe, married, travelled to England and gave birth to her first son, Sean. She suffered from post-natal depression and attempted to heal herself by drawing ‘visionary pastels while listening as in a trance to sacred Hebrew music’. Her second son, Toivo, was born at home in Bristol in 1961, an event, she wrote, that ‘changed my entire life and initiated me to the Great Mother’. She was inspired by a vision she had during Toivo’s birth, ‘of great radiant light alternating with deep luminous blackness. It was as if the Great Mother had shown Herself to me in Her pure cosmic energy form’.

Over the next four decades Sjöö travelled widely, made pilgrimages to sacred sites, frequently changed partners, had another child, studied history and concluded that ‘in Patriarchy men are sacred and women profane’. Self-taught, she worked as an assistant to the Swedish artist Siri Derkert and decided to dedicate her life ‘to creating paintings that speak of women’s lives, our history and sacredness’. In 1969, she co-founded Bristol Women’s Liberation; she protested US imperialism, the Vietnam war and the US missile base at Greenham Common; in the early 1970s, she became one of the founders of the Goddess movement. She was also a prolific writer, publishing (with Barbara Mor) The Great Cosmic Mother (1987) and individually, New Age Armageddon: Towards a Feminist Vision of the Future (1992) and Norse Goddess (1990). Throughout the 1990s, she was a regular contributor to From the Flames – a Journal of Politics and Spirit. She was also a co-founder of AMA MAWU named, in her words, because: ‘AMA means to breastfeed/mother/grandmother in different languages and MAWU is a great West-African Goddess’. The group organised moon rituals, actions against racism, the war against Iraq, GM foods and Globalisation. For much of her life, Sjöö struggled financially and she was devastated by the deaths of her 15-year-old son, Leify, in 1985, and her son Sean at 28 in 1987. In 1989, Sjöö painted My Sons in the Spiritworld because, she wrote: ‘I wanted them to be protected within the realm of Spiderwoman, who dwells in the centre’.3

In 2005 Monica Sjöö died of cancer; she was 66. In the main, her imagery is characterised by her visualisation of women as powerful and life-giving; as goddesses whose ancient wisdom can nourish contemporary life. When she made her pictures, she believed that ‘the spirits of the ancient sisterhood were communicating with her, from matriarchal cultures, which had been erased’.4 For all the darkness in her life, artmaking, for Sjöö was an act of joy and possibility; a means not only of expressing something about the present, but of communicating with the past and moving into a more positive future.

[1] Phone call between Jennifer Higgie and Monica Sjöö’s daughter-in-law, Annie Johnston, 21 April 2023
[2] Unless otherwise mentioned, all quotes from Monica Sjöö’s autobiography.
[3] Monica Sjöö, ‘My Sons in the Spirit World’, https://monicasjoo.co.uk/2014/…
[4] Phone call between Jennifer Higgie and Monica Sjöö’s daughter-in-law, Annie Johnston, 21 April 2023

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Works

After Oppression Revolution, 1968

Oil, canvas on board
Framed: 124 x 185 cm (48 7/8 x 72 7/8)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

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Back Street Abortion, 1968

Oil on board
183 x 122 cm, 72 x 48 in
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

Past and Present, 1969

Oil on board
122 x 244 cm (48 x 96 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

Phallic Culture, 1970

Oil, hessian on board
121.92 x 121.92 cm (48 x 48 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

House-Wives, 1975

Oil on masonite
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

Women’s Work and Crafts, 1975

Oil and canvas on board
Unframed: 122.4 x 244.5 cm (48 1/4 x 96 1/4 in); framed: 124.4 x 246.5 x 2.5 cm (49 x 97 x 1 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

Women for Life on Earth, 1982

Oil on masonite
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

Welsh Rocking Stone and Spiralling Spirit Woman, 1992

Oil, canvas on board
Framed: 124 x 124.5 x 2.5 cm (48 7/8 x 49 x 1 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

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St. Non’s Well, Holy Grail, 1996

Oil on masonite
122 x 244 cm (48 x 96 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

Paleolithic Mother of the Caves, 1997

Oil, canvas on board
Framed: 121.92 x 121.92 cm (48 x 48 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

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The Goddess and Green Man Tree of Life, 1997

Oil on canvas
121.92 x 121.92 cm (48 x 48 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

Maltese Goddess and the Hypogeum, 1998

Oil, canvas on board
Framed: 182.88 x 121.92 cm (72 x 48 in)
Courtesy: © Monica Sjöö Estate

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  • After Oppression Revolution, 1968
  • Back Street Abortion, 1968
  • Past and Present, 1969
  • Phallic Culture, 1970
  • House-Wives, 1975
  • Women’s Work and Crafts, 1975
  • Women for Life on Earth, 1982
  • Welsh Rocking Stone and Spiralling Spirit Woman, 1992
  • St. Non’s Well, Holy Grail, 1996
  • Paleolithic Mother of the Caves, 1997
  • The Goddess and Green Man Tree of Life, 1997
  • Maltese Goddess and the Hypogeum, 1998

Press

The Art Diary February 2024

Revd Jonathan Evens, Artlyst

February 2024

Monica Sjöö’s Radical Feminist Goddesses

Anna Souter, Hyperallergic

January 2024

Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother at Modern Art Oxford

Jelena Sofronijevic, gowithYamo

December 2023

Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother; Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design – review

Laura Cumming, The Guardian

December 2023

Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother

Beth Williamson, Studio International

December 2023

Origin of a New World

Charlotte Jansen, The World of Interiors

November 2023

Monica Sjöö

Adam Kleinman, Artforum

September 2023

Monica Sjöö The time is NOW and it is overdue!

Brittany Rosemary Jones, The Brooklyn Rail

September 2022

Who is Monica Sjöö?

Annie Johnston, FiLiA

August 2022

Obituary: Monica Sjöö

Pat VT West, The Guardian

September 2005

Exhibitions

Monica Sjöö

1 February9 March 2024

Books

Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother

Moderna Museet & Modern Art Oxford

2023

Monica Sjöö. Artist, Activist, Writer, Mother, Warrior, Seer.

Una Hamilton Helle & Matthew Hughes

2022

Monica Sjöö. Life and Letters 1958-2005

Rupert White

2018

Spiral Journey: Stages of an initiation into Her Mysteries

Monica Sjöö

2018

The Norse Goddess

Monica Sjöö

2000

Return of the Dark/Light Mother or New Age Armageddon?

Monica Sjöö

1999

New Age and Armageddon

Monica Sjöö

1992

The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth

Monica Sjöö, Barbara Mor

1987

News

Monica Sjöö

in ‘The Goddess, The Deity and the Cyborg’, The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Monica Sjöö

Exhibition Walkthrough with Linsey Young and Annie Johnston

Cosmic Feminism with Amy Tobin

Modern Art Oxford

Monica Sjöö

in ‘Women in Revolt! Art, Activism and the Women’s Movement in the UK 1970 - 1990’, Tate Britain, London

Monica Sjöö

in ‘Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood’, Arnolfini, Bristol

Monica Sjöö

in ‘Earthworks’, Bergen Kunsthall

Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother

Modern Art Oxford

Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother

Moderna Museet Malmö

Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother

Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Alison Jacques now represents Monica Sjöö

The artist’s inaugural exhibition will open in 2024

Monica Sjöö: The time is NOW and it is overdue!

Beaconsfield, London

Monica Sjöö

in ‘Radical Landscapes’, Tate Liverpool

Video

Portrait (Monica Sjöö) by Jane Jackson 1977