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The art of activism

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IT ALL started with 17,000 condoms.

In 2009, after Milwaukee artist Niki Johnson heard then-Pope Benedict XVI suggest that the use of contraceptives had contributed to the worldwide AIDS epidemic, she decided to weave a massive portrait of him comprised of—you got it—thousands of non-lubricated condoms in a rainbow of colors.

The resulting work, titled Eggs Benedict, garnered viral attention and far-reaching controversy, rocketing Johnson to the international stage. The ardent feminist has continued to use that platform to showcase large-scale works that bring attention to the themes of cultural power, sexual politics and reproductive freedom. Her latest, Hills & Valleys, is a shimmering testament to all three.

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker enacted legislation in 2013 that eventually shut down six Planned Parenthood centers across the state and left thousands of women (and men) without access to birth control and STD testing, Johnson began collecting signs from the decommissioned healthcare hubs.

She used hammers, shears and other industrial tools to rework the metal sheeting into tiny circles, arranging the various shades of green along with a passel of mirrors purchased at the famously anti-choice corporate craft chain Hobby Lobby.

"Hills & Valleys"
  • "Hills & Valleys"

The finished 8’x8’ mosaic depicts a woman’s hips, pubic region sparkling with “vajazzle” in the shape of the U.S. Capitol. The background is a traditional American quilt pattern, Johnson’s homage to the nation’s long fight for reproductive rights.

Hills & Valleys debuted just in time for Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary last October and has now embarked on a national tour—starting with Savannah.

Johnson will discuss the piece in depth on Thursday, March 9 as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood Southeast, which serves Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia with six centers, including the new expanded facility in Savannah’s medical district.

The event includes Johnson’s lecture as well as a sneak peek of the formidable Hills & Valleys, which is also the centerpiece of the Personal is Political group exhibition (see related story here) and available for viewing at Non-Fiction Gallery through March 20.

“I am thrilled that we are engaging our supporters in this important and inspiring work,” says PPSE President and CEO Staci Fox.

“The heart of Planned Parenthood is in local communities like Savannah, where our health center works to improve women’s health, prevent unintended pregnancies, and advance the rights of women to make their own informed and responsible choices.”

While federal defunding of Planned Parenthood appears imminent by the current Congress, defenders of the historic healthcare provider remain resolute.

“We’ve been dealing with this hostile political environment for decades in the south,” reminds Fox.

“We’re going to continue to fight for women’s access to healthcare, no matter what. We’ve been in training for a hundred years. We’re not backing down.”

Niki Johnson
  • Niki Johnson

Connect spoke with Johnson via Skype from her home in Milwaukee about the psychology of materials, shoplifting and how bedazzling one’s bits can be a feminist act.

How did this piece find its way into the Planned Parenthood centennial?

The timing of it was quite serendipitous. I started collecting signs back in 2013 when I heard they were out on the back docks, slated for recycling. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them, but they held an intrinsic value.

I work in just about every material, and I believe in the affective qualities of those materials, meaning that they carry their own inherent psychology and that we respond to them viscerally before we really think about what they are. A comparison would be Astroturf versus a piece of sod—you’re going to have different reactions. I knew if I were to create something out of this signage that there was going to be an inherent power to it.

Part of the reason I didn’t rush to complete it is that the material already had so much meaning imbued in it, and I wanted to be careful with the sort of imagery I created. I knew there was a high level of responsibility, and I also didn’t want to create an easy marketing piece for Planned Parenthood—I wanted constructive dialogue.

So I waited. The signs sat in my garage, and pretty soon more clinics closed. I kind of woke up in an election year, and I reached out to Planned Parenthood to say I was moving forward on the piece, and that I wasn’t asking for money. But I wasn’t asking for approval, either.

Representatives from Planned Parenthood started showing up in my studio, and I was very impressed with how OK they were with me being this fiercely independent artist. I felt very trusted. It kind of brought me back to the years when Planned Parenthood was my main healthcare provider—where I felt safe and cared for, no matter what.

They ended up flying me out to two national conventions, and the piece was unveiled in October. Gloria Steinem was the keynote speaker—it was incredible.

You’ve described vajazzling (the practice of decorating one’s vagina) as the “merkin’s insidious and less funny cousin.” How did you reclaim it as feminist act in the piece?

When I first heard about it, I was struck by a wave of feminist boredom. Like, how does this even work, you’re putting crystals where? I Googled it and was kind of struck with all the Hello Kittys and things people were decorating themselves with. After a couple of days though, I realized it was still in the back of my mind, and I’ve learned over the years that if sticks around that long, I’m not truly bored with it.

I thought, wait a minute, this is already is within the language of empowerment and individuality. If people are spending their hard-earned money on bedazzling their bits, as long as they’re having fun and taking care of themselves in a healthy and safe way, who am I to judge?

So I didn’t reclaim it, I just had to reexamine the biases I first ran up against when I learned of it. Also, when it comes to political work, employing a little bit of humor helps everyone get into it.

What about the irony of purchasing the vajazzle mirrors from Hobby Lobby?

A little subversion goes a long way. I knew that if Hills & Valleys was to incite civic action, the audience literally needed to see itself reflected in the U.S. Capitol. And while the piece needed to speak to the reclamation of human rights, the material language also had to tie back to the entities most committed to stripping us of those rights.

If you believe in the affective qualities of material, each material has its own power. It couldn’t just be like the mirrors at Hobby Lobby, they had to be from Hobby Lobby.

Wouldn’t it have been more subversive to shoplift them or something?

Nah. It’s like Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high.” Why would I lower myself? I put up my money to not support that business.

An investment in sedition, then?

Exactly. [laughs]

The quilt pattern seems to evoke a time when the only way women had to communicate with each other and share knowledge was over crafting tables—no Facebook groups then, right?

Right! It's a traditional American star pattern called "Sarah's Choice," and I wanted whatever pattern I chose to be from our nation's history, tying in the idea of American heritage and women's traditional craft. Reproductive rights are part of our American heritage, and I felt it was important to give a nod—more than a nod,

respect—to those who fought and died for these rights.

Also, I enjoy the interplay between the quilt and the vajazzle—it’s kind of like “then” and “now.”

"Hills & Valleys," in progress.
  • "Hills & Valleys," in progress.

What has been your route to political activism and art?

Well, if you’re a creative problem solver who likes to build things, whose parents raised you to be engaged in the betterment of society...My mom is a social worker, my dad was a family counselor, and the way that they approached the world was not for monetary gain. It was to build a better society. (Yes, my parents were hippies.)

Not all of my work is overtly political—it just happens to be that the work that carries the furthest. It’s more like certain messages or questions strike me, and 400 hours later [laughs]... I spend a lot of time, flipping the stone over and over.

The purpose of my work across the board is really to get people to have important conversations, and oftentimes the conversations that my work sparks are difficult. Sometimes those are the most important ones we can have.

Being defined as a controversial artist, I can live with that.

What else have you been “flipping the stone” on?

I have a piece of Michelle Obama called “A Vision in White,” talking about the white gaze on the black body, and I have a whole body of work about First Ladies and understanding them as kind of the canary in the coal mine in terms of feminism in the United States.

I’m also working on a series of vajazzle patterns of every U. S Capitol made from Swarovski crystals and nylons. I’m calling it Crystal Palace. The pattern for Georgia has well over three thousand crystals.

I’m involved in a lot of other things as well, curating others’ shows and also now organizing. I have a new group called Ink for Action that I started the day after the Women’s March on Washington, and we facilitate a platform to meet up and write together.

How have you experienced the cultural climate since the March?

It has been absolutely reaffirming to see how many of us there are, how prevalent are the views we have, how important are the rights we stand behind and will fight to defend. When we were marching in Washington, I was blown away by the absolute brilliance of everyone united. All of this is for something.

I see myself as a small contributor to a much larger movement. It’s a very exciting thing about the time we’re living in right now, that so many are standing up. It’s difficult, but the level of empowerment and political commitment is amazing.

Everyone has a cultural contribution to make, and there are so many different ways to go about it. Some of us make visual art. Some of us write. Some of us throw really good dinner parties. And then there’s the person who sits alone, working out a new theory. All of it is valuable.

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