Her long hair just about reaches her thighs. Blonde all over except the roots, where her natural brown-black hair peeks through – in a way, mimicking the mixed blood that flows through her veins. After all, Mino was born to a German-Japanese mother and a Taiwanese-Indonesian father, a love story that started in Asia.
A simple sleeveless dress reveals intricate monochromatic tattoos sketched onto her bare skin. Dazzling accessories dangle from her ears and lay on her chest. But it’s the rings on her fingers that are puzzling. Beautiful, yet some might say, crude. Shiny grey rings – shaped into a vulva.
In his classic early 1970s book ‘Ways of Seeing’ John Berger concludes, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” The ‘male gaze’ is always in search of the ideal nude female model. Bits and pieces of her taken apart and put together, some parts magnified whilst others concealed – in an attempt to entice men. Bare-bodied and vulnerable. The female body is a beautiful thing, yet hardly ever far from being objectified.
Flash forward nearly half a century and it’s hard to say the narrative has had any drastic change. But there’s something different emerging on the horizon in Melbourne’s art scene, where a women’s body will no longer live hand in hand with fragility. A movement of female-body inspired jewellery.
Melbourne-based artist Mino Wu founded her vulva-inspired jewellery line in 2016, naming it ‘Fancy Fannies’. “At the time, whilst I was doing my main class, I was also doing a jewellery elective – that coincided together, and I started to make vulva-inspired jewellery,” Mino says.
She was inspired by and concerned for the exponential rise of cosmetic surgery among women, namely labiaplasty and breast surgery. A relatively new commercialised practice, labiaplasty includes any procedure to either reduce or the remove the size of the labia. Although not so different from female genital mutilation done in many traditions and cultures condemned by the United Nations, labiaplasty continues to grow in popularity, increasing over three times the number since 2008. The practice has taken the interest of women of all ages, with sources saying the youngest coming in for consultation at only 10 years old.
Experts tell us that many women come to the decision of the procedure because they are self-conscious and anxious that their vulvas might not look ‘normal’. Many don’t know what a ‘normal’ vulva looks like, only basing their knowledge on age-old (un)reliable, pornography. The idea of only one kind of vulva is far from the truth. Just like any part of the body, the female vulva comes in many shapes and sizes, neither one being any less ‘normal’ than the other.
Mino says that the procedure is “constantly culminating through the eyes of mechanic and medical ‘perfection’”. The same can be said for breast surgery, which unlike labiaplasty, has been popularised in the media for decades, offering women colourful choices of breast lifts, breast reductions, breast asymmetry correction and obviously, breast augmentation. Also known as ‘implants’, the procedure involves cutting a slit beneath the breast and inserting silicone to make them, well, bigger.
For far longer than any sex class, women have been pushed towards unrealistic beauty ideals, especially with media consumption of Photoshopped models. Similarly, breasts are unique to every woman and the urge for them to look perfectly similar is nothing more but a myth.
Jessica Maree is a graduate from RMIT who has special interest to “open up a dialogue” with the public on how female breasts are viewed. Now, she has found herself becoming the owner and designer of a local jewellery line called KITSU based out of her Brunswick East studio. “I first started making jewellery in my spare time while I was studying. I started a website for fun and it grew from there,” Jessica says.
Working with polymer and sterling silver, she initially experimented with inspiration from “abnormality” by experimenting with bold colours and forms. And in September last year, she released her Boob Earrings – offered in various colours, such as Beige, Caramel and Chocolate – to celebrate women of all diverse skin colours. With sub-movements within feminism like the #MeToo movement, Jessica feels that this was her “small way of taking up space [within the issue] and opening up a dialogue” with the community. Since then, she has also expanded the line to include bracelets and studded earrings, all exhibiting the shape of female breasts.
You may have heard of feminist art, which is in no way new. Harboring its roots in the sweep of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, it reached out with a mission to create art that dealt not only with women’s body, but to also showcase the feminine experience and pioneer art as a vessel to incite curiosity in viewers about the socio-political landscape we’ve all desensitised ourselves to. As such, using forms of the female body was a popular choice among them.
Just over a decade ago, Jamie McCartney’s project, The Great Wall of Vagina, piqued interest from all over the globe. Of course, it was hard to ignore a massive 30-foot plaster sculpture casting vulvas from 400 different women. And In 2012, Women’s Health Victoria were funded to launch their Labia Library, featuring both facts and real-life photographs, which helped women to uncover the common myths of the labia. The message that a women’s body is unique and perfect in its own way is certainly circulating and pushing itself into the spotlight more so now than ever.
However, there seems to be a point where feminist art can fall short. As morbid as this sounds, society has lived with a certain kind of ‘cultural amnesia’ when it comes to women’s issues, including ones related to violence and accomplishments. Which might be where feminist jewellery can frontier for a new facet of feminist art.
Mino pushes that Fancy Fannies is not just a jewellery, “but a symbol to encourage all to meet the disowned parts of our bodies, emotions and whatever else has been rejected.” “I’m trying to preserve and beautify something people have been conditioned to fear or avoid,” Mino says.
Growing up as a woman of colour never proved easy. She realised quickly women were at the bottom of a social hierarchy that consistently existed. “We use the label ‘feminine’ to mean you have to be submissive and provide. And masculinity is being strong and powerful. It’s very categorising, and society doesn’t really allow you to extend out of that box,” Mino says.
She handmakes everything in her jewellery line – ranging from rings, necklaces and bracelets – resulting in each one being slightly different from the other. This became a realisation for herself and her ongoing work. Mino says, “Being an artist, sometimes you’re your worst critic. And I’d be like, ‘These aren’t the same. This is really annoying me. I just want them to be perfect.’ And then I caught myself on it – I was like ‘Wait. Nothing’s ever f*cking perfect’.
“Why judge yourself and keep criticising yourself when at the end of the day, this is reality? And it just kind of fed in together and I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ The fact that I’ve come to realise this – everybody should realise that this is the relationship we have with our bodies and our minds.”
These small local companies are pioneering a new facet within feminism. And the mainstream market seems to be catching on. Just this year, Typo released a similar pair of boob earrings in accordance for International Women’s Day. Jessica expresses her concern with the idea of a company “capitalising on a movement that they would have no interest in if it wasn’t ‘trendy’.” Yet, the small victory of reaching a wider audience is definitely worth celebrating. “I think the exposure to the mainstream market is great and it helps open up a conversation with people that may otherwise not be exposed to it,” Jessica says.
The woman’s body has been shrouded in mystery for too long and with sexual violence against women making headlines in the news almost every day, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to say it has been encouraged to be so. Mino’s recent Instagram post sums it all up as a message to every woman: “Women’s sexual organs are … swept under the rug by society’s taboos and distastes. Demystify these fears that we have oppressed on such a beautiful part of ourselves.”