© 2023 by Emma Dei.

Mirror Shards: Jessica / Hyena

2011 Acrylic and paper on wood


This is a portrait of artist and animal rescue worker Jessica Johnson. As I’ve gotten to know Jessica I’ve been struck by her relationship to femininity. On one hand, she’s a straight girl with no gender dysphoria. She’s not transgender or gay. But I’ve come to see just how ironically she views the tropes of femininity. She approaches all things girlish with amused suspicion and skepticism. None of this is obvious on the surface, but Jessica inside and Jessica outside are two very different beasts.

For this reason, choosing the Hyena as her mirror was a perfect choice. Hyenas are complex and paradoxical creatures. What people think of them, and what they are in reality, is often quite different. Hyenas are assumed to be canine due to their appearance and behavior, but are actually much closer to felines. Their reputation is as cowardly scavengers, yet most species hunt and kill all most all of their prey. It is extremely difficult to tell the male Hyena from the female, as external genitalia is almost identical. The female Hyena has the largest proportional clitoris in the animal kingdom, closely resembling the male penis.

As symbolic creatures, Hyenas are thought to be false, unreliable and treacherous. In Africa many cultures consider them vampires, were-beasts, and/or magically empowered hermaphrodites. They have been depicted as witches or jinns, The theme of their dual and unstable nature surely has roots in the gap between how we perceive them and what the facts actually are, a gap that must have existed for a thousand years.

Underlying all of these characterizations is the idea of Hyena as quintessential Trickster figure. The strange humanoid laugh of the Hyena must be responsible for the idea of the were-hyena. The Hyena characters best known to modern Americans are the three hyenas in The Lion King, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, who are employed as evil and cunning henchmen set to kill the lion cub Simba. These characters are drawn as if they are insane as well as untrustworthy and vicious.

Not knowing what sort of creature you are dealing with is unsettling indeed. All of these versions of the Hyena comprise a clear illustration of the way that our assumptions about an animal form our construction of its narrative. Animals as a rule do not lie, not in the way that humans do. Our fear of unreliable people congeals in our half-understood confusion, which is resolved by creating a version of Hyena which is patently not to be trusted. The fact that they have been known to become man-eaters raises the stakes as far as they can go.

In Jessica’s portrait, she shreds scraps of color, which are consumed and expelled by the interceding mask, to form a hermaphroditic figure that blows apart even as it comes together.