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

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

The exhibit features a sponge walkway
The exhibit features a sponge walkway

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.”

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