Through her Flower Series, Owanto brings to light the complex and contested issues surrounding Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Often done in discreet initiation ceremonies around the world, FGM/C is an age old ritual that has been used to signify the important transition from childhood to womanhood by curbing sexual desire.
‘When I first came across these old tiny analogue photographs amongst my late father’s belongings, I was greatly shocked. They depicted an FGM/C ceremony, which, I assume may have taken place during the 1940s in what was then known as Afrique Equatorial Française. I put them back quickly where I thought they belonged, in a forgotten place that I called ‘le tiroir de l’oubli’ (the forgotten drawer). This was three years ago. What I had seen then was now engraved in my memory, where it would stay vividly. I was haunted by the violations created by both the cutting and the voyeuristic colonial camera lens that captured these young women. After I began a search on Google, I had an even greater shock. These faded old photographs from the 40s had brought me to discover how ‘actual’ they were as they showcased the crude reality of our time.
MORE THAN 200 MILLION GIRLS AND WOMEN ALIVE TODAY HAVE BEEN CUT IN 30 COUNTRIES WHERE FGM/C IS CONCENTRATED, OF WHICH 44 MILLION ARE UNDER 15 YEARS OLD. EVERY 11 SECONDS, SOMEWHERE IN THE WORLD, A GIRL IS AT RISK OF BEING CUT.
I felt I had to retrieve these documents ‘du tiroir de l’oubli’. I understood that these photographs carried a symbolic and ambivalent meaning. They depicted a ceremony, a celebration. They also carried pain. I wanted to bring the past into the present. I wanted to transform these old analogue photographs into digital media documents, and to keep a record of human behavior. It would shape the future. I understood that these images taken by a Westerner during the colonial era, perceived as voyeurism could be elevated to the rank of art and activism, and used as a force for good if it were taken in the right direction.’
In Flower Series, Owanto retrieves archival photographs of an intimate, private and contested custom, and enlarges them to 2x3 meters high. The artist disrupts the violation in the image by removing the sections deemed most private. She covers the void with delicate cold porcelain flowers. The physical act of removing the flower, the “deflowering”, momentarily exposes the viewer to the truth. The flower is a symbolic cover-up that masks the identity of these young girls — an identity that was taken away from them — and hides this very loss. The original image is transformed to enable the young women in the old image to embody a different narrative. Flower Series is a deep reflection on the rights of women over their own bodies.