In the past few days of November, the Women’s Academic Network (WAN) has hosted an interactive, feminist art exhibition by the Red Luna Artists’ Collective entitled ‘Project Vagina’. The exhibition, held in the Atrium Art Gallery in Poole House, has been open to staff, students and the general public, with an invitation also issued to our creative neighbours next door at AUB.
The project was developed from an original idea by Dr Aanka Batta of FMC with artist colleague, Rebekah Brown. Making its debut at the FirstSite Art Gallery in Colchester in September 2017, the BU exhibition was spearheaded by Rebekah where the concepts were taken to new heights with a new and bigger interactive artefact and accompanying film by actor/comedian, Megan Juniper, of My Fanny Valentine, shown at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The exhibition used playful and innovative treatment of very serious issues relating to the representation of women’s bodies and the influence on the developing identities of girls and women. The artefact itself is large enough to climb into and where by the end four of my students were all sitting inside it discussing the ideas it inspired, much of which seemed experiential.
Sexual harassment, rape, female genital mutilation, misogyny and sexism are hardly funny of course, nor might some think that childbirth, sexual health, menstruation and the menopause were laughing matters either. Yet the ludic nature of this exhibition was subversive in itself, where we are reminded of the mythological maverick, the ancient Greek goddess Baubo, who flashes her vulva to exuberantly reveal her sexual power. She is a cosmic joker, irreverent, subversive and full of joy and life force. She overturns the hierarchies and reveals the hidden. She is both midwife to the world and archetypal prankster – and unambiguously and overtly a woman.
While I am grateful to everyone who helped me to organise the exhibition, I also have to say it was an education in itself. I wrote numerous, lengthy iterations of risk assessment to prevent the possibility of some hapless individual stumbling into an art exhibition, labelled Project Vagina, that might unexpectedly relate to female genitals and issues associated with women’s bodies. As a feminist sociologist I am dismayed to see how far we have yet to go in being able to openly talk about and publicly engage with topics relating to sexuality and gender, particularly in reference to women’s sexuality, without fear of causing major offence.
So what have the students thought of the exhibition so far? My students, drawn from HSS and FST students of both sexes, seemed to engage with the exhibition enthusiastically. The discussions generated among them were both funny and very moving as well, where, despite their youth, it seems little has progressed in terms of supporting young people in the transition towards adulthood. If girls are insufficiently supported it seems that boys may also be losing out in a number of ways. Perhaps this is owing to the age-old issue of men’s sexuality and identity seeming to be straightforward, obvious, unproblematic – and therefore not worth talking about; while women’s are viewed as occluded, mysterious and alarming – and best not talked about!
At any rate, students definitely wanted more. Thus following on from this, WAN are already discussing how Red Luna can go bigger and better and return to BU next year with a brand new event that speaks about more to an even bigger audience displaying their compelling brand of compassionate, subversive, innovative, thought-provoking, feminist fun!