Rescuing Society’s Views of Vaginas: Katarina Silva Interviews Jamie MacCartney.
The history of our species begins with a primitive and passionate relationship with feminine energy, evidenced by some of the earliest excavated works of art, which pay homage to voluptuous breasts, and curvaceous hips, and even swollen vulvas!
Etched into caves walls, and sculpted from the earth, the natural female form was celebrated as a symbol of nourishment, of fertility, and of life itself. Somewhere in the evolution of humankind, the relationship we had with the feminine changed dramatically in a most hideous and violent manner.
As you all know, history is littered with shameful accounts of the ways in which femininity has been attacked. Much of it has occurred in public, but a lot of it has been private. Usually, the most ugly parts of history slip through the cracks and become taboo. Unfortunately, taboo subjects do not disappear, they just grow bigger. Like secrets. And they remain secrets, unless we become brave enough to look them straight in the face! Or, should I say, look them straight in the genitals? But I am getting ahead of myself here.
Yes, the popularity of yoni sculptures faded as society modernized, and the relationship humanity had with female genitalia went underground. Suddenly, the way vaginas were treated became a secret. Why a secret? Because suddenly they were no longer regarded as divine, but as defective! First I will tell you about secrets you probably already know, but are too uncomfortable to think about. Then I will let you in on a sad secret about someone you most likely know.
On occasion I volunteer for a non-profit organization that works to restore the rights of women and girls subjected to a barbaric cultural practice that mutilates their genitalia. The organization targets social, religious and cultural issues that support the appalling notion that a female’s genital organs should be permanently altered.
Although primarily focused on implementing educational programs in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, (and immigrants into North America and Europe from these regions), the organization misses a whole group of females who are voluntarily taking surgical knives to their genitals. These females might live right next door to you. And although they are not counted in the estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide who are currently living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation, (as defined by human rights organizations), they are nevertheless victims of a modern culture that perpetuates the same message:
Females are defective! Their genitals are defective! Let’s therefore change them.
Independently of medical or gender-identity reasons, many mostly American and European women are seeking out plastic surgery to improve the appearance of their genitals. You see, ever since the celebrated yoni sculptures of antiquity, women’s vulvas have disappeared from our sight, until the pornography industry, which (needless to say!) just doesn’t do them justice.
So, today I introduce you to my artist friend from Brighton, UK, Jamie McCartney, a most innovative, contemporary sculptor whose latest work reintroduces our species to a just view of female genitalia. Jamie’s Great Wall of Vagina (which took him five years to complete) is a sensitive, direct response to the ways in which society continues to encourage women to connect shame to their genitals. It boldly features 400 plaster casts of women’s vulvas and presents them in a tasteful, creative manner that echoes the same awe and admiration ancient peoples had for the mystical, magical, beautiful, fruitful, juicy, wild, divine yoni!
As a female, self-portrait artist, this work of Jamie’s really speaks to me, as it seeks to deliver the same kinds of messages mine does: Nature has sculpted females most beautifully. Let us celebrate that in all it’s visual variety! And Jamie’s work certainly does this! Let us find out more about how this potentially revolutionary artistic project came about.
Katarina: Welcome Jamie! I understand that the Great Wall of Vagina came about rather organically, as a result of your observation of women’s less-than-friendly, dubious relationships with their vagina. Could you tell the Elephant Journal readers more about this?
Jamie: I came to realize that a lot of women have real insecurities about how they look down there. I realized this when I working on a piece called the Spice of Life for a sex museum. The women coming to be cast were commenting on the casts I had already done. They were saying things like “I wish mine looked like that one” etc.
What I also realized is how little information there was out there for women to see what was normal. Pornography seems to be substituting for sex education these days and it’s not a great success.
Having cast my own genitals for The Spice of Life, and having felt empowered by it, and more comfortable with my own equipment as a result, I became to determined to use my unique skills to create a piece to counter the message from the porn and plastic surgery industry.
I didn’t want to be part of a society that was actively encouraging women to cut off parts of their genitals.
Bravo! In the process of creating the vagina plasters, what stands out in your mind as the most impactful experience, (either in a woman having her cast done, or in yourself)?
There have been so many significant experiences during the five years it’s taken me to make it is hard to think of one single most significant. That’s why I did a book about the project. Over 100 of the women involved have written about why they did it and what it was like. I decided they could tell their stories better than I could.
The stories range form hilarious to really emotional. One woman had not had sex for 15 years after the difficult birth of her baby because she was so ashamed about how she looked afterwards. One woman did it to claim back her vagina after a serious sexual assault, to do something with it that she wanted to. Another woman (who is undergoing gender reassignment now) had actually cut off her own labia with scissors out of frustration!
People ask what it was like working with 400 vaginas. I tell them I didn’t; I worked with 400 women!
It’s been an incredible journey and I feel very privileged to have been allowed into their lives a little bit. I’m certainly a different man than I was when I started it.
Yes, I can hear how transforming a project this has been for you, and the many women who participated. In observing others interacting with the wall, what are some of the most memorable reactions you’ve been privy to?
One woman came out of the show with tears in her eyes and just said “thank you” very quietly and left. It was pretty emotional I can tell you.
Your artwork seems to succeed in reintroducing the vagina to society in a non-pornographic, respectful presentation. To what do you attribute the great wall of vagina’s ability to create comfort in the observer and thus ease their familiarity with a typically taboo subject?
I think it is a combination of their sheer number (you can’t concentrate on any one – your eyes just dart all over the place!), the monochrome presentation and the architectural juxtaposition of these pieces like tiles, or bricks in a wall.
It really doesn’t have any sense of being smutty and with that taboo removed one can stare at them without shame but in wonder a this amazing spectacle. Some people have come back again and again bringing more friends and family every time.
What role do you feel you play to women, as the first contemporary artist to celebrate and display their genitals in all their natural, variegated beauty?
I think that the piece works in the way I had intended, which was to be an amazing visual spectacle but also to educate. That means educating men as well women. It has actually exceeded my expectations and the response has been amazing!
There have been many women that have approached this subject in their own art, quite often using metaphors such as flowers etc.
It does seem unusual for a man to have done this but I think it helps in terms of getting through men’s prejudices. It may feel less threatening for men coming from a man. I’m just putting it out there, what people in the end get out of it is up to them.
In which ways have you personally felt most transformed as a result of the five years you dedicated yourself to this amazingly original project?
I think the way I relate to women has changed. Having intimate discussions with so many hundreds of women has opened my eyes to a lot of things. Most significantly though I feel like I have done something right with my life and it can’t be taken away from me. That is an amazing feeling.
It’s easy to do harm but to change people’s lives for the better for now and for future generations is a very exciting feeling. I feel that as an artist I have made my mark and may leave this world having left it a little better for having been in it. That all sounds a bit pious or something but as an artist this is exactly what you strive for.
Wonderful! If your Great Wall of Vagina could talk, what would it say?
Stop, look and be wowed. This is what normal women look like.
Have you received any negative reactions to your wall, and if so, what have been the most common, and the most surprising?
The only negative reactions have been from women getting quite angry that the title is a misnomer and that I am actually casting vulvas. I was quite aware of that when I did it, and notwithstanding that ‘vagina’ is common parlance for the whole area and that The Great Wall of Ch-vulva would sound stupid. Though they have a point.
The thing is that it’s not my battle to educate people about the various medical terms for women’s genitals, I’m educating in a different, and I hope equally valid, way.
How would you like your Great Wall of Vagina to affect future generations?
I think that every generation of women will be subjected to the same societal pressures to look a certain way. I can’t see that ending. With cosmetic surgery being such a growth industry I think that anything that tries to fight back and add a little humanity back into the equation is a good thing.
I’m certain that art has a role to play and this piece will now exist forever in photos etc. I think it has the potential to change the lives of women across different cultures and around the world forever. Time will tell…
Thank you Jamie. Yes, art indeed plays a very potent role in communicating important messages to society. Many times art can serve to introduce people to subjects they would otherwise shy away from, as your work clearly does!
The role of the artist then, often becomes that of the communicator of uncomfortable, taboo subjects. The artist creates an acceptable, approachable setting in which the audience can examine these subjects, and experience their own beings entering into valuable dialogue with them. Art has the power to do this both for today’s and tomorrow’s audiences. This reminds me of a Daniel Barenboim quote: “Every great work of art has two faces, one toward his/her own time, and one toward eternity.”
May the positive impact of your amazing work stretch all the way into eternity! And may the feminine continue to be honored in art and everywhere else!
You may visit Jamie McCartney’s work at his website, or view his Great Wall of Vagina which is currently on exhibit until June 30th at Jamie McCartney Sculpture Studios, Brighton, UK 11am-6pm every day www.gwov.co.uk. Or connect with him on facebook.