South African artist Reshma Chhiba has upset some and impressed others for turning a women's jail in Johannesburg previously used to house anti-apartheid activists into a 39 foot high red fabric vagina surrounded by black fabric pubic hair that occasionally screams. You have to take your shoes off to step inside.
The exhibition is called “The Two Talking Yonis” and is largely inspired by the Hindu goddess Kali. According to the Agence France-Presse, it is a commentary "on the mythology of female power in patriarchal systems." Chhiba explained:
“It’s a screaming vagina within a space that once contained women and stifled women,” she told AFP. “It’s revolting against this space… mocking this space, by laughing at it.”
Chhiba says that she didn't make this installation just for controversy's sake but to press people to think about their bodies differently, especially in a country like South Africa, which has such high rates of rape and sexual assault:
“You don’t often hear men talking about their private parts and feeling disgust or shamed,” as women often do, she said.
“And that alone speaks volumes of how we’ve been brought up to think about our bodies, and what I am saying here is that it’s supposed to be an empowering space.”
Some have found the piece shocking, taking issue both with the installations placement in this historic jail, its subject matter and, for some Hindus, its involvement of their religion. Chhiba says she doesn't understand the controversy behind her work, explaining herself articulately in this radio interview. In response to her male interviewer who started off asking her how to explain the installation because he was "a little uncomfortable because I don't know how to refer to it," Chhiba said, "You are definitely correct in calling it a vagina":
"The idea is that you're completely contained and consumed by this representation of something that is meant to be a space that is of power and defiance.
It sort of recalls in a general way those touch-tunnels in children's museums where it's totally dark and you have to use all your senses but sight. Except less frightening and more fun to lie around in.