Muses break stereotypes

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• Women pose nude to reclaim, celebrate bodies

NUDE, strong and dignified stood 20 women, revealing all to redefine and celebrate the beauty of African women’s bodies.

The African Muses launch took place on 3 June, exhibiting 20 photographic portraits of women in various forms of undress to uncover their stories and break down stereotypes.

The project began in reaction to the storm of body-shaming comments following an incident where an unknown woman stripped naked in front of the statue of Nelson Mandela and embraced it in Sandton Square, Johannesburg in 2014.

Project coordinator Eric Gyimah said: “No-one knows who she was, but she was confident enough to do it. Comments ridiculed her body shape and hair.”

The African Muses project was inspired by the Black Venus Project by North Carolina portrait photographer Maxim Vakhovsky, which celebrated the beauty of black women.

The majority of the muses were former Walter Sisulu University (WSU) students who stood by the vision of the project and agreed to share their stories. Seven participants were rape survivors, while others chose to participate to work through personal insecurities about their bodies and others simply could not resist.

Gyimah said the women chose their own poses and contexts depending on their confidence.

Nwabisa Ngumbela, who was a muse and project coordinator said: “I believe in what this project stands for. I have been sexually abused since the age of five, but this project helped me to take ownership of my body and tell the perpetrators of abuse that I will not be humiliated.

“The project has given many women the chance to speak out about their abuse and help others get over their insecurities, embrace who they are and learn to love their bodies.”

Muse Sisonke Labase said: “I have worked a lot in the media and seen the way women are portrayed.

“This project is very different because it gives dignity to women of all shapes and sizes.”

WSU lecturer Mark Fredericks and his son, Jason, took all the photos and were complimented by the muses for their professionalism.

“Around the time of the incident with the unknown woman in Johannesburg, I was shocked by the terrible remarks of some of the former male students in my classes.

“Pinkie [Tuswa] and I discussed what a suitable response would be to challenging stereotypes, and perceptions of African feminine beauty, and that was the start of the project,” Fredericks said.

“The message of the exhibition is that women are beautiful, but in this country a war rages. The front-line targets are women and their bodies. In 2011, the country’s biggest news story was referee Bryce Lawrence and the loss of the rugby world cup quarterfinal, while 67000 women were raped that year. It is a psychological and a physical war and no woman is safe,” he said.

Another participant, Nikita Benskin, said: “It’s about finding the ability to love yourself and the skin that you’re in after facing the darkest of nightmares.”

While only a single photo of each woman was revealed on June 3, there will be more exhibits to follow.

Organisers are in the process of fundraising to put together a book showcasing several photos of each woman and sharing their stories.

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