Students are putting us in the picture

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In one of the photographs set to be displayed at the upcoming My Body My Choice exhibition, a young woman stands staring at the camera defiantly, her stance that of a prize fighter. Beneath her raised boxing gloves, four check boxes are written out on her stomach. They read: "Wearing a short skirt?", "Had a few drinks?" "Walking alone?" and "Still not asking for it". Only the last box is crossed.

This photograph is just one of the many that make up the My Body My Choice exhibition, which has its roots in Grahamstown but is travelling to Cape Town for the first time from Tuesday to Friday.

According to organiser Larissa Klazinga, the exhibition is a result of a series of annual protests and events, held since 2006, in which students and staff of Rhodes University demonstrate, against genderbased violence: The most well-known is arguably the Silent Protest.

"The catalyst for the Silent Protest was the very public rape trial of Jacob Zuma and the vilification of the complainant that accompanied it," explains Klazinga. "Its purpose was to draw attention to rape and to demand better services for survivors."

It was out of that protest that the idea to put together a collection of photographs highlighting the issues raised in it came about.

"It became clear that we could not address violence against women without also addressing one of its major causes - objectification," Klazinga says. "We were also looking for an event that celebrated the participants of the protest, both the survivors and the silent protesters and, in the run-up to National Women's Day, the My Body My Choice exhibition was born."

Since 2009, the photography exhibition has become a space for people in Grahamstown to speak about gender-based violence.

"For the past four years, Rhodes women have put their bodies on the line to publicly proclaim that their bodies are their own and that they always have the right to choose - no matter what they look like or what they wear," Klazinga says.

"Patriarchy is pervasive to the point where, rather than identifying it as an oppressive ideology, it is simply deemed 'the natural order'. This form of 'othering' results in a complete inability to view objectification as wrong, let alone a form of oppression. The exhibition challenges that ideology, creating a space for women to experience their bodies as whole, beautiful and, above all, their own."

The success of the show caused the organisers to consider taking it across the country.

"It became clear after the first exhibition that the process of creating the images was extremely liberating for participants as well as photographers and that reaffirmed our decision to continue the project. We were also struck by the quality of the images and the sheer beauty of the photographs," says Klazinga. "Those two elements sparked the idea that the project deserved a life outside the confines of our small rural town. After years of trying and with the help of Nikita Campbell of the City of Cape Town Arts & Culture Department the exhibition will finally be realising that ambition by travelling to the Mother City as part of Cape Town's activities around the 16 Days of activism."

The Cape Town leg of My Body My Choice, at the City Hall, boasts lectures, performances and workshops. These include Bianca Camminga's talk Bodies in Transition and readings from the recently published book My First Time by editor Jen Thorpe and writer Athambile Masola.

 "The majority of presenters, speakers and facilitators and even the photographers are Rhodes alumni, highlighting the leading role Rhodes graduates are taking in the fields of gender studies and women's rights," says Kiazinga.

With such a full schedule, deciding what to attend seems daunting. "We have music, and I have no doubt that Lucy Kruger and Danielle Bowler will blow people away; dance including physical theatre and belly dancing and then workshops and discussions covering everything from women and religion to termination of pregnancy. We have tried to make the programme as diverse as possible and I think we have succeeded."

My Body My Choice will show at the City Hall from Tuesday to Friday Entry free. Call 021 417 4095.

Written by: Genna Gardini

  • This article was published on Cape Times.