Reshma Chhiba installs Giant Walk-In Vagina
South African artist Reshma Chhiba has created Giant Walk-In Vagina at a former Apartheid-era women’s prison in Johannesburg. It’s a powerful piece of feminist art in a nation that has a history of gender repression. Well, what nation doesn’t!? But South Africa’s record is pretty shitty. Obviously my own country, Russia, doesn’t have a record to be happy about either. My band Pussy Riot has engaged this issue. You probably know how threatened some exponents of old power have been by our work.
History & Context
With Pussy Riot we try not to talk about bands or artists that have influenced us. It’s not that we don’t have influences, we have plenty, but we’re not interested in promoting idolatry. When I look at Reshma Chhiba’s Giant Walk-In Vagina however, I can’t help but think of other feminist and sex positive artists who have created related works. Most famous must be Niki de Saint Phalle’s HON. In this 1966, masterpiece de Saint Phalle invited visitors to pass through a vagina and into her gallery. HON, which means “She” in Sweedish, was 9 x 6 x 28 meters. It was commissioned for the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.There’s also Courbet’s The Origin of the World, 1866. Dr. Drew Pinksy see’s a birth canal in Fragonard’s painting of Rococo indulgence, The Swing, 1767. There are other examples like Kari French and Rich Polysorbate in Institute of Mental Decay, 2004. French has also performed as The Pussy Printcess. In this installation visitors pass through a giant fur-lined vulva and enter French’s black-lit room where she makes “pussy prints” for collectors.
Gender Identity in South Africa
Reshma Chhiba’s Giant Walk-In Vagina is a powerful installation work of gender identity. It must be seen in the context of the feminist struggle in South Africa today. In 2011 Celeste Coetzee’s work Bridal Ontklee (Bridal Strip) was removed from The Gallery at Grande Provence in Franschhoek by curator Carina Bekker. In the aftermath of that act of censorship activists gathered on 3 December of that year in a potato peeling protest of Bekker’s banning of Coetzee’s work.
In 2010 Belinda Blignaut installed in Cape Town’s progressive (but sadly now closed) Young Blackman gallery, a remarkably visceral, full-gallery installation Stealing the Words. For my eye Blignaut’s Stealing The Words is absolutely a beautiful and compelling work of feminist art.
The former prison site of Chhiba’s work, in the central Johannesburg area of Braamfontein, dates back to 1892. During the apartheid era the prison held some of South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid activists. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was incarcerated there twice in 1958 and 1976.
Building a future we want to live in
There are so many things here in Russia and in the world beyond that I find heartbreaking and depressing in 2013. But when I see a South African artist like Reshma Chhiba taking risks, breaking bounds, and reclaiming her culture, I have renewed hope that my daughter Gera may yet live in a better, more free, more inclusive world than the one that I have known.
• Voices of Africa.co.za / Reshma Chhiba
• The Independent.co.uk / Reshma Chhiba
• Art South Africa / Reshma Chhiba, 2008
• Gallery Xue, Taipei / Celeste Coetzee
• Gallery Xue, Taipei / Belinda Blignaut
• Young Blackman Gallery / Belinda Blignaut