Tessel van der Putte
The story behind the VULVA series
Feminist movements around the world have long advocated for the rights and autonomy of women, including reproductive health such as access to safe and legal abortion services. In many societies today, however, access to abortion is still heavily restricted and stigmatized. Being one of the many symptoms of patriarchy and unbalanced societal norms imposed on all of us - not just women, girls, trans and non-binary beings - we seem to be grappling with the notion that respecting life is about honoring the bodies we live in and come from.
In addition, I wonder about the ways in which respect and perception of the female body in society, echo back to how we respect and treat the ultimate maternal body we all come from: the earth. Yet more about that in future blog posts. Here, I want to dive a bit deeper into my exhibition in Amsterdam last winter, with a series of painted works about the female body, sexual empowerment and sisterhood titled "The VULVAS series".
I started off by mentioning the right to abortion above. I think it's such a tangible and also symbolic discussion item, which is often a clear barometer for the seriousness of oppression and inequality women experience in the patriarchial society. After all, denying women the ability to make decisions about their own bodies and reproductive health, is a serious violation of human rights. It puts their lives and health at risk, and the stigma and shame surrounding abortion has a detrimental effect on the mental health and well-being of people who need this service as well. This makes narratives such as "pro-life or pro-choice" sound rather ironic, of course.
However, I believe this is not just a question about law and health. It's about the way we perceive the female body and those characteristics accredited as "feminine" in society as a whole, and how these are generally undervalued or even oppressed compared to masculine traits (and compared to the "default" male body). Somehow the female body is subject to laws and a level of intrusion, in ways that the male body is not and would never be.
Some, including myself, would also argue that there are similarities to be drawn between the female body, and other natural bodies in our environment that experience exploitation, oppression, and restrictions. Think for example of bodies of water (a polluted shoreline, a river with concrete dams restricting its flow and the migration of fish), or the destruction of forests (cut down ancient mother trees, used for commercial purposes instead of recognizing their inherent rights and animate nature). We have come to think of these phenomena as normal, though they shouldn't be (something our Indigenous brothers and sisters often know much better)... Making me wonder: is this all part of the same, patriarchical approach to experiencing and valuing the world around us? Seeing our world as a place of power dynamics, where we label and group certain entities as"more" at the expense of those who are grouped as "less"?
New developments, or rather set-backs, around abortion laws in 2022 made me feel so angry and frustrated. It fuelled a desire in me to make a thematic series about women's bodily autonomy. I decided to approach this work through vibrant colour contrast and abstract forms, illustrating both the angle of conflict (visualizing the struggle and the pain, the fight for equality and understanding), as well as an empowering angle, to counter taboos and shame around pleasure (portraying the vulva in particular as a place of transformation, power, birth of creativity and self-actualization).
I was interested in taking this tension with me in each painting because while women's bodies are a loved subject in art, they're often censored and denied autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality in real-life. Mindful of the fact that the portrayal of women's nudity in media and art often reinforces patriarchal norms of women, I wanted to paint vulvas in a celebrative, colourful, and "in-your-face" fashion. Having the series be displayed in a location called "The A'DAM Tower" in the capital of the Netherlands, felt like a rather radical way to reclaim the conversation too, whilst helping to create space for new conversation and value systems to find their roots.
It's tragic that the female body tends to be so hypersexualized and objectified for the pleasure of others, all the while there still appears to be a lot of shame and taboo preventing women, and people with vuvlas, from sexual empowerment themselves. Initiatives like Umaversity by artist Jo Sarah, are on the road to change all of that. They do an incredible job at creating communities and facilitating safe spaces. In just the two sessions I attended with their organization, it became clear to me that their work on educating and helping women and persons with vulvas to empower themselves when it comes to their relationship with their own bodies, is nothing short of vital to all of society today. Pleasure, is political too.
So partnering with Umaversity and their community for the VULVA series in this exhibition was very special! Each work in the show aimed at honoring the people that are developing a kinder and more conscious relationship with their bodies and each other, and re-imagined common, patriarchical perceptions about the female body. Showing five different vulva paintings, the series also aimed to show the diverse beauty and different aspects of this part of the body. The paintings were bearing familiar physical features on the one hand, while the abstract nature of the works emphasized an almost “alien-like” complexity on the other... An illustration to how many women have yet to discover their own bodies, crossing a river of taboos and shame.
The message of the VULVA series was, that vulvas are a place of profound transformation for the self, not just a gateway of sexuality and life for others, and they are a bodily symbol of resilience and creativity. Though some works have been sold from this show already, the smaller Vulva Paintings are still available should this theme speak to you as well (always feel free to reach out for more information!).
Coming back to trends we see around the world with regard to the oppression and censorship of the female body, and how her sexual and reprodcutive rights are restricted, it's clear that we still have a lot of healing to do, for generations to come. Big changes sadly don't always happen overnight, but I do believe that community - like those created by Umaversity - and creativity are so important for this. Consequently, the role of art in challeging old and limited beliefs, or in translating complicated inner worlds that need to be expressed, can't be lacking in our collective understanding of all of this. It's time for the presence of more "vulvas" in art, through the eyes and experiences of those who are blessed to embody them!
With thanks to Jo Sarah for her encouragement and invitation to share these works, and the team of A'dam&Co. for giving me the opportunity to show this exhibition from 27 November 2022 until 30 January 2023.
 See for example The Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948; The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women from 1979; or The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action from 1995, to name a few.
 See, for example, the book 'Invisible Women: Data Dias In A World Designed For Men' written by Caroline Criado Perez.