Written by Kara Meyer
Jerusalem based artist Hila Avhael is a student of Musrara’s interdisciplinary art school here in Jerusalem. I had the pleasure of first seeing her Untitled installation at the Musrara Mix Festival—an exhibit that displayed a collection of plaster vaginas which the artist modeled after women who volunteered to be a part of the project, accompanied by a robotic hand device with which participants could use to alter the appearance of the sculptures.
Avhael interviewed her subjects to discuss how they felt about their vaginas aesthetically. What she learned was that for many women it is a taboo topic—one that society does not address. The vagina is hidden from the world, and generally the only person who comes in contact with it is a woman’s sexual partner, or her gynecologist. This places the female genitals in an exclusively sexual or clinical context, understood only through the lens of an outsider.
Hila believes women end up with a perception of what someone else thinks of their vagina, rather than developing their own notions about it. Her subjects were both secular and religious, between the ages of 20-30, none of which had given birth. This demographic is close to Hila and thus she felt equipped to engage with them.
“It’s crazy that women base the opinions of their vaginas on what other people think” Hila says. Vaginas are so private and intimate, each one has its own look. The idea that they should all look the same is counterintuitive to Hila. The artist decided to use each plaster mold as a way to capture the true image of each vagina. An accompanying robotic hand device allowed participants and visitors the ability to slightly manipulate each plaster sculpture, changing its appearance based on how the participants controlled it. The artist found that many people were uncomfortable with this public confrontation, while many found it educational or even cathartic.
As I sat listening to Hila, I couldn’t help but think about women I knew in the United States who have had plastic surgery done to their faces. The human face is neither private nor intimate—it is not in a secret place on the body. Yet the idea of changing something on one’s face is ultimately for the satisfaction of the individual. In Hila’s discovery, women who wanted to change the appearances of their vaginas—via laser hair removal, plastic surgery or cutting their lips—usually do so because of the images and ideas that society sets in place, versus personal taste.
I allowed this to sink in and could see how impactful such an artistic pursuit could be for a woman. We don’t want our faces look the same, yet society thinks our vaginas should. I began to realize that by a male dominated audience, fueled by the pornography industry (this is not an anti-porn campaign) the message of making all vaginas uniform was precisely about not being able to pick out a particular vagina in a lineup. How very un-intimate. How very impersonal.
The power of art is that it can tease out the intent. Art can provoke a reaction to a subject that may otherwise go unaddressed in our world. Through Hila’s artistic experiment, she brings an interactive component to the creative process that involves the audience itself. Art can disturb, provoke—and in this case, art can also educate and heal.
I asked Hila why she left the plaster molds in their raw state without painting them. She felt it was important to create a distance between the plaster mold and the women’s relationship to their vaginas. Hila saw the plaster medium as that of a Greek sculpture. She felt the objectivity of the process allowed for a fluid period of reflection and inclusion for women of all types.
Hila Avhael’s work is both inspirational and innovative, and this installation encompasses sculpture with a sci-fi like aspect of machinery and new media art.
I look forward to enjoying more work from up and coming artists like Hila through the Musrara school. It is truly a place where students are given creative control and the support to experiment with their art, containing no boundaries.
Author Kara Meyer is a classically trained pianist and arts advocate now living in Jerusalem. Born in the American Midwest, Kara and her pug Fig spend their days exploring and listening to the beauty of Israel. She writes about these experiences in her blog, 1Jewess. Kara aims to depoliticize the conflict through the use of artistic disciplines and real-life relationships.
Kara is currently curating a photography exhibition called Passage to Israel. It is comprised of twenty Israeli photographers at the Jerusalem Theater June 18-July 18, with the reception on July 7, at 11:00. These photographs are part of a book series created by author Karen Lehrman Bloch. Passage to Israel celebrates the Soul of the Land as an international traveling collection of the beautiful imagery of Israel.
Photo credit: Uri Barkat