Jackie Hoysted aims to highlight gender inequality by asking ordinary women to imagine themselves as female pontiffs.

Dublin (dpa) - Since the Middle Ages and the legend of Pope Joan, women popes, fictional or otherwise, have been thin on the ground.

But that will soon change, at least within the confines of an exhibition by Irish artist Jackie Hoysted.

In a lighthearted attempt to address gender inequality within the church, Hoysted is asking women to nominate themselves to lead the Roman Catholic Church.

"It will probably be 3,000 AD or later when women can be pope. Can we wait that long?" Hoysted tells dpa.

Her participatory art exhibition #Vote4Pope, which runs October 7 to 30 at Hillyer Art Space in Washington, invites women to dress up as the pope and have their portraits taken to show support for Hoysted's social activism.

Full papal regalia will be supplied for the show in the US capital and participants can pose for a photo on a papal throne. The photos will then be posted onto the website vote-4-pope.com. Participants can also choose their own papal names.

"The conceptual basis of the project is to use portraiture as a tool for self-visualization and social activism in a fun and lighthearted fashion," says Hoysted.

Former US president Jimmy Carter was the main inspiration for the project, which she calls an equal opportunity event with all would-be popes welcome.

"In 2000 he and his wife Rosalynn left the Southern Baptist Church in protest over the church's position on gender equality after church leaders voted to no longer allow women to serve as pastors," Hoysted says.

"He argues that the continued domination of men in the major religions and the subordination of women facilitate the abuse of women throughout the world, whether it is physical and sexual abuse, the use of rape as a tool of warfare, restricted access to education or inequality of pay," she says.

Hoysted also admires the work of Francis Bacon, whose papal paintings provided an inspiration from an art historical perspective.

"Bacon claimed that his contorted pope portraits were not politically motivated but that the dress code of the pope simply allowed him to use an abundance of purple in a painting, a colour not typically worn," she says.

"I doubt that Bacon's series was not politically motivated given the Catholic Church's position on gay rights and the fact that he himself was gay.

"Originally, I had conceived this project as painted female portraits, following Bacon, but my work has evolved to ensure the gallery audience becomes an essential participant in the work of art. So in this project the audience becomes the art performer by dressing up and posing as a pope."

Hoysted used her dressmaking skills to make the papal regalia.

"I made all the clothing. This includes cassocks, zucchettos (skullcaps), mozzettas or pellegrinas (short capes), and fascias (fringed sashes).

"The papal throne was a terrific find on a buy-sell web forum where I source a lot of my projects. It was from a film set in Baltimore where a docudrama on St Francis and the Sultan of Egypt, called The Sultan and the Saint, was being filmed."

After Washington, the artist hopes to take her show home to Ireland.

"I see the project as a traveling trunk show that I will bring to different venues," Hoysted says.

"Given that my association to the Catholic Church was developed in my formative years in Ireland I would be especially excited to have opportunities at home to showcase the project.

"Irish women are very strong and have a great sense of humour, so I would imagine I would get lively participation."

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