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. More than three million girls are at risk for FGM/C annually.
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.
one thousand voices
One Thousand Voices is an immersive sound installation which stands in solidarity with survivors of Female Genital Mutilation and breaks the taboo, the culture of silence. The piece is a collection of audio testimonies from FGM survivors from all over the world — including Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, Gambia, Egypt, India, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Singapore, Indonesia, USA, Canada, UK, France and Germany — and captures the global magnitude of the practice.
Convincing women to speak about their experiences of FGM has not been an easy task, but we have worked hard to create a solid network of ambassadors in various countries and are now receiving more and more testimonies every week. These testimonies, these sound images, these digital imprints, will leave a mark on history. The women testifying represent the resistance and are part of a larger, global movement, to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide.
The piece is composed like a symphony with several movements, elements and choruses, and the voices — recorded on a smartphone and sent to us via WhatsApp — weave together to create one collective story. The monotonous crackling undertone of a broken record represents the weaving of analogue and digital, past and present. It represents the coming of a new age as said in the french idiom “change de disque!” which translates to “change the record” or “change the narrative”.
This installation highlights gender inequality and the politics surrounding a woman’s body and supports the global movement to #endFGM. The collective voice of FGM survivors questions where we're heading globally in terms of women's rights over their own bodies. It calls upon communities to adopt an alternate celebration, an alternative right of passage devoid of cutting.
Share your story and join thousands of voices in the effort to end FGM in one generation.
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One Thousand Voices was presented at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) in Cape Town to commemorate International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, 2018.