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Sculpture was one of the first art forms. Early humans formed clay and carved stones into figurines, often of the female form. Amply bosomed and large-hipped fertility figures form the bulk of early religious artifacts. Adherents believed that fertility rights would increase fecundity among both people and their animals. The figurines that have been found explore the life cycle by appearing as young women, women giving birth, and older women. The ubiquity and sexual nature of these figurines across geographies suggests that the ancients did not have the same vagina taboos that surround the post-Christian west.
The female shape has continued to be a subject of art and social discomfort throughout the millennium. Leonardo da Vinci sketched out The Female Sexual Organs, around 1510. Gustave Courbet, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Christian Schad, and Marcel Duchamp created paintings that prominently featured the female genitalia. Despite the vagina’s appearance in art throughout history, the taboo about the female reproductive organ persists. Modern artists, concerned with the persistence of gender-based violence against women are trying to change that.
In Tubingen, Germany, a large stone sculpture of a vagina stands outside the Institute of Microbiology. On June 21, an American exchange student, on a dare crawled inside and got stuck. His friend, Imgur user ErickGuzman, posted a picture of his friend, head out, stuck by his knees in the giant stone vulva. Also posted were two pictures of the 22 rescue workers who freed the embarrassed student. As of this writing, the image has received 533,337 views on Imgur, and the Internet is filled with articles of the incident, a few of which start with the phrase, “It’s a boy!”
Large vulva statues are not the only mediums that modern artists have used to explore the social taboos that vaginas engender. Casey Jenkins calls herself a craftivist. Jenkins hails from Melbourne, Australia and created a performance piece she calls Casting off My Womb. Each day for 28 days, Jenkins sticks a skein up yarn into her vagina, pulls out a thread and begins to knit. “It’s unusual and it’s confining,” says Jenkins in the video, “because I’m attached to this knitting so I can sort of stand up and wander around. It’s restrictive,” she says, “but not painful.” Audiences tell her she is brave. Jenkins began this work because she feels that when people think about the vulva, they feel fear and revulsion. In her performance art, she hopes to meet those feelings with something that is warm, fuzzy, and benign, and so she knits.
Jim McCartney is another modern artist who bases his art on vaginas. McCartney tells The Latest.TV that he was motivated to create his pieces of sculpture when he realized that women, like men, have anxiety about the appearance of their genitalia. Over the course of five years, McCartney took casts of 400 women’s vaginas. He then created large walls of sculptures featuring the individual genitalia of the women who contributed to his creation. He calls it The Great Wall of Vagina.
According to the artist, labioplasty, or the cosmetic reconstruction of a woman’s genitalia, is the fastest growing elective cosmetic surgery in America. “The idea that women are cutting off parts of their genitals to conform to some notion of a popular aesthetic…that we’re in a society that make that happen, I find a bit repulsive,” McCartney says. He attributes the trend toward elective genital mutilation among women in the developing world to the effects of pornography. McCartney hopes that by seeing the wide range of normal vaginas, women will feel less anxious about the appearance of their own and that they will make informed decisions about modifying their pre-existing plumbing.
Eve Ensler set out to disrupt the societal shame that has traditionally accompanied the vagina with her one-woman stage performance, The Vagina Monologues. A victim of sexual abuse herself, Ensler speaks fluently about the emotional devastation that accompanies victims of sexual violence. Her monologues meet at the intersection of women’s emotional and sexual self-identity. Ensler remains a vocal activist for causes that fight gender-based and sexual violence.
Human sexuality, the female body in general, and the vagina in particular remain uncomfortable topics for many people to discuss, but the lack of understanding about female sexuality and the long-term emotional effects of sexual trauma are devastating to society. Artists like Jenkins, McCartney, and Ensler use their sculpture and art to explore these taboos. They all want a world where women will accept their bodies without shame and where sexual violence will end.
By Kaley Perkins