This October, Goodman Gallery Johannesburg will present work by Frances Goodman that explores the covert and the subterranean, destabilising notions of objectification and female corporeal perception. Presented in our viewing room space, the exhibition will include Goodman's “Vajazzling” series, as well as other related works.
The main series on show involves photographs of the lower torsos of anonymous women who Goodman has “vajazzled” – a cosmetic treatment in which a woman's vulva is decorated with jewels. For Goodman, this endeavour began as a fascination with a form of popular adornment that she found to be highly problematic, and evolved into something unexpected. “I had wondered,” she explains, “‘Who is going to agree to do this?’ It’s quite a thing – to go to a stranger’s house, take your clothes off, lie still for hours whilst she works on your most intimate, private area, and then have your photograph taken, not of your face, but your naked torso… It smacks of exhibitionism, the need to over-share, which is the stuff of reality TV, the contemporary obsession with the camera lens and the fleeting celebrity it proffers.”
What Goodman discovered surprised her. “The women who came to my door and told me stories and secrets about themselves, as they lay exposed on my bed, were not celebrity hungry exhibitionists,” she continues. “Most of them had snuck away from their partners and families to come to me, they had no intention of telling people they’d participated, the anonymity of the process was the very reason they’d agreed to do it.”
While she initially found volunteers through adverts in magazines such as Grazia, eventually women started finding her through other avenues. “Women approached me through friends, in restaurants, at parties. Unexpected women, of all shapes, skin tones and ages.” Their reasons for doing so varied.
“As a Muslim it is compulsory to remove one's pubic hair and this has made me more self conscious of how I look down there as I age,” explained one woman. “It would be very liberating and empowering to have this done, albeit under anonymity!” Another explained “I want to do this,” she declared, “…to show other lesbians the beauty in their femininity… In our community, lesbians are being targeted and correctively raped by men who feel threatened… This is my protest against that ritual. Just because this part of the body can be violated doesn’t mean it is also de-feminised.”
Goodman concluded that “instead of reinforcing my critique on the media and the complicity of the women it targets, I felt the women I had met had complicated it. They’d internalised my project, appropriated it, and loaded it with their own issues and histories. Whilst their personal celebration and empowerment reinforced the problematic relationships women have with their bodies, it was still a celebration and they still felt empowered, regardless of what I had to say on the matter.”
The project as whole ultimately begins to subvert and play with notions of objectification. In her essay “Adhering Crystal to Cunt: Becoming a Thing that Feels” Linda Stupart considers the murkiness of objectification explaining that “the neoliberal terrain of ‘Late Capitalism’ has produced a new set of mechanisms for objectification, many of which appear to shift the abjecting agency on to the bodies of women themselves. Evidenced, by the pornification of popular culture (let’s take pole dancing lessons and dress like strippers IT WILL BE SO MUCH FUN), commodification of desire (you must have this vibrator shaped like an adorable animal to be a real woman) and apparent rise in self-harming and stress-related behaviour (anorexia, depression, cutting and anxiety disorders) in women, the contemporary terrain is one in which the relationship between woman-as-object and determining subject is distinctly muddied.”
Stupart goes on to consider Hito Steyerl’s suggestion, via Walter Benjamin, “that emancipation may be found in voluntarily becoming-thing and a particular thing, an image, through participation in the material of the image. Participating in this thingness, imageness itself, makes it possible to speak meaningfully to other things and ‘join in this symphony of matter’, to ‘awaken the slumbering collective from the dream-filled sleep of capitalist production.’”
The women that Goodman vajazzled and photographed certainly “join in this symphony of matter”, and for divergent reasons begin to destabilise and seize their own objectification.