author: haley holtslander | contributor
Visual artist Holtslander on how her art exposes patriarchy.
Activist art. Feminist art. The word feminist has the capacity to make people either groan or celebrate, but pin “art” to the end and the people groaning will roll their eyes. But why? I think it’s because some people just don’t understand art and its importance, and that’s okay! I, Haley Holtslander, consider myself a feminist artist, so who better to explain this practice than someone directly involved? When creating my art, I try to not think about it too much. I let it happen. And that’s how I became a feminist artist; I let the world and my own intuitions guide me. I started creating what I thought the world needed to see and thus became my apparent fascination with the female body, primarily the vulva (I am aware that not all women have vulvas, but a lot my work is self-reflection and I, indeed, have a vulva. From here on in, every mention of women is directed to those with vulvas).
For so long, female issues have been put on the back burner, hidden from the public eye. It was brought to my attention in my first-year women and gender studies class. Women in advertising are often depicted holding a hand in front of their mouths, shushing, or have something covering their mouths because women are to be silent. Advertisers would never come out and say that’s what the intention is, but anyone who is aware of it can quickly see the pattern. Throughout history, women are to be quiet and hidden; it is attractive to be thin because you will take up less space; it’s the unspoken narrative of our society.
One thing almost every young woman goes through is puberty. Many people have become uncomfortable with the mere mention of menstruation because it is custom for women to hide their menstrual cycle and for men to be disgusted. That’s how the patriarchy works by telling men it is acceptable to be grossed out and telling women they need to accept it and move on. How unfair is it for men to be disgusted by one part of the body for one week, and the rest of the month, be begging for pics of that same body part?
To combat the hiddenness women feel, I started painting large vulvas all the time. For a final project, I painted a 4ft. by 4ft. vulva stained in blood. Women have been hiding for so long, I have been hiding for so long. I took my ten years’ worth of hiding and made it huge; anyone in its midst was forced to acknowledge it – there was no ignoring it. I created so many because they all look different! Through this artwork, I have been able to educate so many people, which is why I do it. The shock factor brings people in, and because I have clearly opened myself up, they are comfortable to openly ask questions like, “Why do they all look different,” or “Why are vulvas so important?”
Whether it’s to look pretty on the living room wall or something much deeper, art always has a purpose, and the purpose of activist art is to bring awareness. With my vulvas, I hope to show how women should no longer be seen as something that needs to be hidden.
Editor’s note: this article’s author, Haley Holtslander, is also a talented model, photographer, and visual artist. Find more examples of her work on Instagram: @yela.h