The art of controversy

ART is a funny thing. I don’t mean funny-ha ha (although it can be), but funny-peculiar, in the way that it makes people react in very

interesting ways.

Most of us Saffas don’t really pay attention to art or artists in our daily lives (quick, name at least three South African artists working today, Brett Murray doesn’t count) but as soon as a piece of art comes along which challenges our worldview in any way we suddenly become art critics.

The latest artwork to draw the ire of casual cognoscente across the nation is a site-specific art installation piece by artist Reshma Chhiba erected at the old Women’s Jail in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a range of reactions on radio stations and social media to the 12 metre-long ‘walk-in vagina’ made of red velvet and cotton, from amusement, bafflement to downright scorn.

It’s the kind of reaction one expects a controversial piece of work to inspire, but really, how controversial is it? Especially when one considers the truly shocking things artists have done with body parts over the past fifty years? Steven Cohen, anyone?

Personally, I think a giant vagina made of fabric is about as controversial as a Lady Gaga music video, but then again I’m writing as a man who’s been in a play based on The Vagina Monologues.

Not everyone is as comfortable with being confronted by such risque subject matter as your average liberal arts graduate.

And when an artist makes an art work which touches on a subject society considers to be taboo, the tendency is to play up its shock value rather than engaging and critiquing the idea behind the work.

“It’s a global vagina,” artist Reshma Chhiba told Sunday Times, undercutting the site-specific and personal nature of her creation in one fell swoop.

So far, amidst all of the hullabaloo, I’ve heard a lot of ooing and aahing over Chhiba’s work, but not a lot of interrogation.

The noise hasn’t been a case of whether or not the work is good or successful, but about the fact that it’s of a sexual nature.

Things considered controversial in art aren’t so much about shock and entertainment, but about exploring the entirety of human experience.

It shouldn’t oblige us in a pornographic fervor. It’s not just naked entertainment. It’s about learning to cerebrally process our emotional selves. And if we approach it in that spirit, we learn to have better understanding of both.

  AUTHOR
Chris Tobo
Columnist

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