‘A women’s cunt continues to be incorrectly named, shamed and erased, and that really motivated me to create this project’
Imagine a space for women that celebrated vaginas of all shapes, colours and sizes. A place where a community of women could reflect on their bodies and celebrate the beauty of it all through a liberating, creative art form. “Raising the Skirt” by artist Nicola Canavan is exploring that in her series of portraits of everyday women, as they share the beauty of their bodies, while exploring their relationships with their vaginas and what they symbolise to them.
Canavan’s project aims to, quite simply, reclaim the cunt, with special focus on changing public perception on the female body and a need to educate others on diverse body types – a task that she strongly believes should be a priority in sex education. “The stale state of education doesn’t speak on these body changes and needs to be redefined from a completely new angle at a much earlier age,” she explains. Canavan’s interest in exploring the cunt stemmed from her own experiences, as she felt shame towards her own body during her youth. “Society told me I was too round as a child, sexual partners told me that my 'bits' were too large and not normal and not what they had seen in porn.” Such doubts led to a quest to discover the beauty of her body, and to share this ethos with a strong community of women who aim to feel the same through contributing to the “Raising the Skirt” project. “‘Raising the Skirt’ creates a safe space to for women to discover their inner warrior, and that freedom can be seen through the space that each woman creates in these images.”
Ahead of the Calm Down, Dear – an event which celebrates the work of feminist artists, and will also be exhibiting a new set of photos from Canavan's “Raising the Skirt” project – we caught up with the artist to discuss body diversity, social media censorship, and the best way to encourage our youth to celebrate their cunts.
What was your motivation behind the “Raising the Skirt” project?
Nicola Canavan: My project was motivated by a desire to reclaim the cunt as a place of power, while highlighting the parts of the female body which are repeatedly cut away – specifically the labia, which is often referred to as the vagina, which is incorrect. A women’s cunt continues to be incorrectly named, shamed and erased, and that really motivated me to create this project.
Your project aims to reclaim the vagina and your workshops really started that process. How did the workshops impact a change in these women's lives, and what is the process that you and those who participate, go through?
Nicola Canavan: Each woman is drawn to my project for many different reasons, however most want to work with me to create a positive change in their relationship with their own bodies. I can't speak for my participants, but I have seen many women feel joy and have opened themselves up to a new freedom. During our workshop we spend a great amount of time looking at the body. Whether it is looking through our own bodies and thinking back to a time where we felt confidence, or even sometimes a traumatic experience in life which caused shame and fear around our bodies. Whatever it is, we tend to look at our bodies, wishing for change, but that can only happen when you give yourself time to heal. “Raising the Skirt” really is a project which gives us time to reflect on our bodies, to be present and even give some tools to move forward.
Does the project come from your own personal experience with your vagina?
Nicola Canavan: It began as research for me, after years of feeling shame about my body. I realised that there was not enough education for kids about their own bodies and about the diversity of body types in the world. Especially during puberty and menstruation where your body changes and everyone’s is different, yet the stale state of education doesn’t speak on these body changes and needs to be redefined from a completely new angle at a much earlier age. This will allow young girls and boys to feel confident, and to understand that they can be inspired by their own health and beauty.
You've mentioned that the women in these portraits come from all walks of life, and have different relationships with their vaginas. How do you portray these differences, while still maintaining a cohesive image overall?
Nicola Canavan: “Raising the Skirt” collaborator Dawn Felicia Knox is the project’s image maker, and she does such an amazing job at representing the journeys of the women in our project. The main focus is supporting each woman in the beginning or moving forward in their journeys with their bodies, and creating a space in our community where they feel they are safe. “Raising the Skirt” creates a safe space for women to discover their inner warrior, and that freedom can be seen through the space that each woman creates within the image, and remains a cohesive theme through the project.
What has been the most rewarding reactions you've received from someone who participated in the project and from someone who has seen the exhibition?
Nicola Canavan: I can honestly say that every experience with every participant and nearly all of the dialogue and debates around my project have been rewarding and incredibly valuable. “Raising the Skirt” represents so much for so many people across the world, and every week I learn something new about our collective history as women, and how we can draw on these strengths moving forward in such a hostile world. If this project instills even just a small catalyst in someone to change how they feel about themselves and others, then I know that this project is worth the years of dedication that I give it.
“If this project instills even just a small catalyst in someone to change how they feel about themselves and others, then I know that this project is worth the years of dedication that I give it” – Nicola Canavan
There is a growing online community, thanks to your project, filled with poetry, photography and odes to vaginas. How do you feel our generation can further this positive thinking towards ourselves and create a bigger and more permanent impact in our society?
Nicola Canavan: I think the most effective way to make an impact in our society is through community, education, kindness and our voice. We need to continually grow this community of powerful positive voices that are fighting for change, while redefining body/sex education so that it explains and celebrates a diverse body to our youth. We also need to invest in 'porn' with better ethics, as this is the main form of sex education for young people that they have access to, and we need porn which shows how to respect sexual partners, what intimacy looks like and to show diversity in body types. I feel our generation will carry on the fight for equality, so that our young people and the generations that follow can be a part of a community which practices positive living.
Feminist art and photography is often censored on social media for being considered explicit – despite the positive message which can be behind it. How do you feel art that openly explores positive images of women can fight social media censorship?
Nicola Canavan: This question comes at the very right time as Facebook closed down all of my pages this month, and disabled my personal account last week! When you step outside the box to create something which has a loud voice and opinion, there will always be the people with the money, greed and power to keep people down. “Raising the Skirt” seeks to make changes that have the potential to have a massive positive impact and not everybody wants that unfortunately. I think the best way to deal with this is to keep getting louder and not to be scared off by big businesses and organisations who want to keep us quiet. If Facebook, Instagram and Twitter keep shutting us down, then we will take to the streets and our voices will only get louder.