It’s Raining Girl Parts, Hallelujah

Aug 30, 2013 • Art, Culture, Papers/Rags

This month has seen a number of women working to take their bodies back by bringing representations of the female body to the public.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, 30-year-old Reshma Chhiba has turned what was once an apartheid-era women’s jail into a walk-in vagina. The piece, called “The Two Talking Yonis,” is a 39-foot (12-meter) plush canal built of velvet and cotton. At the entrance, thick braids of acrylic wool hang to create the appearance of pubic hair. Visitors are startled by sounds — now screams, now laughter — as they make their way.

Chhiba sees her work as a revolt against the jail, which held some of the country’s most prominent female anti-apartheid activists, as well as part of a conversation about the mythology of female power in patriarchal systems.

“It’s a screaming vagina within a space that once contained women and stifled women,” Chhiba told Agence France-Presse. “It’s revolting against this space… mocking this space, by laughing at it.”

By forcing visitors to remove their shoes before entering, Chhiba believes she’s shifting attitudes toward the female body. “Essentially you are respecting it, making it a divine space, a sacred space,” she said.

The exhibit, especially the use of the jail and Hindu word “yoni” have attracted criticism.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the artist Sophia Wallace has dedicated herself to educating the public about the clitoris.

“It’s appalling and shocking to think that scientifically, the clitoris was only discovered in 1998,” she told the Huffington Post, referring to the 1998 paper in the Journal of Urology, in which Helen O’Connell detailed the massive structure of what otherwise appears as a very small part of the female body. Wallace sees a paradox in the presentation of the female body in advertising as a means to arouse desire, while the primary organ of desire within the female body is ignored.

Her multi-media project, Cliteracy (a portmanteau of the words “clitoris” and “literacy”), involves a massive wall of facts and witticisms about the organ, a street art campaign, and a golden clitoris meant to be ridden like a mechanical bull.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, a student newspaper opted to feature the vulvae (the external part of the vagina) of 18 student volunteers on its cover to make a statement about social attitudes toward the female body.

“We are tired of being pressured to be sexual, and then being shamed for being sexual,” the editors of the University of Sydney paper, the Honi Soit, said in a statement. “The vaginas on the cover are not sexual. We are not always sexual. The vagina should and can be depicted in a non-sexual way — it’s just another body part. ‘Look at your hand, then look at your vagina,’ said one participant in the project. ‘Can we really be so naïve to believe our vaginas the dirtiest, sexiest parts of our body?'”

Before they were able to go to press, attorneys with the Student Representative Council, which publishes the paper, contacted them to advise them to censor the cover to avoid obscenity charges. The editors agreed to comply, covering the labia of each vulva with a black strip.

“Censorship laws in Australia state that the publishing of ‘indecent articles’ is illegal,” the editors wrote. “Indecent is supposed to be something that will ‘offend’ a ‘reasonable person.’ That in 2013, the vulva can still be considered something that will offend a reasonable person is absurd.”

Unfortunately, because the bars did not thoroughly cover the labia — the black strips came out somewhat transparent — some 4,000 copies were pulled from shelves. The vice chancellor of the school, Michael Spence, criticized the cover, saying he felt it was “demeaning to women,” despite the fact that women created the cover in an effort to discuss social attitudes toward their own bodies. The series of incidents around the cover brilliantly made the points the editors had set out to illustrate: that the female body is often sexualized, but commentary from women and their own representations of their bodies are often subject to shaming and otherwise censored.

Hannah Ryan, an editor of the paper, told the Sydney Morning Herald that she expected the paper to be re-released without a cover.

Take a look at the censored and uncensored covers (obviously, not safe for work).

Thumbnail image by Sophia Wallace.