The 30-year-old South African artist Reshma Chhiba’s vagina installation at disused apartheid-era women's jail on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg has had a mixed reception since its unveiling in August. Upon entry through the thick, black acrylic wool opening – to mimic pubic hair - visitors are greeted by screams and laughter, which emit from the red velvet padded womb. “It's a screaming vagina within a space that once contained women and stifled women," Reshma Chhiba explains. "It's revolting against this space... mocking this space, by laughing at it.”
Built in 1909, this jail - which now hosts the vagina installation - held some of South Africa's leading anti-apartheid activists, like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1958 and 1976. The indoor art installation, part of Reshma’s exhibition "The Two Talking Yonis", was presented as part of South Africa’s celebration of Women’s month.
The 12-metre (39 feet) installation is being criticized for its blatant exposure of the female vagina as a central part of its composition. Benathi Mangqaaleza, a 24-year-old female security guard at the former prison responded to the installation, "It's the most private part of my body. I grew up in the rural areas, we were taught not to expose your body, even your thighs let alone your vagina…I think it's pornographic, I think they have gone too far."
While such a response to the installation is understandable, it is alarming that the themes addressed by the artwork – women’s power, the scourge of rape in South Africa, respect for the female body, and challenging the entrenched patriarchal system and taboos - are being overlooked. Chhiba’s installation is doing exactly what art should be doing in society, encouraging the public to think about specific social and political issues. These issues are usually hidden in plain sight, just like the vagina.
I discussed the situation with Yewande Omotoso, a writer living in South Africa. She explained that sex has become a central part of marketing in South Africa – as it has elsewhere - and is packaged for consumption in advertising. But the irony of the objections to the installation is that sex is more acceptable in advertising than it is from an anatomical perspective. Truth is, there are so many sexual expressions that we don’t object to. We have to ask ourselves why an anatomical presentation of a vagina would get some members of the public riled.
South Africa has had previous experiences with art that has raised hackles for its inclusion of sex. Brett Murray depicted President Zuma with his penis exposed in a satirical painting. Jackson Mthembu, the ANC party’s national spokesman, responded, "We call upon all South Africans to support this noble course and to demonstrate rejection to this act of indecency, vulgar and disrespect of the constitution of our country and the values it stands for.”
Murray argued that the painting "[was] an attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy within…the broader context of SA discourse. For many years I have used, and continue to use, symbols with sexual connotations representative of political power and patriarchy."
Elsewhere, Bill Kouélany, a Congolese artist born in Brazzaville in 1965, created paintings of bloodstained vaginas to represent the forgotten ones of civil war. In 1997, some of these paintings were removed from a group exhibition hosted in Brazzaville. With local politicians and the French president attending the opening, some felt that it was time to move on. However this may have had more to do with discomfort and the strong political statements made by Kouélany in using the images of vaginas to address the civil war.
With this in mind, it’s not altogether surprising that some South Africans have reacted strongly against Chhiba’s installation. Hers may be one of the most radical so far, but her use of the vagina to make a point through art is not the first of its kind and won’t be the last.
Chhiba believes that the negative response is also a symptom of the disgust that women show to their vaginas in contrast to the pride men seem to have in their penises. “You don’t often hear men talking about their private parts and feeling disgusted or shamed, but you often hear women saying that. That alone speaks volumes of how we’ve been brought up to think about our bodies. What I’m saying here is that it’s …a space of power, a space of revolt, a space of mockery, and it’s also sacred.” In conservative cultures, how many women really know what their vaginas look like, have explored it, and know what it feels like?
Yewande Omotoso and I also discussed the idea of privacy. Many aspects of sexuality are shown respect through the social boundaries of privacy. Thus Chhiba’s rejection of this notion of privacy would certainly raise eyebrows. However, it is also important to recognize that what we construct as privacy can often be an oppressive tool for concealing evidence of gender violence. Privacy can sometimes be the reason why we don’t deal with alarming issues of sexuality, domestic violence, and “corrective rape”.
Reshma Chhiba insists her work does not seek to objectify or disrespect the female body. “It’s talking about this vagina revolting against this particular space. In this space it’s working more on a political level and a human level, especially in South Africa…before you walk in you have to remove your shoes… so that’s saying it’s a sacred space. You need to respect the vagina and the idea of the work is to empower women. It’s to empower this space, and using the vagina as a metaphor for female defiance, revolt, empowerment, mockery.”
I discussed the topic with Diarra Sabally and Bilphena Yahwon two young advocates for African women’s issues who also happen to be friends of mine, and I heard contrasting views on the subject. Both agreed that culturally, Africans view the female body as sacred, as it’s the place where life begins. However, while Bilphena felt exposing such a sacred space to the public was a revolutionary act to which young women could relate, Diarra thought South Africans might not be ready for such radical works, even if the country was one of Africa’s most liberal. So we asked ourselves, “Will there ever be a right time?” Maybe not. And if not, it’s another reason why Chhiba's installation is necessary right now.
It is easy to get caught up in the question of whether Reshma Chhiba’s vagina installation is acceptable or not – and we’ll leave the subject of whether any artist should be making “acceptable” art for another day – but the value of the work lies in the conversation it stimulates, and I hope at least some of those who have seen the installation are talking about the themes the work addresses. The role of women and the conditions South African women face today, the alarming rate of rape, the 488 attacks on women every day in South Africa, and the persistently wide income gap between men and women, these are things we can’t talk about enough, and if works like Chhiba’s is what we need to help people get over their discomfort so they can talk about these issues more freely, I say more please.