Art The story of the Yoni, the sacred vulva
Artartillustration

The story of the Yoni, the sacred vulva

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Giorgia Massari
Yoni vagina | Collater.al

Have you ever heard the word yoni? Probably the more spiritual among you have. Yoni is in fact the Sanskrit term (sacred and ancient language of India) that refers to the female genitals, but not only that, more generally it indicates a sacred place that was associated precisely with the vagina, the primordial cradle from which life originates. Today we will discuss the strong symbolism that has been enshrined in the female organ for millennia and its representation over the centuries. How did we go from a veneration of the vulva to its total censorship? How did we come today to pseudo-free the vulva from sexual references?

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
@the.vulva.gallery

Leaping far back in time, reaching the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, we realize how female representation, linked to fertility, appears much earlier than male representation. For ancient Indians, the Yoni, or sacred vulva, was an object of veneration. Wall carvings of the Yoni, carved on rocks and represented by a downward-pointing triangle, are among the most archaic human manifestations of the sacred. The oldest and best known is undoubtedly the Venus of Willendorf from 24,000 B.C. – in 2018 became the subject of scandal because Facebook, considering it a pornographic image, removed it from the platform – in which the sacred vulva is clearly visible.

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
Venere di Willendorf

For centuries, therefore, yoni was worshipped in different cultures, especially by Eastern ones, but with the rise of new patriarchal religions, these practices became minor, secret and acquired an esoteric component. Especially in the West, with the rise of Christianity, we see a complete censorship of yoni and, more generally, of the female body from a sexual perspective. We had to wait for the passage of long centuries of female oppression to come to a pseudo liberation of the symbolism of the yoni, or vulva, or vagina. Now no longer associated with something forbidden, to be kept hidden out of modesty, but associated instead with femininity and the power of life.

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
Édouard Manet, Olympia

A turning point occurred in the late 19th century with a series of scandals related to art and the depiction of the female anatomy. One need only think of Édouard Manet‘s very famous Olympia, which depicts a completely naked prostitute in a proud and brazen pose. Manet at that time had become the king of scandal, above all with his work Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Mind you, this does not mean that until then female nudes were nonexistent, on the contrary, but they were all related to the divine sphere (goddesses, nymphs, allegories, vices or virtues) or to the mythological sphere, which made it more tolerable. In Manet to be naked is an ordinary woman, even a prostitute. It has to be said that in Manet’s work our Yoni is not seen, the pre-Impresionist painter does not venture completely but maintains a certain modesty, in fact Olympia‘s hand does compre genitals.

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
Gustav Courbet, L’origine del mondo – Rosemarie Trockel, Replace me

Just three years later, the bar is raised: Gustave Courbet depicts a close-up of a vulva and titles it The Origin of the World (1866). The peculiarity of the work is undoubtedly its seductive power, which, however, deviates from a pornographic and mischievous sphere. A private, everyday moment is shown realistically to the general public. The work is on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and testifies to how even today such explicit nudity can cause a certain scandal. Almost 150 years later, German artist Rosemerie Trockel reworked Courbet’s work, producing the photomontage Replace me (2009) in which pubic hair is replaced by a tarantula. The figure of the animal, considered deadly, creates a parallel between the vulva and something dangerous, highlighting how still in the new millennium it is “scary” to talk openly about female genitalia.

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
Jamie McCartney, La grande muraglia

We can say that since Courbet, we will have to wait almost a hundred years to witness a stance that will lead to a liberation of the Yoni in the visual sphere and in mass culture. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of artists, mostly women, began to practice performances, installations, and more generally to create artworks of all kinds starring the vulva. The forbidden side was revealed. The vulva was freed from sexual references and became the vehicle for revolutionary messages from a feminist perspective.

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
Shigeko Kubota, Vagina Painting

Let’s start by listing some of them and dwelling on the most interesting and unique ones.
In 1965, artist Shigeko Kubota made Vagina Painting, using her own vagina to guide the paintbrush and thus draw red lines on a sheet of paper. More recently, in 2015, it was Swiss artist Milo Moiré, in a similar position, who created a series of performances involving the creation of canvases by dropping colored eggs, expelled directly from her vagina.

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
Judy Chicago, Red Flag, 1971

Art is increasingly at the service of women’s emancipation, or rather, our yoni becomes the instrument and subject of a series of artistic researches aimed at unhinging patriarchal and macho certainties. In this sense, it is no longer only the representation of the body or its use that is the protagonist, but different declinations take hold, especially related to taboos such as menstruation. With this in mind, it was Judy Chicago in 1971 who made the work Red Flag, a photo-lithograph depicting a woman in the act of removing a bloody tampon, later Carolee Schneeman also deals with the theme with the 1983 performance entitled Fresh Blood: a Drewam Morphology, as does Tamara Wyndham who in her Vulva Prints makes impressions of her bloody vulva.

Speaking of ultra-contemporary, there are many artists making illustrations and works of all kinds on the subject, nowadays in a freer way, being able to afford a lighter language, sometimes ironic, sometimes informative. In this sense, it is interesting to mention the first museum dedicated to the vagina, located inside London’s Camden Market. Opened in 2019, the Vagina Museum celebrates “any person with a vagina” with a transfeminist and inclusive gaze, inviting above all accurate information on the subject. For the occasion, illustrator Charlotte Willcox creates ten fun and informative illustrations with the intention of debunking false myths. In the same vein, Hilde Sam Atalanta creates the educational Instagram account @the.vulva.gallery.

There is still a long way to go but, perhaps, one day we will be able to completely free ourselves from malice, returning to the purity that our Hindu ancestors had in conceiving the power of the yoni. Meanwhile, we will continue to follow all those artists who celebrate the vulva, depicting her with beauty and unveiling her “mysteries.”

Yoni vagina | Collater.al
Charlotte Willcox, 2019
Yoni vagina | Collater.al
@the.vulva.gallery
Artartillustration
Written by Giorgia Massari
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