It lets out a high-pitched scream as you enter, then a sneering laugh. It’s a walk-in vagina, a conceptual art installation that has South Africans wagging their fingers and scratching their heads.
When 30-year-old South African artist Reshma Chhiba was asked to produce artwork for a disused apartheid-era women’s jail in Johannesburg, she wanted to make a statement about women’s power.
What she came up with was a talking “yoni”, or vagina in India’s ancient language, Sanskrit.
Visitors enter the 12 metre (39 feet) red padded velvet and cotton canal by first stepping onto a tongue-like padding. Thick, black acrylic wool mimics pubic hair around the opening.
The shrill soundtrack that assaults visitors as they stroll through the tunnel is a revolt against the women’s jail, built in 1909, that held some of South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid activists. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was incarcerated there twice in 1958 and 1976.
For her, it was about artistic freedom and challenging deeply entrenched patriarchal systems.
The artist also wanted to address the scourge of rape in South Africa, where nearly 65,000 attacks on girls and women are reported a year in one of the highest incidences of rape in the world — with little improvement.
But the installation, on display throughout August, has collided with some sensitive cultural and religious taboos.
Twenty-four-year-old gardener Andile Wayi thought the exhibition — on the site of the Victorian-era brick women’s jail and another that once held Mahatma Gandhi — as well as the Constitutional Court — was wrong.
The fine arts graduate,who is also a practising Hindu, has spent years of research into the Hindu goddess Kali whom she views as a symbol of defiance.
She expressed “shock” at the media onslaught and allegations of blasphemy from some Hindu followers who complained through radio talk shows.
The exhibition, entitled “The Two Talking Yonis”, was the product of two years of discussion with curator Nontobeko Ntombela on the mythology of female power in patriarchal systems.
Visitors have to take off their shoes to walk through the softly cushioned canal.
Gender Links, a lobby group promoting gender equality in southern Africa, praises Chhiba’s artwork for re-igniting discussion on a subject normally avoided.