Sophia Wallace’s crusade against the marginalization of female sexual pleasure has unequivocally gained momentum since CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws—her mixed media project targeted at dispelling archaic beliefs about female sexual anatomy and educating people about its misrepresentation in visual culture over centuries.
The conceptual artist’s latest show, OVER AND OVER AND OVER, amplifies her inquiry through intensely hued neons that shatter antiquated gender paradigms, illuminating the clitoris’ role in female sexuality and identity in a powerful message that rebels against the taboo, stereotypes and ignorance that have kept its truth hidden.
OVER AND OVER AND OVER is currently on display in Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the Catinca Tabacaru Gallery, and her artworks are in conversation with artists like Glenn Ligon, Bruce Nauman and Joseph Kosuth. Wallace will be giving an artist talk on the 25th, following a closing party at 2:00 P.M.
It’s abundantly clear that you’re spearheading a revolution through a multitude of media. What made you interested in raising clit awareness?
I’ve known too many people who have suffered because of how their bodies have been defined as taboo—women from the generation of my grandmothers to little girls. We’ve been taught to be ashamed of our genitals and our desire. To add insult to injury, we have been wholly misinformed on the facts of our sexual anatomy. The effectiveness of these harmful messages are so complete that by the time we are adults in sexual relationships, we often are afraid to ask for reciprocal pleasure, or [we] blame ourselves when our bodies are harmed through sexual violence. I knew that the injustice of this must be challenged. I didn’t see anyone taking on this particular subject through the symbol of the clitoris and so began this epic project. On a symbolic level, I argue that the clit represents the natural right to pleasure and self-determination for every human being whose sexuality has been demonized, and whose bodies have been assailed as a result—not only women, but all queers, the non-binary, trans women and men, sex workers and survivors of sexual violence. The harm done to us has been justified by our genitals and the supposed wrongness of the way we love and desire.
How has your approach to your current show, OVER AND OVER AND OVER, evolved since your previous works like CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws?
It has changed quite a bit. Since 2012, I’ve been pioneering the representation of the clitoris in art, in text, sculpture, installation, street art and performance. I’ve also made wearable works to enact the subjecthood of the clit in public space outside of the art world. In these new works I wanted to go even further. A line from Pablo Neruda was stuck in my head which roughly translates to, ‘They can cut all the flowers but they can’t stop the spring.’ I was thinking about the beauty of our love and our ongoing quest for freedom in our bodies. I wanted to aestheticize the idea of our liberation, suggesting it is as vast, rich and unknowable as the universe. I wanted to say, ‘until we achieve true freedom, we will continue, Over and Over and Over.’
I love that you see the power in repetition; it’s sort of a Warholian approach. Would you say you’ve drawn some inspiration from Warhol in your work?
That is an interesting connection. Like Warhol, I see the value in repeating an idea to jolt us out of our usual complacency, allowing us to suddenly perceive with an open mind. Repetition is a powerful gesture, whether with something as simple as a can of tomato soup, or as repressed as the clitoris, which is so absent in visual culture that even seeing four tiny letters spelling out ‘clit,’ elicits very strong reactions. My work, ‘lit clit,’ for example, is only five inches tall, yet even in bustling New York City where people are unflappable, the clit stops traffic. Even more than Warhol, I have been impacted by artists like Keith Haring’s work, ‘Silence = Death,’ 1989. Haring’s paintings relied on repetition to convey the depth and scale of queer suffering. I also thought of John Baldessari, ‘I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art.’
You’ve mentioned that how we teach sex education largely contributes to the miseducation of the clitoris. Do you see any change in the curriculum in the not-too-distant future, especially with the recent discoveries regarding the clit’s functions within the past 15 years?
As an artist, I’m not equipped to tackle the magnitude of the false construction of the female body in western medicine still pervasive today, or how religions fetishize female virginity, or the awful state of how we educate young people about their bodies and sexuality. There is so much work to do. I am just one person—an artist in Brooklyn trying to make rent each month, and chip away at my student loans. I do know that my work has reached people in ways that they have said were life-changing. This is because art has force in the world. Women are told so many lies about their bodies and when they finally receive, in a context of complete dignity, some basic facts, it is a profoundly liberating experience. While the work does point to inadequacies in sex ed, it speaks to a much larger issue, which is that it has been accepted that female and feminized genitals are pathologized globally. It has been accepted that female genitals are a site of violence and pain for scores of women and girls. It has been perceived as unnatural for them to receive, let alone be entitled, to pleasure. To speak of these things is a taboo, it’s regularly censored and this is why it is so necessary and so difficult to make change.
I often hear my girlfriends express their disappointment for lackluster sexual experiences. Do you think all sexes across the gender spectrum should be “cliterate” in order for both to attain full sexual pleasure for those with a clit?
Of course. It’s unthinkable that if you are having sex with someone who has a penis and want to please them, to completely ignore their penis. I don’t know anyone who would look at a penis and say, it is irrelevant to the sexual satisfaction of its person. This idea is laughable. And yet, when it comes to the clitoris, equally as necessary for orgasms, it is routinely ignored, often mocked, addressed in the most superficial, lazy, half-hearted way. Clits are not eroticized, unlike breasts, buttocks or penetrating a woman. Is that not telling? We need to denaturalize the idea that women are less sexual than men and emphasize that sex is about pleasure, and if one side is taking their pleasure and giving very little if any, this is just as rude; it’s like going out to dinner, eating your food, eating your date’s food too and then having them split the bill.
It’s no secret that the art world uses the female body as a focal point. Do you think the depiction of female bodies in certain media contribute to the misconceptions of female sexual satisfaction?
Yes. Visual culture perpetuates sexual incompetence towards female sexuality on an overwhelming scale. Female sexuality is still depicted not as desire for sex per say, but as the desire to be wanted, a means to a different end, but never to have one’s own pleasure for the sake of itself. Women are just as sexual as men and, scientifically, capable of having many more orgasms in repeated succession. I think a lot of women get so accustomed to forgettable sexual experiences and the constant shame for being sexual, that they decide they don’t even like sex. But who likes bad sex? Who likes being used as a [masturbatory] aid? On top of this, as a society we place all the blame for sex on women, like an unwanted pregnancy or [contracting] a UTI—or any other infection from a lover.
From what I’m retaining, female genitalia is more of a vehicle for domination. Its primary function is reproduction, while its capacity for pleasure is vilified. Do you think, within our current media climate especially, that we’re starting to reject these old ideas?
We are beginning to, thanks to multiple generations of feminists, the queer rights movement and more men becoming vocal feminists at last. This is wonderful news. But we have a long way to go. In the last 40 years we’ve lost almost all the rights gained in Roe. vs. Wade. Female genital mutilation is practiced on the scale of millions, which is met by our political leaders with a collective shrug, while we all know the name of John Bobbit– one man who had his penis cut off. We’re still trying to get past the idea that menstruation is shameful. Think of all that blue liquid being poured over ‘sanitary’ napkins. We don’t call a band-aid ‘finger hygiene,’ but suddenly blood is not hygienic if it is connected with a pussy. And sadly, most women in the world go through life without positive sexual experiences or orgasms. We are battling rape culture now more than ever maybe. This is positive change. I’m heartened that Buzzfeed published the full letter by the women raped by Brock Turner, and that CNN broadcast correspondent Ashleigh Banfield read the letter on live television. This has never happened in my lifetime. It is changing the sympathies of many people who never heard stories like this before, never heard from the victim. It is an optimistic time.
How are the reactions you’ve elicited from OVER AND OVER AND OVER different than the ones you’ve received from CLITERACY?
This work is more demanding on the viewer, which is where my work is moving now. It encourages lengthy and interesting conceptual art conversations invoking artists like Bruce Nauman, Glenn Ligon, Dan Flavin, Tracey Emin, James Turrell, and then on the other side, lots of giggling and clit jokes. This is an entirely new body of work which had never been seen until the show. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of the medium of neon, these works feel alive in a new way. One important difference from earlier works is that these neons are more colorful than previous works where I’ve often tended towards a restrained palette of white and gold. As I mentioned earlier, I was thinking about Pablo Neruda’s flowers that bloom no matter how often they are cut down. Conceptually, it was important for me to create a contrast between the small-scale neons, literally bent again and again as they state their presence, and yet so vibrant they fill the whole room with color. Each work emits its own light, which changes as it overlaps with the color spectrum around it. The experience is physical and perhaps even emotional.