If you visited the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg in late November last year, you would have seen 3 600 pairs of used panties hanging on a 1.2km-long washing line above the streets.

SA’s Dirty Laundry made a statement that was difficult to miss. Artists Jenny Nijenhuis and Nondumiso Msimanga set out to represent the 3 600 rapes that are estimated to take place in South Africa every day. Women who wished to share their stories of rape started donating their panties to the project in June. The underwear was hung in a public space to get people to connect to and talk about the stories of violation and the bigger problems they represent.

SA’s Dirty Laundry was accompanied by a performance piece titled On The Line, in which Nondumiso wears a wedding dress made of used underwear, as well as an exhibition at the SoMa Art + Space called The Things We Do For Love.

Marie Claire spoke to Nondumiso to learn more about the panty project and the ways in which art can engage with socio-political problems like rape.

Nondumiso Msimanga (Image courtesy of the artists)

THE ARTWORK

Marie Claire: You have mentioned that SA’s Dirty Laundry is about the moment when someone removes a pair of panties without the consent to do so. Is this project about visualising that moment?

Nondumiso Msimanga: Underwear is so intimate that the idea of having someone take it from you without your consent is harrowing. They [the perpetrator] strip you of all your protection as a human and steal something of your intimate self.

Underwear had to be used because it reveals the stains and wear-and-tear of a life lived inside it: it has an identity, and a crucial part of this project is engaging with the identities that are stolen or lost when rape occurs.

The panties act as a symbol that connects all women and children who have been affected by this crime. It also connects those moments to the repetition of the crime on other people, as well as illustrates how the crime repeats itself during the affected peoples’ lifespans through flashbacks and other symptoms.

Collecting the underwear became a form of activism for many people and despite the potential for it to be really awkward, it was important for them to make a stand and have their story heard. For some, it was the first time they were able to tell the story of their rape.

 MC: What is the future of the installation? Will the panties reappear elsewhere in new locations or forms?

 NM: The panties have spoken. But there is more to the story. A surplus of panties were received, which speaks to an overflowing need for people to engage with the issue in very real ways. There is still more work to be done. And so we shall continue the work, in different ways, in different spaces.

ARTISTS AND AUDIENCES

MC: You’ve said that SA’s Dirty Laundry is ‘about sharing artistic or creative talent without ownership or commodity’. Are the donors also artists, because they donated with specific intentions, rather than being included as subjects?

NM: It’s incredible to think of every person who got involved in the project as an artist in some way. Professional artists donated their talent and time, South African citizens and people from across the globe did so too. All these people are artists in a way that connects with art’s intention of connecting humanity to its own soul.

MC: People who have encountered SA’s Dirty Laundry online may not be aware of the workshops and performance spaces. What has the role of the audience been in animating SA’s Dirty Laundry and The Things We Do For Love

SA’s Dirty Laundry

NM: It was quite emotional to interact with people during the ten days of events. People would talk on street corners and I often walked the length of the installation’s 1.2km to see who was looking and talking. I had a number of eye-opening conversations with various people coming from different perspectives.

SoMa Art + Space held another opportunity to talk with people who were moved either by The Things We Do For Love exhibition as a whole or by individual pieces and performances.

There was also a powerful body-mapping workshop with women from People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA). The women completed portraits of themselves because they wanted to own their identities and exhibit themselves as people who are strong despite everything they have been through. They became exhibited artists and shared their stories of the reality of their experiences through drawing their faces and bodies. There were powerful moments of tearful connectedness and a great deal of love.

MC: SA’s Dirty Laundry and The Things We Do For Love are collaborative artworks. Is this a way of navigating the power dynamics of making artwork about violence and people who have survived violence? How did this affect your conceptualisation and curation processes?

NM: It was important that the art exhibited and performed was made from the heart of activism. The process of pulling together SA’s Dirty Laundry was organic. It started with conversations about who we are and where we are at this moment as people. People heard about what we were doing and began to offer their help. We did not want to have the work corporatised or branded; rather, the significance of the acts was about the call for activism.

This was how we navigated every process, from collecting to curating. It was about making connections and getting collective conscientisation by engaging with people whose aim was to be part of creating change.

ARTIVISM

SA’s Dirty Laundry has received criticism from AfricaCheck on the 3 600 rapes per day statistic, pointing out that the number confuses rape and sexual assault and is not accurate.

MC: You’ve said that the project is more about the lack of connection in society and the way people interact with each other than about the rape problem on its own. SA’s Dirty Laundry aims to make a statement and provoke dialogue; The Things We Do For Love seems to be more about healing. Is that what you were hoping to achieve, and what are your reflections?

NM: The criticism from Africa Check was valid and we appreciated it. We had not done enough to ensure that people understood that the number was an estimation. Part of the problem with rape awareness in this country is that there is no accurate number to tell us exactly how many people are affected.

The massive number of underwear hanging above our heads as we went about our daily activities in the streets was precisely to make people consider the very many real lives that the country cannot account for.

The intention of the project was towards healing – with the understanding that this process is not linear or ever complete, but continuous.

SA’s Dirty Laundry reminded me of how I felt watching my mother get ready at the crack of dawn to go and vote for the first time; it was empowering. Reflecting on it now and looking ahead at what still needs to be done, I feel that I can be instrumental in some way – not only to get up and vote for freedom but to fight for it every day. There are great wounds to be healed in South Africa.

Jenny Nijenhuis and Nondumiso Msimanga (Image courtesy of the artists)

RESPONSE

SA’s Dirty Laundry has received significant international coverage online: the project has been featured on The Guardian, Upworthy, and on German, Italian, Spanish, Turkish and Chinese websites, among others.

MC: How do you feel about the response? Has it touched as much of a nerve locally?

NM: It is inspiring to see that South Africa’s issues can matter so widely across the world. It reminds us that this is a world-wide problem and one that people are interested in unpacking.

It has touched many a nerve locally. Some nerves have been touched in good ways – ways that embolden survivors and supporters to say something when they see something wrong in their streets.

It has also touched the nerves of those who would not have considered themselves rapists. This is important because no change will happen if it only affects those who have survived it. Many men are now questioning whether they may be guilty and that means that people can start to consider what rape means in their lives in a tangible way and not shirk off the fact that they are not one of the reported statistics.