Saturday, October 9, 2010

The 10.2 Cover Art: Challenging Gender in a Sexist Society

Artists generally seek to engage, inspire, and challenge others with their art or creative work.  Others may simply create something just to express outwardly what is deep inside themselves, a part that is invisible to the outer world but known only by them.  The artists whose work has been selected for Femspec in particular tend to voice their beliefs or thoughts of feminism, gender, and sexuality with the hope or expectation that we will be enlightened, or at the very least, entertained by their art.  Whatever their reasons are, it's safe to say that artists do their part in providing the world with a numerous range of unique perspectives, all of which to consider while we expand on our own consciousness or awareness.

Kartika Affandi Koberl is an artist who certainly expresses a unique perspective, especially as she challenges ideas of gender through her artwork.  An interesting sculpture of hers boldly adorns the cover of 10.2, our most recent issue.
As you can see from the photo, it is a fiberglass sculpture of colorful and odd-looking phalluses, all of which have different heads or faces.  My first reaction to this display was to laugh.  The artwork is a bit humorous in its boldness.  I thought to myself, what exactly is this artist trying to convey about the male gender? I thought one possible theory was that the phalluses, particularly the commanding one in the middle, represented the male ego in society and the man's fight to maintain his leading role in a changing world where women are rising both professionally and perhaps socially.  I also thought the art was a representation of male egos or personalities and how they each operate in a male-dominated society.  Then when I studied the art more carefully, I noticed some things about the faces that would suggest a possible play on words.  For instance, the middle phallus's head appears to have a glove on it (it is a shape of a fist but looks like a gloved fist), so I immediately thought of the term "glove," another word for "condom."  The orange phallus has the head of a rooster or chicken, so the term "cock" entered my mind, which is another term for a penis.  I also thought it could represent an arrogant or "cocky" man.  The pink one is a fish, which made me think of a blowfish... which of course caused me to think of the act of fellatio.  I wasn't sure if these connections were just coincidental or if the artist did in fact have these terms in mind (consciously or subconsciously) when creating this thought-provoking sculpture.  I wasn't very sure what the sleeping phalluses meant, and couldn't quite make out their "faces," but thought possibly they represented impotence or the impotent male.  If so, I pondered, were they symbols of men in society who have no influence or power in the world, or do they simply represent men whose egos do not stand at attention like the others do? As you can see, art like this can spur many different interpretations.

So, what was the artist really thinking when she created this potentially controversial piece of art? During an interview with Femspec, Kartika explained that the inspiration for the art first came from a visit to a sex shop in Amsterdam, where she noticed condoms with different heads.  A couple years later she made the sculpture, and from reading the interview in 10.2, each penis represents a type of man with the heads serving as symbols of their personalities, etc.  The middle phallus represents an arrogant man; the one with a chicken's head represents a philanderer, or as Kartika put it, "a man who is already married but likes to be with other women" (for a chicken always wants more food); the one with a fish head represents a "slippery" man and one who "thinks like a woman;" and the two that are asleep represent men who have worked hard (Kartika in Femspec 10.2, 65-66).

One could say that perhaps the artist is objectifying men by using their sexual parts as representations of the men themselves, as if their phalluses define who they are.  Yes, they are defined by their personalities, but why use phalluses to represent men? The truth of the matter is, what other way could she have shown us that the sculpture is about the male gender? We've all been taught that the first way to differentiate between genders is to identify the sexual parts of the person.  Women have often been objectified in the same way by the media, society, and men.  Do you think the artist was turning the tables and reversing sexism? Or was she mocking the male gender to make up for the objectification and disrespect some men have shown towards women? During the interview, the artist claimed regarding the sculpture: "I'm not trying to shame men.  I'm not against men.  I'm just having a lot of fun" (Kartika in Femspec 10.2, 66).  Some could argue that the fun is at the expense of the male gender.  Normally, I would say that if women should not be objectified, then men should not be as well.  To rally against the mocking and objectification of women but accept the same treatment of men would make us hypocrites, and would pose a double-standard way of thinking.  However, this is ART.  Art doesn't have to play by the rules.  Perhaps though, when reflecting on Kartika's art we should be a bit more open-minded when witnessing art created by male artists that portrays the female gender in the same light, lest we be caught in the double-standard.

Here are some comments from the artist herself regarding the art: "One says, standing in the middle with the metallic color, 'I am rich, good looking, and many girls are around me.'  And the other one with the cock-head says 'I am a simple man but it is easy to find someone beside my wife (chicken are used to being in the garbage).'  The other fish head is very slippery, so do we as wives have difficulty understanding what our husbands want? The smaller size, pale blue, says 'Will you please all shut up! I have done my job.'  It's all about men's behavior."~Kartika

No matter how one interprets this art or feels about it, it is safe to say that many would agree that this artist is gutsy to create a sculpture such as this, especially since she did so in Indonesia, a country that is largely populated by Muslims.  The Muslim culture is known to be strict about many things, some of those things being gender, sexuality, and expression.  However, as Kartika mentions in 10.2, areas like Indonesia are not quite as limited now as they were twenty years ago due to globalization.  Nevertheless, it is a culture that is still mainly male-dominated, still holds sexist ideas, and still tries to silence or oppress its women.  Thankfully, the artist discussed here was neither silenced, nor afraid to express herself as she saw fit.

Now it is your turn to speak up.  What are your impressions or interpretations of the art on the cover of 10.2? Did it shock you? Make your comments in the comment area and/or participate in the polls at the bottom of the home page.  Thank you for your time and participation!

~Kelly VanBuren


  1. My first thought when I saw the fisted one was that it reminded me of the solidarity salute. Which in this context would suggest the patriarchal 'power' of the penis. (alliteration not intended!).

    The other 'headed ones' certainly reminded me of the condoms you can get with weird shapes on the head, or some fantastically shaped sex toys.

    But I agree with your point about not objectifying men; if someone made a sculpture which was essentially a set of multi-coloured moulded vagina's, and they said each one represented a negative female 'type', they would get rightly massacred by the feminist media.

  2. Thank you Paul, for your comment! I should probably point out though (so some don't misunderstand) that not all of the male types in the artwork were considered negative. For instance, the two sleeping phalluses according to the artist, represented men "who have worked hard." The fish wasn't entirely negative either, because one thing about that type's personality is that he "thinks like a woman." However, he is also described by the artist as "slippery" which isn't very positive. Thanks again for your feedback! I found your first reaction to the art very insightful and interesting. :)