Spreading Cliteracy

By Rebecca Cheong
CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws Billboard in Santa Fe, 2013 (Sophia Wallace)

CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws Billboard in Santa Fe, 2013 (Sophia Wallace)

Brooklyn-based conceptual artist and photographer Sophia Wallace was haunted by the lack of the clitoris in visual representation and speech. While the female body is overexposed and hyper-sexualized in visual culture, the clitoris—the sexual organ of women—is strikingly absent. The lie that the clitoris is inconsequential to sex was a problem that Wallace was compelled to address.

Wallace’s medium used to be photography—until 100 Natural Laws, the first work in the Cliteracy series—an ongoing project, that includes Wallace’s “100 Natural Laws of Cliteracy,” a 10 feet by 13 feet installation, with a 6-foot neon “Cliteracy” sign suspended from the ceiling, as well as a “clit rodeo” that involves an interactive installment of a golden clitoris. She wanted to talk about the unseen, about that which can’t be glanced upon and grasped, about that which refused to be flattened into this beautiful object. And that was the challenge she faced with photography: it was too resolved. In order to create a visual language, one that can finally register as putting the clitoris on the map of our history of visual culture, she had to do something else. So, she turned to text.

But whether she’s doing it with text or with photography, Wallace is carving out a space to honor the underrepresented, to record their existence, and to bring them into the conversation. Her older works such as Girls Will Be Bois and Berlin Lookbook use photography to invite viewers to interrogate cultural formations of gender, sexuality, and identity, and to disrupt the deceptive normality surrounding these ideas. Cliteracy is a pithy way of getting at the “hubris and misogyny” embedded in how we are used to thinking about sex and the female body. It’s about discourse, and the language that has historically shaped and shamed the female body and female sexuality in the popular imagination.

I visited the artist at her apartment recently to talk about her work and ideas, and their place in our illcliterate world. We were in the company of her adorable French Bulldog François. I probably said the word “clit” more times in that one sitting than I have ever said in my life. Which is, well, kind of the point.



RC: Your recent project, Cliteracy, 100 Natural Laws, the first of a series of mixed-media works, uses the clitoris as imagery and text as form to explore the obsession with sexualizing the female body. Can you talk about how the clitoris operates in this work or in the Cliteracy series in general?

SW: So, with Cliteracy, I knew that I couldn’t use a representational approach to get across the idea. There’s no lack of representations of the nude female form. We see this everywhere. And it’s not just in pornography, which is a more extreme example; any kind of product that’s sold is often playing on female sexuality or exposure of the female body. Advertising, marketing—and even just the history of art kind of makes use of the female form. So, there certainly isn’t a lack of visibility; in a way, there’s sort of an overexposure, and also this pervasive ignorance.

Part of what I wanted to deal with was that paradox, but also get into what it feels like to to be in a female body. Because it’s seen everywhere, people think they can see it and know it. And it’s a false promise, and it’s a false sense of…the simplicity of the female experience and the female body. One thing that’s been fascinating to me is that because I don’t show the female body at all in Cliteracy, people get upset sometimes. Like, ‘Where are they?’ or ‘When do I get to look at some pussy?’ It was very intentional in terms of the concept that it would be text [and], more text than you could easily scroll through and scan. You need to walk by and take it in. You actually had to spend time. Moreover, it was bigger than anybody’s body—even if you’re a football player you look small next to this work. When we think about female genitals, we think about small, tactile, something you can hold in your hand, you can eat off of it. Think of the famous Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, the expectation for female forms are a small, easily contained object, one that we can interact with. We’re used to female bodies always performing some kind of labor, either sexual labor by turning us on, or else reproductive labor. And I’m saying, this body exists, this subject exists, it’s not doing anything for you, and doesn’t have to do anything for you—it can just exist for itself. This created a huge challenge for me as someone who’s trained in photography. That was my medium—I [couldn’t] use my medium to make this work. I talk about the unseen and I’m using visual art and I’m using lens-based visual images, lens-based mediums, and I can’t use them.

100 Natural Laws (Sophia Wallace)

100 Natural Laws (Sophia Wallace)

I wouldn’t say it was easy to take on this subject matter, to be the “clit artist”. I worried, rightly that I would lose professional credibility, that doors would slam in my face. Talking about female genitals in public, especially if you are a woman, taints the speaker. This is something I deal with on an ongoing basis. However, I wanted to address what I felt was an absence in the discourse which was causing great harm. Once the ideas came to me, it was not a choice. I was compelled to make this. Cliteracy was not easy, [because] it involved taking on something that’s such a taboo, that’s so vulnerable. It certainly taints the speaker anytime anyone speaks about female genitals, and particularly, if you happen to have them, it takes away from a certain level of respect. Even to have that conversation is sometimes considered too controversial. A radio host pitched me to PBS, and they said 10 PM is not the right time for this content, apparently too early, that literacy is not educational, and finally they don’t have an audience for it. So, when public television can’t take on the issue of turning half of the population into a taboo, turning parts of their bodies into the unspeakable, it means certainly that this artwork is threatening a power structure. This is revealing of how far we have to go.

RC: That’s really interesting, that idea of taboo.

SW: Censorship is something I deal with constantly and most of the time I don’t even know when I’m being censored. People aren’t going to say, ‘Oh, we’re not writing about you or we’re not allowing you to speak at our conference because your work terrifies us.’ They’re just going to exclude it from their program with the implication being that it lacked merit.

RC: Do you think people are making excuses?

SW: Well, often there’s no excuse that’s made, you just don’t hear back. You don’t register, and that’s the concern for any kind of subject that’s marginalized—you don’t get to be part of the discourse. [These ideas] are constantly censored out. And you can’t even have a debate about that censorship, you don’t get to have that, because it all happens behind closed doors. Even to talk about it on Facebook or Instagram, that is censored in and of itself.

It is really profound for any person, man or woman, to see the word “clit” in the world. Period. And just as it is, just saying, this exists; this is normal; this is in the world. It’s not asking for anything; it’s not giving away anything; it’s not trying to titillate; it’s not trying to get a rise…and that’s actually pretty profound. Most of the time, when we see female genitals, they’re always shameful [or] they’re used as the ultimate taboo or demeaning word. So like “Vagina,” which is the word used ubiquitously for female genitals, is a misnomer. It means “sword-holder” and technically only includes the opening. It literally reduces the entirety of female genitals to being an opening. The correct word for the entire genital is “vulva”, but almost no one ever uses that word. Hence, why I started with language. Language itself is both the problem, and I would argue, hopefully the solution. While language can be this structure that’s very limiting, it can also shift the culture for those of us who really value mutuality, non-hierarchy, respect—all these kinds of values.

Every time I show this work [at schools], people say the word “clitoris” more in that three-day span of my visit, than that school’s entire history.

RC: I think we’ve said the word “clit” more times in this interview than I’ve said it my entire life.

SW: Yeah. So I feel that is a powerful outcome. That is a powerful change. The other thing about Cliteracy is that once you know you can’t knock that down. Even if you’re, “I’m anti-cliteracy! I’m pro-ilcliteracy!” You’re still spreading cliteracy. You can’t ever un-know what you know about cliteracy. If you bash Cliteracy, you’re still talking about the clit, you’re still breaking the silence about the clit.

Give Me to the Wind (Sophia Wallace)

Give Me to the Wind (Sophia Wallace)

RC: Going back to 100 Natural Laws, I really like Invisible Sculpture, the billboard, and I wanted to ask you how you put it together later on, but is 100 Natural Laws the latest piece in Cliteracy?

SW: No, the 100 Laws came first. That was sort of the DNA for the work. That was interesting because I didn’t know what I was going to do when I started Cliteracy. I was like, “Hey, I’ll make this neon piece that says ‘Cliteracy’; it’s going to be nine feet and it’s going to be awesome.” As I started thinking about what would be an accurate visual metaphor for female genitals, and having sex with someone who has female genitals, I wanted to get away from these constant male pleasure images, or optional female pleasure images. Like a train going under a tunnel, or the exploding champagne bottle, all these images of how the male body enjoys itself, but the clit doesn’t participate at all. I was thinking about scratching records and DJing. I was thinking about doing two things at once, really fast or really slow. Depend[ing] on the person, depend[ind] on the music that you’re making, and being about real skills and knowledge, not just about thrusting. I was making these drawings and I was spray-painting, and I was like, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, because I’m a photographer.” I’ve taking some drawing classes and painted here and there, but that wasn’t what I focused on as my medium. I wasn’t good at them, in my opinion anyway. From there, I started having these laws come to me, like “The hole is not the whole,” and “Take your virginity,” These were some of the laws that came to me.

RC: Do you ever think that text lends itself more to that than photography? It’s a very serious project, but you’re able to make it fun.

SW: Yeah, I think so. People would maybe spend five seconds to maybe about three minutes with a photo. With Cliteracy, people would stay there for at least 15 minutes, half-an-hour. They’d come back, photographing the work, spending time with it. Just the way people would engage with the work was so different. It made me really happy that people found that they could enjoy the work. Sometimes contemporary art can feel so exclusionary, people feel like they can’t get it and they are embarrassed. No one wants to be treated like their stupid because they didn’t get it. It was nice to have work that any literate english speaker could enter, and have his or her own individual experience with it. I’m really into satire, as well as political philosophy and hip-hop. I wanted the piece to be multivalent so that readers of Foucault and Hip-Hop heads would be on equal footing.I feel lucky that the connections I made in this project, pulling all these references that matter to me, seemed to resonate with art audiences too.

RC: I wanted to ask about your works like Girls Will Be Bois and Berlin Lookbook because those were some of your older works. They ask us as viewers to interrogate cultural formations of gender and sexuality by referring to stereotypical poses of the female body in mass culture. But it does so without reproducing the same effects. So you take these familiar poses and defamiliarize them. This prompts questions with visual and aesthetic disorientation. In doing so, do you want your viewers to perhaps confront or feel compelled to disinherit certain feelings and social norms upon viewing these works?

SW: Photography is a medium that should certainly be looked at with a critical eye, not simply in terms of “is this a beautiful picture” but “what’s the agenda of this picture; what is this picture trying to get me to think or believe or want.” Who gets to be beautiful within photography? Or who gets to be the idyllic couple or the hot, young, cool person? There has been a really limited range of people that get to appear in those pictures. Part of my attempt has been to show my community and my lovers through my eyes and through the eyes of somebody who admires, adores, and respects these people. That just sounds so simple, but it’s actually important and necessary, and it’s still very rare.

When I first started showing Girls Will Be Bois, I would go into Newsweek, Time, New York Times, New Yorker and I would be told that these subjects were not relevant. The editor wouldn’t be able to distinguish between subjects because they would just see brown skin and butch, and they would just see one person. Or they would say that unless there is gay bashing happening, there’s really no news here. Or they wanted more nudity. So it was like these subjects were only worthy of representation if they were under incredible duress and violence, or if they were sexual object. The violence that they were looking for me to capture was actually enacted by them and the way that they censored these subjects out of the news cycle, out of history.

Unfortunately, the most elite within the group often get to speak for everybody, which is a problem.

At the time I was making this work, Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old black butch woman from New Jersey, was stabbed to death because she dared to say she was lesbian to a guy that tried to hit on her. The comparison of the way the media handled her story versus Matthew Shepard, there were 26 articles on her compared to hundreds on him in a short period of time. It just shows the way that the visual culture to this day is very particular, even within the LGBT community. It’s almost dangerous to say LGBTQ and use this term as all-encompassing because what does a white guy in Chelsea who’s earning six figures, and owns his two bedroom condo, have in common with a butch black woman from Newark who lives in the projects? Those are very different realities. They’re very different experiences and there’s very different politics in terms of what’s at the forefront of needs. Unfortunately, the most elite within the group often get to speak for everybody, which is a problem.

RC: [This makes me think] about your work Truer and the intimate moments, both private and public, are documented in a romantic relationship and made public through the documentation of them in photographs. These photographs function as art and documentary evidence of a same sex relationship. What was that like for you, being a participant in this work?

SW: In making this work, I was thinking a lot about all the queer loves that never get to register in history. Either they were never captured in photographs, because it was too dangerous or they were lost because they had to be secrets, or the family destroyed them when they found them.

In terms of the evidence, when I was in my early 20s a friend of mine had an aneurysm and passed away unexpectedly. She was out to one side of her family but not the other side. When she died unexpectedly, she was basically put back in her closet. The side of the family that knew just pretended that she was straight. She was a butch African American woman who wore her hair natural, was interested in Buddhism, and who was very outgoing—a total tomboy. She was buried in a pink suit and heavy makeup, her hair was straightened and she was eulogized as a God-fearing woman. Her girlfriend wasn’t allowed to come to the funeral. Her queer community was not invited to the funeral, or invited to the burial. She was put into the ground by her family as a person that she wasn’t, and she was separated from her partner. It was so heartbreaking.

We talk about marriage, but it’s also about how someone is buried at the end of his or her life. If they’re not allowed to mature as an adult, their family still kind of owns them, and if their family is homophobic, they can control their history. All of the idealized love and fairy tales in history are straight. I wanted to put out my own idealized love story and say queer love can also be transcendent, universally human.

RC: With Cliteracy, are you getting at what it feels like or means to be human?

SW: That is exactly right. Conservative forces in society, governmental, religious or cultural, want to use sexuality to divide us. In there eyes there is no such thing as natural female desire. According to them, women use sex transactionally, to attain husbands, shoes or children. Those natural women who actually enjoy sex for the sake of itself, are despicable sinners and deserve sexual violence, unwanted pregnancy and being abandoned by potential partners as damaged goods. Obviously, if you are queer or can’t reproduce due to age, you should also feel terrible for having sex. This type of thinking should be rejected and mocked with same derision we reserve for other cruel and inhumane beliefs that justify violence against a class of people. We still socially put all of the blame of any sexual act on women, and I think it’s really sad that even to this day in 2015, women feel ashamed of talking about birth control and access to abortion. And there’s still a fear to acknowledge that women have sex for pleasure. I think with Cliteracy, my intention is to say, ‘Yes, we are demanding the right to feel safe in our body and not be raped anymore. But it does not stop there. We have have an inalienable right to pleasure in our body too. As a society we understand that to cut off a man’s penis would be inhumane, would take away from his fundamental dignity. Millions of women have been subjected to FGM and this is not discussed in foreign policy. Scores of women are being used as masturbatory aids, going their whole lives without reciprocity.’ This is wrong and it needs to be said. Women have a right to pleasure too. They have the right to partners who value their pleasure. We should denaturalize this idea that women are not sexual, that a woman in pain sounds the same as a woman having pleasure. That the metaphors for sex with women often are so violent.

And the other thing that’s very sad is that women have been so subjugated mentally, that women won’t even touch themselves. They don’t feel comfortable to say, ‘This is where you should touch me, this is how my body works, this is what I like. You got me part of the way there, but I’m going to take care of myself now, I’m going to make sure that I have my orgasm.’ For the most part, men always have their orgasms when they have sex. For women, if he doesn’t do it for them, a lot of the times they will not touch themselves. And that’s really deep, that women have been taught that their body actually isn’t their own. I’m not talking about the times when people just go into it wanting to please their lover. There’s something really hot about that, it’s really generous. But when you go in mutually wanting pleasure and satisfaction your lover should try to give you that. And when consistently there is one half of the population that’s not getting it, that’s the problem. It’s sad that this has to be said. I don’t get joy out of saying it, but when I first started talking about the project, I thought, “I can’t do this project, this is going to completely destroy my credibility and possibility of a successful career as an artist. and I’m going to be forever marked as one of those dreaded ‘vagina artists’.” And certainly, that’s happened, and I did lose a lot of my early audience. But of course I gained so much more than I lost in finding all of these new people that I connected with.

Cliteracy has been an incredible journey. I’ve gained allies, friends, supporters, collectors, patrons and opportunities that I never imagined. And at the same time, it’s been full of challenges and I’ve also endured the most scary, violent threats—death threats and rape threats—for me and my artwork that I’ve ever experienced. The good definitely outweighs the bad, but it’s not easy to do this work.

Girls Will Be Bois, 2003-06 (Sophia Wallace)

Girls Will Be Bois, 2003-06 (Sophia Wallace)

RC: By presenting the clitoris in different forms using different materials in the Cliteracy series, flattening it sometimes, rendering it abstract, by making it unrecognizable, are you de-eroticizing it? Are you de-eroticizing these cultural formations of gender, sexuality, and the female body?

SW: It’s less about de-eroticizing and more about trying to create an icon.Trying to create a symbol that honors this organ that has had so much baggage projected onto it, and to liberate it into this state of neutral appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. I think that if the phallus can be the symbol of power, strength, individuality, and initiative, then the clitoris can be a symbol of our fundamental human right to have access to not just mere survival, but quality of life, beauty, music, joy, pleasure, art, aesthetics, bonding—all of the things beyond mere survival. I think it’s also a symbol for body sovereignty for everyone. I don’t think it’s just a literal representation of something only half of the population has and is therefore only relevant to those people. The phallus is functional at a symbolic level; so is the clitoris.

In my piece Give Me to the Wind using the structure of classic playing cards, I’m using the clitoris both as a symbol of body sovereignty and also decoratively in the iconography of the piece. One of the queens in this ongoing series is Reyhaneh Jabarri. Reyhaneh was raped by her boss. She was a student with no criminal record, and her boss violently assaulted her and attempted to murder her. In her fight for her life, she ended up stabbing him and he died. Reyhaneh was hung by the state of Iran and accused of calculating a murder. The title of the piece “Give Me to the Wind” comes from her the last letter she ever wrote which was to her mother before she was hung. This idea of who gets to defend themselves is a political question. Not everyone is allowed to defend themselves. Not everyone is allowed to hold sovereignty over their own bodies. I am creating this series of Queen cards to honor [women like Reyhaneh] and not let them be forgotten. The series will also include king cards, for black men murdered by the police. These innocent men were accused of being lethally dangerous as they themselves were gunned down, unarmed and alone.

Back to your question about the symbol. For me it’s beyond the sexual. We never hear about girls having desires, sexual dreams, or pleasing themselves. The message is clear, female desire is unnatural. It is taboo. The clitoris is not named in education, even at the doctors office. What does this do to a child who never hears the most sensitive part of their body named? And when it is named, it’s a joke. I encounter this all the time in my work. People are like, ‘Oh, a clitoris sculpture? I can’t find it!’ Or ‘CLITERACY? Ha ha. My wife doesn’t have a clit.’ This is taken as the hilarious first joke when you’re talking about the clitoris. It’s the first joke I hear from many guys and doesn’t bode well for the speaker. How would men feel if women made that joke every time their penis was brought up. Penis, what penis?? Where?? I’ve never seen it. HA HA HA. Eye roll. I’ve never made that joke because it’s mean and it’s a cheap shot. It’s interesting how embedded illiteracy is that people truly think I would laugh with them as they attempt to negate my body. I’m sure it is unintentional on their part but that doesn’t make it benign.

RC: That makes me think about the 100 Natural Laws, the use of text in it, discourse, the way we talk about the clitoris. Are you mocking or maybe even exposing the cultural ways of thinking about the clitoris in female sexuality?

SW: Yeah, I think the goal of the approach of the 100 Natural Laws is to create this foundational textual document that enshrines the right of this organ to exist without harm. It’s sort of like my universal declaration of the rights of the clitoris, or my Magna Carta of the clitoris. It also is multilingual. It speaks in different voices, so there’s language that is very much rights-oriented; there’s language that addresses visual culture; there’s language that addresses psychoanalysis and semiotics. And then there’s also remixing pop culture and hip-hop lyrics.

The goal is to speak from the subject position of the clitoris in a positive way that invites identification from the viewer no matter if one has a clitoris or not. I hoped it would land on different audiences. These are all different discourses that are important to me, and I am not interested in putting a hierarchy of art discourses above pop culture in any way. There’s also a lot of hyperbole intentionally for making a conceptual argument. It’s so extreme, the lack of any kind of visual representation of an accurate clitoris and any kind of discussion about the clitoris in a meaningful way, and the amount of ignorance to this day that continues. Whether it’s expressed as an insult, like calling people a pussy, as if you’re trying to humiliate them; or a sex diagram, which shows hundreds of sex positions and doesn’t once show someone reach down and rub the clitoris. This is so absurd it should be met with ridicule and yes mockery.

But, like I said before, I think that the clitoris is symbolic, I think anyone can claim it. I don’t think it has to be this literal thing in terms of if you’re born with a clit, that you are the only one entitled to talk about the clit. There are a lot of men that buy Cliteracy art and Cliteracy shirts and are proud, and I love that. I think that it’s really about valuing everyone’s body and respecting each other and seeing that the clitoris and the penis are actually quite similar. If a trans man takes hormones, his clitoris can get much larger and become a penis. The body changes in ways that show that it is so clear that we aren’t these opposite polarities—that there’s a lot of similarity [between and among us].

RC: Can you imagine any of your works turning people on? Have you encountered that? Has anyone ever told you that?

SW: My aim is to free the clitoris as an organ and a symbol from centuries of negation. More broadly I want to restore dignity to every citizen’s right to autonomous sexuality free of harm and shame. I’ve gotten enough e-mails and stories people told me about people enacting Cliteracy in positive ways in their intimate lives so I know this happens. I’m very happy for those people. For me sexuality is a private matter, but some the way the world has held dominion over female bodies through sexuality is a highly political public matter. That is why I made Cliteracy, to go to the nexus of the shame and tackle it at it’s source. It’s not because I want to address my own sexuality in a public form. That’s definitely not [the case]. Nor do I want to entertain any questions on how one should perform sex. There are lots of people who are sex therapists, or sex advice columnists like Dan Savage, for example. He’s been on the front lines doing excellent work for years and he gives this advice away for free, and that’s wonderful. That is not my role. I want to make art, and the fact that it incites and empowers people, that’s wonderful, that’s what good art is supposed to do.

headshot72Rebecca Cheong is a writer, poet, and artist based in NYC. She was born in Singapore, halfway around the world in the tide-beating Pacific. Her work has appeared in Complex Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The Brooklyn Quarterly. When not reading or writing, she can be found painting, crossing the Rubicon, or thinking about Herman Melville.

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