Noelle Knutson Paints Painful Visions
PG artist documents a horrible female rite-of-passage in her large-scale sculpture.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: On Guard: Noelle Knutson stands in front of her giant yoni sculpture.
Inside the tiny, cluttered Pacific Grove studio of artist Noelle Knutson, hanging on one wall all by itself, is an eight-foot-high sculpted relief of a female vulva.
It''s a yoni, Knutson explains, using the Sanskrit for vulva. The grey, beige, rust-red and copper-colored relief is about as in-your-face a piece of artwork as can be imagined, with its billowing labial lips of plaster and fabric, its clitoris of chemically-oxidized brass, its masses of twisted black wires standing in for pubic hair.
In the middle of this oversized paean to femininity is embedded a seemingly incongruous object: the skeletal jaw of a deer, its bones bleached pure white. The entire sculpture is hard to look at, even embarrassing, but the deer jaw, with its sharply pointed teeth thrusting out through the tangled metal wires and plaster lips of this gigantic genitalia, is positively frightening.
It''s meant to be, Knutson says. "It''s the myth of the ''toothed vagina,''" she explains, referring to the apocryphal story--retold in various versions as a not-funny joke--that women (especially feminists) hide sharp teeth deep in their vaginas, with which to trap and emasculate men. "Men are afraid of it," Knutson continues. "That''s why they feel they have to remove it. They have to remove everything."
This is the first of Knutson''s pieces directly inspired by female genital mutilation (FGM), a horrific practice affecting millions of girls and women in more than 28 countries of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Often referred to inaccurately as "female circumcision" in order to garner Western sympathy for it as a legitimate religious rite, FGM involves the forced surgical removal of a young girl''s clitoris and part or all of her labia in order to suppress her sexuality, keeping her virginal and, ultimately, marriageable.
The procedure is typically carried out on a girl from the age of seven days to early puberty, and is done by another woman--often a relative--who cuts away the offending parts of the girl''s genitalia with a piece of glass, a razor, a sharpened bone, scissors or a knife.
No anesthetic is used. No explanations are given to the girl, who is held down by other women as her private parts are scraped painfully and permanently away. Sometimes the remaining bits of the outer vulva are stitched together, to close her vagina until her marriage day, leaving only a small opening for urine or blood flow, making menstruation and urinating terribly painful. This "infibulation" is ended only when the woman''s new husband tears open her vagina during their first act of intercourse.
Knutson says she first heard about FGM more than ten years ago."I was in a state of shock for a week," she says. "Some women faint when they first hear about it."
Then she met Mimi Ramsey, an Ethiopian-born woman living in San Jose, who is one of the nation''s foremost anti-FGM activists. Ramsey told her that, despite a 1996 federal law outlawing female genital mutilation in the United States--a law Ramsey was instrumental in getting passed--the practice continues in certain immigrant communities. It is practiced underground in San Jose and Los Angeles, home to large Ethiopian immigrant populations. It even goes on in Santa Cruz, mostly among foreign students and nurses, some of whom take their infant daughters home to Africa or Asia for the procedure to circumvent U.S. law. More than 150,000 American girls are at risk, according to Ramsey''s nonprofit group, Forward USA.
One recent afternoon, Ramsey drove down to Knutson''s Pacific Grove studio to talk about her work. Ramsey is a beautiful woman of about 50, dressed impeccably in a silk skirt and high heels. She rattles off the statistics and descriptions of FGM in precise, Ethiopian-accented English. But when she turns to her own story, the tears roll down her face. "I was cut when I was 6," she says. "I remember every detail of that mutilation. I suffered quietly for years. My grandmother pressed my mother to have it done to me. The pain and shock is something I find difficult to think about, even now."
Ramsey immigrated to this country at the age of 17, but it was only ten years ago that she became an anti-FGM activist. She was on a trip back to her native Ethiopia, when she visited some villages in the northern part of the country where FGM is not practiced.
"In one village the girls were happy, dancing, intact. Then I went to the south, and the difference was night and day. The girls'' eyes were dead. They were traumatized. Something happened to them, and mommy and daddy had something to do with it."
Ramsey began speaking out against FGM, both in the United States and on frequent trips back to Africa. Her organization gets some state and county money for educational outreach, but today has just $100 in its bank account.
"It was a big secret," she says of her mutilation. "My mother said never to talk about it. But I will talk about it, everywhere in the world, wherever people will listen. I go to weddings, birthdays, whether I''m invited or not. People say, ''You''re the one that talks about our secret! You betrayed us!''"
Ramsey says there are 2,000 recorded cases of FGM in California. But the World Health Organization estimates that the procedure is inflicted on 40 percent of girls from the countries where it is most prevalent, so the numbers of women walking around with that secret pain could be much higher.
Ramsey has helped 20 young Santa Clara women reverse their infibulation through surgery. What''s cut out can''t be put back, but the vaginal opening can be cleared. The girls are afraid to tell their parents, so Ramsey takes them to the hospital and home again in secret.
Since Knutson met Ramsey, her already deep interest in exploring female oppression through her art took on a new edge.
"Mimi came to my studio and she liked the giant yoni the best," Knutson says. "She said, ''it has everything it''s supposed to have.''"
The giant yoni was preceded by a group of smaller yonis that Knutson created and destroyed in one feverish afternoon. She hopes one day to create an installation of 50 yonis: 25 mutilated and 25 whole.
This past spring, Knutson exhibited a ten-foot-high installation in a group show of women artists at the Pacific Grove Art Center. Her entry was an allegory of oppression, with a life-size woman''s body and copper-covered face half-emerging out of a tangle of plaster and fabric sheeting. Two turkey vulture wings spread out across the top of the piece, and what Knutson calls a "sacrificial yoni" emerged from the center.
Knutson doesn''t see this piece, or the rest of her artwork, as depressing. "This piece celebrated life, the spirit that can''t be mutilated," she insists. "It was dedicated to those who have suffered atrocity and transcended it through deep insight."
She''s now working on an installation of women''s feet, cast in plaster, fabric and resin and then burnt to represent 4,000 or more women burned at the stake in centuries past as witches and heretics. She''s cast 12 women''s feet so far, and asks each woman to write down an "insight," which she wraps in string and places inside the sculpture. The messages won''t be read, "but the concept is that when you walk by, the foot will ''give up'' its insight," she says.
Knutson is driven to create art that she hopes will make more women aware of the oppression inflicted upon their sisters around the world.
"No matter what atrocity one suffers, it comes back to compassion," she says. "FGM is the oppression of life itself. You cannot treat the earth and other human beings that way."
Noelle Knutson and Galeria de la Paz can be reached at 372-4544. For more information on Forward USA, contact Mimi Ramsey at 408-298-3798 or www.forwardusa.org.