Female power is misunderstood, and remains an uncomfortable and unknown place for men and women. It’s this statement that has informed the work of Joburg architect and artist Alexia Cocolas for years. So when she was asked to write an opinion piece reflecting her own experiences for ArchSA – a journal-cum-magazine focused on design and construction in South Africa – she provided what she described as a personal and vulnerable essay. The piece (below) was well received by the ArchSA team and was set to be the final page of the September issue of the journal celebrating the recently passed Women’s Month. But just before publication, the piece was pulled, in an act that Cocolas has described as blatant censorship.
Acting editor of ArchSA, Paul Kotze, informed her of the removal of the piece, telling her the decision had come from the publishers – Picasso Headline in Cape Town – after a complaint from one of the women on the publishing team deemed it “offensive”. A source at ArchSA confirmed the alleged complaint, telling the Saturday Star a query had been sent to the publishers to find out what the problem was. “I’m still waiting for a response. I wanted to meet with them to determine the problem,” he said. Cocolas, also anticipating the response from Picasso Headline, said that upon hearing that it was a woman who had decided to pull her piece she was more upset than angry. “(The piece) does deal with the discomfort of being female, it’s not a comfortable thing to face. And I don’t necessarily think all women have been through that kind of work, getting in touch with those parts that the rest of the world rejects,” she said. Cocolas’s artwork has, she said, been focused on expressing what it feels like to be a woman, using her own body and those of other women, “using physical postures, expressions in the body to express suppression and power, not just the negative aspects of being female, but the full spectrum,” she said.
The ArchSA piece focused on her years of trying to become comfortable as a woman, whether through the awkward phase during puberty, to feeling as though she had to act like a man to appear as an empowered woman. “I was quite hurt (at the removal of the article) because it triggered a lot of that old pain around being ‘offensive’, which the work and the article deal with. It thrust me into a bit of a downward spiral emotionally, feeling shut up, being told to only speak to what is appropriate.” Cocolas decided to post the work on her Facebook page, asking for feedback. The post attracted the attention of artist-run project gallery, the Dead Bunny Society, which has exhibited Cocolas’s work in the past. One of the curators at the society, Neil Nieuwoudt, said after reading the piece he was surprised to hear that it was allegedly rejected for being offensive. “We think it’s a great article. I think there are valid points and experiences in there that could be beneficial for young women and men. It’s about what men don’t perceive about a woman’s experience. So we feel it should be read,” he said. Because of this, Nieuwoudt has commissioned a “doorsized” vinyl print of the piece, to feature at Dead Bunny Society’s exhibition at the Aardklop arts festival in October.
The group is also planning to print flyer-sized versions to hand out. A higher-up at Picasso Headline, who agreed to be interviewed but later insisted on anonymity, denied the article had been called offensive. “We did pull the article, not because it was controversial, but because it didn’t fit the theme of the issue: Power in Architecture,” the manager said. “It’s offensive in the sense that it’s talking past the theme of power in architecture. It didn’t sit well with us in the planning of the book.” The manager also said another publication could potentially use her piece. “We’re still trying to find another vehicle,” she said. Meanwhile, Kotze refused to comment on the issue, except to say: “I, or the publication if I can speak on its behalf, have no interest in discussing this matter with anybody until it is resolved.” Cocolas, however, was unconvinced by Picasso Headline’s response: “The message that I was given from the publishers was that ‘the article was offensive’. “I do not understand their counter-feedback in terms of it ‘being offensive for speaking past the issue of power in architecture’. “I think that the article deals very clearly with power, specifically with female power in art, architecture and in the world.
“The initial response by the publishers to the article is simply an example of the ignorance that I speak of in the article, and which we face consistently in the world; that female power is misunderstood and remains an uncomfortable and unknown place in both men and women. “Most men and women are still not ready to explore what this actually means and so it remains shut down, suppressed and voiceless.” But the experience hasn’t been entirely negative. “It’s helped me recognise that the work I’m going to be doing is not going to be easy. And it’s great that there are organisations like the Dead Bunny Society that help facilitate that process.”
DO YOU THINK THIS IS OFFENSIVE?
Initial piece by Alexia Cocolas
Listen to the girl I am an artist and an architect, my art works deal relentlessly with what it feels like to be a woman in a society that has worked hard to keep women subdued. I found it surprisingly challenging to share these feelings in words. It’s a little easier to hide behind drawings. This body has never quite fit right, it’s always been at least one size too big, sometimes two. Its curves awkwardly inappropriate, it’s excretions embarrassing. I didn’t have a problem with it when I received it, I only became aware of its ugliness as the people around me started to point out its universal flaws.
At an early age, like most other girls, I was warned religiously of its danger, and of its disgrace. I was shown perfect examples of the ways in which it should be seen and the ways in which it shouldn’t be used. I felt a profound shame at being “wrong” and stupid for not having noticed such an unsuitable situation on my own. Intuitively I chased ways of accessing my own sense of power. Creative expression in the form of erotic drawings became a tool I used well as a child. I recall lonely, sunny afternoons, after school or during the school holidays, my concentration committed for hours to this guilty yet meditative process. I understand now that I used these illustrations to explore my power through my sexuality in order to reconcile within me the growing discomfort I felt with being a girl. As I grew the shame grew too, into a fundamental disease with self. Leaking quietly inside, it spread like a virus, casually corrupting every cell. The ever-form of my body began to reveal this unconscious distortion of identity.
A devitalising depression manifested, stemming from the sadness of the forbidden sensations that left me feeling trapped in a female body. My back bowed in a self-protective need to implode. As my mind grew heavy my head stooped low, loaded with thoughts in directed disagreement with all that I was and all that I yearned to be. My stomach swelled, retaining a lifetime of feeling that I was taught to swallow and not digest. I starved myself in the hope that I would feel light, beautiful, empty. In my late twenties and early thirties I fuelled on in an external search for power. With rigorous selfenquiry and an obsessive and destructive desire to be more, I unconsciously succumbed to the programming that enforced that an empowered woman was a woman who acted like a man. I worked and played hard in a man-like way in a man’s world, driving my life recklessly like a fast, sexy car, forcing my already broken and unsure self into extensive periods of mental and emotional stress. Eventually I motored myself into physical disease, I was losing hearing in my left ear and was forced to break or face deafness. Deaf; adjective, “being unwilling to hear or pay attention to something”.
After months of mental and physical processing, listening and feeling, I recognised my potential deafness as a symptom of my own inability to listen to the aspects of my femininity that were crying out to be seen and embodied. The parts of me that know how to be still, and are able to embrace the heaviness and the lightness at the same time. This collision with myself, driven by the trained duality between female and male identities within, encouraged me to begin to face and to enquire into what it actually means to yield the strength that being a woman requires and offers as a human, as an artist and as an architect. We are essentially creators, portals through which life is born into this world. We have rhythms unique to us, prescribed perfectly by our female constructs. I think our task as women on the path to discovering an authentic place of power is to feel into, allow, accept and operate from these abandoned, and shamed, places within. The places that are deep and quiet, that have the capacity to hold and articulate with intense sensitivity and emotional intellect, the places that have been shunned by society for centuries. I look forward to a changing world in which these aspects are embraced, honoured and lived out by both men and women.
The Saturday Star