Vagina Envy

An Israeli artist seeks to change our culture's message that the female sex organ is dirty and disgusting.

She is young and innocent, traveling the world and discovering its secrets. Her name is Vagina Flower, a comic-book character created by Yaara Rozenblit. Late at night in Tel Aviv pubs, Rozenblit hands out small comic books starring Vagina Flower or puts on street exhibitions. During the day she's a teacher of Jewish thought at a secondary school.

Rozenblit, 26, grew up in Givatayim, where she studied art at the Thelma Yellin high school. She now lives in Tel Aviv. She studied literature and Jewish philosophy at Tel Aviv University in a BA program for gifted students, and now she's pursuing a degree in gender studies there.

Rozenblit - Daniel Bar-On - 20012012

The inspiration for her comic-book heroine was born in India.

"I had an un-fun year last year," says Rozenblit, "both because of the school where I was teaching and because of a stupid relationship with a guy." During the summer she went to India, and in Dharamsala, "I met a goldsmith, an Indian. I started spending time with him and making all kinds of jewelry. After a while I thought I needed to be doing something that's more me, that expresses me and what I feel. I decided to make a ring. Samantha in 'Sex and the City' has ring power. That's what guided me," she says, holding out a finger hosting a pretty silver ring shaped like female genitals surrounded by petals.

A panel from Rozenblit's comic book.

"Friends I made there would come to the goldsmith's workshop," she says. "They looked and started to laugh. He asked: 'What? What's this?' .... So I told him: Vagina Flower."

On a long train trip she began to imagine the heroine's story, and at a cafe in Rishikesh she began writing and illustrating it. In Rozenblit's first comics booklet, Vagina Flower tells how she was born to a single mother called Vagina Power, who was, incidentally, a student of Vagina Woolf. Vagina Flower wants to love and be loved, and her mother warns her about penises who see her only as a sex organ.

A panel from Rozenblit's comic book.

So how do the pub-goers react to these comics?

"The reactions range on a broad spectrum, from 'wow, that's cool' to people who express disgust. And it's an excellent trigger for a conversation about feminism," Rozenblit says.

The disgust, it turns out, is expressed by women.

"Men say, 'What's this? Why are you bringing us this? Why do we need to see this?' But a few days ago I gave it to two girls who were sitting near me in a pub and they said 'Yuck, how disgusting.'"

Another time, a guy in a pub who didn't know the artist was sitting next to him said about her comics: "This is the most far-out thing I've seen in my life." That, says Rozenblit with a smile, "is the biggest compliment. Nothing can top that."

And how does she explain what motivates her?

"I explain that penises are considered a reason for pride. Boys measure their penis when they're little, and men really boast about it. Women don't have that kind of pride. Our culture sends the message that the female sex organ is dirty and disgusting. And this perception has to be changed."

Subverting the accepted

Rozenblit's work joins a tradition of art that reached its peak in the United States in the 1970s. Feminist art of that era included a trend known as "cunt art." Artists like Suzanne Santoro, Karen Cook, Tee Corinne and Judy Chicago wanted to change the preconceptions about women's genitals and replace the self-loathing with familiarity, affection and pleasure.

According to Dr. Tal Dekel, an art and gender scholar, "Since then, this trend has had ups and downs connected to the counterreaction that began after the revolution of the 1970s. C--- art comes up from time to time as a relevant topic among feminist artists, and its visibility is always linked to changes in the contemporary political discourse."

In her new book, "Gendered: Art and Feminist Theory" (see box ), Dekel quotes Simone de Beauvoir in "The Second Sex": "The feminine sex organ is mysterious to the woman herself, hidden, tormented, mucous, and humid; it bleeds each month, it is sometimes soiled with bodily fluids, it has a secret and dangerous life. It is largely because woman does not recognize herself in it that she does not recognize her own desires" (translation from French by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier )

In the consciousness-raising groups that flourished in the United States in the 1970s, women familiarized themselves with their sex organ, for example, with the help of mirrors. They learned to like it.

As Roni Gross notes on her Hebrew-language blog "Sexual Relations," Rozenblit is one of Israel's few street and comics artists. "Rozenblit's art is an effective feminist performance, internalizing the previous generation's principles of feminism," Dekel says.

"Her work insists on eliminating the separation between the private and the public both through 'intervention' on the street and by undermining what is 'accepted' as art suitable for placing in the public space, and with respect to its subversion of a more general position that tries to keep guard over kinds of issues that deserve 'privacy'; women's conversations, or at least the conversation between a woman and her partner, male or female, in the context of their intimate relations. That is, it is the good old principle of 'the personal is the political.' And it's important and fascinating."

Art for every worker

Rozenblit makes it clear that she sees herself more as an activist than an artist. "I don't think my images are amazing as far as talent is concerned. The idea is a very important part."

She wants the drawings she displays on the street to "come into as many hands as possible." They should "should do something in the world from a social perspective."

Her target audience, she says, is "my contemporaries who aren't interested in either feminism or art. Young people who hang out in pubs, drink beer, attend university and in between go to a demonstration or two, because that's what's happening now. This isn't at all an audience for art. I don't know the art audience and the art elite."

The feminist motivation, she says, comes from the desire to make her voice heard. It comes, she says, from recognizing that "the fact I do things in maybe a different way doesn't mean I'm not okay. It means I have a way of my own, which I see as a female way."

This way includes street exhibitions, which she calls "art for every female worker." She frames her pictures herself, with stuff she finds in the street. In the night following the closing of an exhibition, she leaves her works in the street, and anyone who wants can take them. This isn't easy, she says, especially since she doesn't know who'll be doing the taking.

The teachers she works with know her work and are supportive, she says. They only worry that the comics book about the flowery vagina might fall out of her bag in the school corridor.