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 a collection of audio testimonies from Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting survivors (FMG/C). Using various languages, some speaking anonymously, most testifying openly, this installation projects sounds and stories of survival and strength derived from cutting. The voices weave together to create one collective story.
This ensemble brings to light the complex issues surrounding FGM/C. The mélange of voices, accents, and languages emerge from 30 countries in Africa, parts of the Middle East, Asia, and the ever-growing diaspora, and tackle the very taboos that often leave others silent. The piece is composed like a symphony —voices are recorded on a smartphone and sent via WhatsApp– with several movements, elements and choruses. The monotonous crackling undertone of a broken record alludes to the coming of a new age - as said in the french idiom “change de disque!” which translates to “change the record!”.
In this exhibition Owanto creates a bridge between visual images (photographs) from the 1940s and sound images (audio testimonies) describing contemporary societies, because for the artist it is vital to weave the past with the present, the analogue with the digital, the artistic with the journalistic. While the flower poetically plays a healing role and attempts to metaphorically change the narrative in Flowers Series –from victims to heroines— the collective voice of women and girls united to say “no more” in One Thousand Voices breaks the silence and literally changes the narrative.
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.