Oh The Squirting Breasts of Controversy

Shortly after returning to campus from the Eid Adha holiday many of our VCU-Q students were shocked to find that a small unused corner of the first floor was being used by one of our visiting artists as a mural sized canvas. On part of her canvas, artist Vreni Michelini decided to paint a pair of rather large milk squirting breasts. This apparently struck a very sensitive nerve in our small community. At first there were only quiet whispers and muffled giggles in reaction to the piece.. but it wasn’t long before someone was stomping their feet, waving their finger, and quoting Qatari law in protest of the work. As a result of the uproar the artist felt that the piece was complete and decided to return the wall back to its rather boring previous state of existence.

Though many people rejoiced to see that they had made strong enough waves to silence Ms. Michelni, many others were quite upset to see the work disappear. In the Deans note to everyone at VCU she explained that Ms. Michelini’s work “centers on issues of cultural transition and women’s empowerment” which makes me assume this piece specifically addresses those topics. If so, I have to wonder, wouldn’t it have been wise of Ms. Michelini to have talked to local woman regarding their ideas on empowerment? Quite a few female students made the comment that they couldnt understand how being immodest equates to women’s empowerment at all, if anything they saw it as a degradation to their status.  Had she known this, I wonder if Ms. Michelini would have chosen to purposefully alienate the group she was trying to empower.

Personally, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the piece. You see I come from a very conservative background (emphasis on very). But I also went to art school in the states, and by the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in photography I had seen almost all my classmates naked (in photos). So, I guess I had mixed feeling about the work. On one hand, I found it pretty shocking to see enormous breasts painted on the wall of a school based in Qatar, because it was based in Qatar, but on the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few breasts in my art career and these were not the most vulgar that I had seen. Because I wasn’t sure where I stood on the topic I chose to keep quiet and just listen. But as I was listening it dawned on me.. if we are going to get out our thick black markers and start censoring our campus, where should we draw the line? And who gets to do the drawing? At first it seems pretty simple, right? No nudity, problem solved. Well, not really. VCU-Q is an arts program. By definition these programs tend to be liberal, the idea being that no restrictions would allow students to be as creative as possible. So in a program where by default people should be able to express themselves in any way they choose, the question again posses itself “who gets to decide what is expressed and what is not?”. Where do we draw the line? Should our students be segregated because the most conservative people in our society think that the mixing of genders is shameful? Should music no longer be played in drawing studios for the same reasons? What if someone decides to illustrate the story of “The Three Little Pigs”? What happens then?

I do not deny that the work of our artist in residence shows quite a bit of cultural insensitivity, but the fact that she felt she had to remove it makes me worry about giving the power to censor our freedom of expression to the most conservative part of our community.

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7 thoughts on “Oh The Squirting Breasts of Controversy

    • I’m not sure.. I never got a chance to speak to the artist. But I think it would be amazing if her breasts represented the nursing of censorship in the middle east..

      • why ask the artist to repeat herself when the imagery speaks for itself. bodies, specifically female parts here and in the physical world, are delineated into meaning. this piece highlights a binary of female oppression in that Woman is seen as the ultimate giver. responsible for the health of her family as well as the actions of her offspring, She sacrifices in terms of nutrition as well as education and therefore ultimately bears blame. the scale of the piece alone suggests the pervasiveness of misogyny… of the indoctrination of social roles. perhaps because it is so large it can be read further as a metaphor for the nature of State, as submission institutes normalcy. this suggests that Family, more specifically reproduction, is as important a political tool as female breasts are in defining the female role at its foundation.

        one of the things this piece demands is an investigation into the hierarchy that defines each of us, as women, as people, and as functions of State. our privileges and disparities are much more difficult and threatening to face than the parody of our selves that masks us, unites and divides us. therefore, one cannot ’empower’ another in this sense as Power is derived from the State. instead Media such as this mural presents questions – platforms to which we must rise in occasion. if words can have multiple meanings, images and physical bodies are therefore endless possibilities for substance.
        my breasts and body define me as genetically female. but can those four letters of dna define the wonders of their own combinations? perhaps not. I think the controversy rests more deeply in the question this piece asks of its viewers: are the sexual, intellectual, emotional dimensions of this Body powers of our own volition?

      • Though I fully appreciated your reading of her piece (and I found it quite enlightening) I still feel the need to answer your question of why ask the artist to repeat herself? The need to repeat herself comes from two reasons. The first is that our region is very young when it comes to the production of fine arts, our people aren’t as educated in the ways of creating or reading symbols as their peers in the rest of the world. Secondly, I think its sad, but many westerns assume that the symbols they use in their work are global, and that anything they say will be read as they intend it. Big squirting breasts read as pornography in this region and very little else. Its not our fault as people who come from a different culture to read these symbols in that way.. its how we were raised. If her intention was to speak to the people of VCUQ I think her work should have contained symbols they could read.. but if she was just using our university as empty space then I think my whole argument is pointless.

    • I dont disagree with your view that the work is interesting, and it was on its way to being strong.. but that doesn’t mean that the work was taking into consideration the culture that was its audience, or that it was being sensitive towards its taboos.

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