Young South African artist Reshma Chhiba recently created a bold art installation, and her work has sparked debates. Chhiba’s assignment was to craft something to memorialize the inhabitants of a former women’s prison in Johannesburg, a jail that once contained some amazing female activists who fought apartheid (like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela).
So what exactly did Chhiba make? A twelve meter long vagina crafted out of red velvet flesh and acrylic black pubic hair. Viewers are invited to step inside, and they experience some pretty shocking things. The vagina emits screaming and laughing noises, attempting to “revolt against this space... mocking this space [...] that once contained women and stifled women,” as the artist puts it.
To Chhiba, the screaming vagina is an empowering symbol, crying out against the imprisonment of women activists, the frequency of rape in South Africa today, and way she feels women are raised to feel about their genitals: “You don’t often hear men talking about their private parts and feeling disgust or shamed,” she explains. Visitors are also required to respect and revere the vagina when they are asked to remove their shoes before entering.
A lot of people as less than pleased with this work of art. A civilian named Andile Wayi feels that the piece is disrespectful and insensitive to the history of the land (the ground held both the women’s jail and a prison where Mahatma Gandhi was once kept). Wayi explains, “The Constitutional Hill is respected; it’s a heritage.” Another critic, a young female security guard, finds it offensive and pornographic, stating, “It’s the most private part of my body [...] it’s pornographic; I think they’ve gone too far.”
The thing about the privacy of the vagina seems to be a big issue here, as it has been for women artists for years. American feminist artist Judy Chicago was criticized for her vaginal “cunt art” that celebrated the power of the inner space, the vagina. When Chicago sculpted, painted, and photographed vaginas, people found it obscene, but as she pointed out at the time, phallic images are more respected as high art. In videotaped interviews, she identifies another monument that would never called pornographic despite its clear reference to the power of the penis: the Washington Monument.
Why is this South African vagina, entitled “The Two Talking Yonis” (“yoni” is Sanskrit for “vagina”), more vulgar than the countless monuments and work of art that celebrate male power through phallic imagery? Allusions to the vagina as a source of power are few and far between, and it’s about time we accept vaginal imagery with the same respect. The power of both men and women can be expressed through genital representation; neither the penis or the vagina is inherently gross or crude.
Kubi Rama, and South African gender equality activist, says it best when she discusses the work: “It is bringing the private into the public, [claiming] that the woman’s body is not necessarily a private matter.” Sounds an awful lot like feminist leader Betty Friedan, right? In the 1960s, Friedan battled the assumption that the male sphere was public and the female sphere was limited to the domestic, private world. For women, she said, “The personal is the political.” And her words hold true today now more than ever, when women’s bodies continue to be globally disrespected and women’s issues remain under-addressed. Why continue to confine vaginal allusions (and therefore women) to the privacy of the bedroom and the bathroom?
The fact is that the female world is no longer necessarily thought of as confined to the home (just as the male world is not necessarily limited to the political or public realm), and I think that it’s about time the stigma of the vagina is removed. Of course our vaginas are incredibly private, but so is the penis, and respectful, empowering artistic representations of each should be equally embraced.
Do you think this work is vulgar, pornographic, and disrespectful? Is it empowering? Is it effective? We would love to hear your thoughts on this installation in the comments section!
Thanks to The Raw Story
Photo via The Raw Story