The last fortnight has seen a new wave of interest and debate around genitals. Mostly about the genitals of men. Mostly about the role of genitals in African culture. It seemed fitting then, that this was the weekend I had set aside to make my pilgrimage from South London up to Mayfair to see the Great Wall of Vagina.
Jamie McCartney is a British artist who lives and works in Brighton. Over the last five years, he has constructed this mammoth artwork by making four hundred plaster casts of vulva, each from a different woman. The white casts are fitted into ten panels forming something of a mosaic of vaginas. If you are wondering about the mechanics of doing such a cast, follow the link below to the artist’s website where you can learn all about the process. The project seeks to be broad and inclusive, with the age range of the women from 18 to 76, and volunteers including mothers and daughter, identical twins, transgendered men and women as well as a woman pre- and post-natal and another pre- and post-labiaplasty. McCartney explains that the artwork is his response to the anxiety of women about their genital appearance and his concern over the rise of cosmetic labia surgery. He seeks to educate woman about the natural biological diversity that exists.
The London home of McCartney’s artwork is Hayhill Gallery, one of the many commercial art galleries in Cork Street, Mayfair. As a caveat, I must mention that although I enjoy all forms of art, I have no great knowledge (apart from a grade 9 school art project on Brett Murray – I’m not making that up!) and rely mostly on my personal reaction and intuition to gauge whether I find a piece compelling or attractive. A commercial art gallery, with fabulously dressed, leggy assistants swanning around and artworks worth more than I will probably ever earn in a year, makes me a little nervous at the best of times. And this was a gallery full of vaginas.
From a distance, all you can see are panels of white. You are forced to walk closer, stand closer and look. You cannot pretend you are not looking. You cannot not look! The vaginas sit side by side in sterile, white plaster. Four hundred vaginas. Indeed, every one was different. Some more different than others. And yet all instantly recognisable.
The use of plaster casting was a careful and deliberate choice by the artist. The vaginas are depicted in a non-sexual way, out of their context, away from the stories and identities of the women volunteers. The plaster casts revealed the shape, form and texture of the different vulva but they were hard, cold, and colourless. McCartney seeks to “reassure” women about their genitals, and yet, there is a hint of a subtext (maybe more so because he is a man) that the vagina is only acceptable in public if it is removed from its context. But there is also power in this strategy. Standing in front of the Great Wall, I felt that the artist had narrowed the issues by creating the sculptures in this way. In some respects, it becomes a biological exhibition and your focus is drawn to the different forms and variation of the body parts rather than what they may do or mean. The Great Wall would be a very different project, and surely evoke a very different reaction, if it comprised of colour photographs of vulva, or included the faces and bodies of the women. In Western culture, the vagina is hidden away, a secret part of womanhood. McCartney’s artwork seeks to bring a representation of the vagina out into the public domain, breaking down these barriers. By de-sexualising the artwork, the artist creates a piece that can travel further and can sit in galleries on the high street. We may disagree that art should be constrained in this way, but the reality is such that more graphic representations would be unsuitable for younger viewers and may distort the real purpose of the piece. Ultimately, the message is a simple one. It seeks to show women that the range of diversity is great, and on a very practical level, it allows and invites women to come and see for themselves. The middle-aged woman next to me in the gallery tittered to her husband “it’s true, I’ve never been able to compare mine.”
Strolling around the gallery, looking at more vaginas than there are days in the year, I wondered how such an artwork would be received in my home country. How different are the vaginas of the women of liberal and sexually-free Brighton, from the vaginas of women in Alexandra? I guessed that physically they may be very similar (or maybe not!), but would they tell a different story or send a different message? Would they be given a different reception? Would they be advertised, celebrated, and housed in a fancy gallery in Sandton?
Some would argue that our country is a place where the vagina belongs to men. How it looks, how it is used, and by whom, is dictated by men. In contrast to the western culture of hiding female genitals, in Africa, the vagina is often used to physically demean or humiliate. A short while ago Maduduzo Rebecca Sibanda wrote a piece about the elongation of the labia minora in some African traditions, a painful procedure undertaken to satisfy the male view of what is attractive in female genitals. In some areas the practice of virginity testing involves the physical inspection of a girl’s vagina, sometimes in public. Lesbians in South Africa have been raped by men seeking to make them “real” women through heterosexual vaginal sex. What message would the Great Wall of Vagina bring to South Africa, a place where the vagina has already been so exposed and violated?
The Great Wall of Vagina is a powerful project. As feminists, and in light of the debates around Brett Murray’s artwork, The Spear, this month, we should think carefully about how these kinds of representations of the female body within artwork could and should play a role in our society. The assistant at the gallery mentioned that McCartney is interested in creating additional panels featuring women from around the world as well as those who have endured forms of mutilation for cultural reasons or due to medical necessity. The Great Wall of Vagina may well reach the shores of South Africa. We should be ready for it.
You can learn more about the Great Wall of Vagina from: http://www.greatwallofvagina.co.uk