`Shock people in an empowering way’

Does the controversial artwork Useful Objects achieved its stated aim? Feminist Nomboniso Gasa argues that it portrays women as helpless

IT was with interest and irritation that I read last week’s Mail & Guardian response to Baleka Kgositsile’s objections to the ashtray created by Kaolin Thompson.

It is correct to lobby for freedom of expression, but the M&G’s editorial was arrogant: you argue for freedom of expression but also want to silence those who speak against you.

What is so wrong with expressing outrage and disgust at a piece of art? Kgositsile has a right to express her views and a right to lobby for censorship or any other mechanism she and many others may find necessary. The freedom of expression lobby needs to convince us why censorship is not a solution. Challenge us — do not silence us, and please do not label.

Most irritating of all was that the editorial did not deal with Kgositsile’s legitimate concerns but manipulated the fact that she is deputy speaker of Parliament.

I do not believe Kgositsile’s views will compromise the “integrity of the deputy speaker’s office”. The campaign to have women in high office should not be used to silence them.

Censorship is a very complex issue and all institutions, including the media, practise some form of it. They may call it editing or whatever, but it is a kind of censorship.

Now what about Thompson’s vaginal ashtray? Hazel Friedman says Thompson wants to “expose that treatment of women in society as dumping ground”. Has the artist achieved this?

Some artists may well argue that the role of provocative art is to shock people into realising what goes on in society. That is fine. But what is more important is to shock people in an empowering way. Is Thompson’s work empowering or does it further victimise women? What does the imagery of her work do to help combat abuse and violence against women?

Probably what shocks women most is the fact that the very images of our bodies and sexuality are also images of pain, abuse and alienation. At times they are also — or we want them to be — images of dignity, joy, the celebration of our sexuality, and so on. What do we do to create that balance? How can we expose the negative images while at the same time strengthen the positive images?

Thompson has failed to achieve this balance — if she ever attempted to. I believe that we should not look only at the work but also look at the artist herself. What is her intention? And what does she do if her intention clashes with the final effect?

Most disturbing is the image of helplessness, the projection of women as victims, in this work. There is a large and diverse body of feminists who argue that the depiction of women as victims does not work in their interest.

Black women’s bodies have been used as dumping grounds and “useful objects” throughout history — but we are not victims. We have a history of struggle that goes back to the time of colonial conquest and slavery.

Perhaps the vagina could have been shown contracting, therefore rejecting the cigarette which represents a white male phallic symbol, instead of lying there helplessly.

It is high time we began a serious discourse on how to represent women in popular and electronic media and in art and culture. If the editors of newspapers, the owners of magazines like Hustler, artists who produce provocative work, have their freedom of expression, we also have a right to enter the debate without then being labelled humourless feminists, traditionalists and so on.

I do no believe in censorship of art, but there are complexities — such as the unequal power relationships that have marred our history — that need to be taken into consideration. What we need is art — and other forms of expression — that will take us closer to the emancipation of women.

For me, freedom of expression is important but what is even more important is to find a way that deals with the reality of South Africa as a country which has the highest statistics on rapes, the reality of abuse of women and children and the reality of images of women’s bodies and sexuality as symbols of oppression.

I ask you and I ask the artist, does this ashtray, does your work take us any close to the emancipation of our bodies from abuse? Or is it simply about self-indulgence?

Gasa is a feminist activist


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