Art Turns “Bikini Dancing Girls” Into Athletic Stars

That’s not sexy women’s beach volleyball being promoted in the staid nave of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, but an example of how art can significantly alter your perspective by telling you something — actual information — you never knew before.

Or at least that I — despite being a star at the Los Angeles High School Latin Department, obsessed with the ancient Olympics — never had a clue about.

Artist Photo Namely, that the ancient Romans held athletic competitions for their young women, similar to the Olympics for men. The competitions ultimately glorified the winners as great women national champions.

That’s the message of Victorius Secret: Elite Olympic Champions As Dancing Bikini Girls, an exhibition by artist bookmaker Angela Lorenz that runs through June 26.

Click here for a the artist’s full description of her project.

Lorenz is showing three triptychs that follow in design actual third-century A.D. mosaics unearthed in the 1950s in Sicily.

The ball game triptych is at Sterling Memorial Library. Two others, depicting a discus event and a running event, are displayed on the first and second levels of Yale’s Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library on York Street.

The exhibition has been on tour at many venues, especially colleges. In the words of Jae Rossman (pictured), the interim director of the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, it frequently “opens people’s eyes.” At the opening of the exhibition, Rossman said, Yale’s entire women’s tennis team came to have a look-see as a kind of “bonding experience.”

At the time the images of the women were unearthed back in the highly unliberated 1950s, and despite being in clearly athletic poses, the women made news merely as “dancing bikini girls.”

Only in the 1990s when Italian archaeologist Isabella Baldini Lippolis revisited the images and conducted further research and analysis did it become clear that they are images of female Roman athletic champions — young women, albeit all from noble families, competing in sports 2,000 years ago.

That caught the attention of Lorenz, an ice hockey player in college and keenly aware of the disparity between resources and support for women versus men in the same sport.

“That this imagery has attracted so much attention for the superficial aspect of the women’s novel and titillating garments completely subverts the original intentions of these mosaics,” Lorenz wrote.

To highlight the issue and call attention to continuing deficiencies in the implementation of Title IX, Lorenz made the panels and a limited edition artist book based on the panels.

They’re light and lively to look at, but the irony of Lorenz’s title seems at least to this viewer not to work in the art itself when you examine some of the materials she has used.

To echo the small mosaic tiles with which the originals are created, Lorenz has deployed traditional and very domestic women’s ornamentation: buttons and hair pins.

These glitter on the clothing in the images, on the ball they strike, the discus they throw, the weights they carry — even on the laurel leaf being awarded to the winner in one striking image (pictured).

Why buttons and hairpins and other items associated with fashion? Even with the irony intended, the choice seems to undermine the artistic intent of the original mosaics, or just throw salt in the wound caused by the initial misinterpretation.

One of the pleasures of the exhibition, on the other hand, is that Lorenz has lifted quotations, both in the original Latin and in English, taken from graffiti preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and affixed them near her images.

Cumulatively the graffiti are fabulous time capsules. They include shopping lists, a note of items taken to the cleaners, and 2,000-year-old girl talk, and are very much in the voices of women from ancient times.

Among my favorites: “Virgula Tertio suo indecens es.” That is translated as: “Virgula to her darling Tertius: You’re disgusting!”

Of particular interest to reporters is “admiror te pareis non cecidisse ovi tot scriptorum taedia sustineas.” That is translated as: “I admire you, wall, for bearing the weight of all the boring things written by many authors.”

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