The vagina monolith: Artist Reshma Chhiba transforms Johannesburg prison with unusual conceptual art piece

30-year-old artist creates12-metre-wide 'walk-in' vagina

A former women’s prison in South Africa which held Winnie Mandela is now home to a an unusual conceptual art piece: a 12-metre-wide “walk-in” vagina.

Visitors are invited to walk through the artwork, by 30-year-old artist Reshma Chhiba, who describes it as a reaction against the former symbol of oppression; as they walk, the scarlet walls ring out with screams and laughter. The “yoni” – the Sanskrit word for vulva, or vagina – is skirted by acrylic wool imitation pubic hair over a tongue-like sponge walkway.

“It’s a screaming vagina within a space that once contained women and stifled women. It’s revolting against this space... mocking this space,” Ms Chhiba says of the work. The prison, in the central Johannesburg area of Braamfontein, dates back to 1892, and held Ms Mandela in 1958 when she was imprisoned for protesting against apartheid segregation, and again in 1976.

The artist said the work also opposes deeply entrenched patriarchal systems and taboos.

“You don’t often hear men talking about their private parts and feeling disgusted or shamed,” 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.”

The artist said the work aims at respect for the female body, in a country where 65,000 attacks on girls and women are reported annually. Before walking through, visitors have to remove their shoes. “Essentially you are respecting it, making it a divine space, a sacred space,” she said.

Though the fine art graduate and practising Hindu insisted she “definitely did not make this work for the sake of controversy”, it has – predictably – sparked a strong reaction.

Benathi Mangqaaleza, a 24-year-old female security guard at the site, which also houses the country’s constitutional court, said: “I grew up in the rural areas, we were taught not to expose your body, even your thighs, let alone your vagina. I think it’s pornographic, they have gone too far.”

Kubi Rama, head of Gender Links, a lobby group promoting gender equality in Africa, praised the work. “It is bringing the private into the public, that the woman’s body is not necessarily a private matter.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence