It’s timely that an art exhibition looking openly and acceptingly at the often abstruse and amusing concept of the pubic hair wig opens in Sydney this month. He Made She Made Gallery tackles the hairy subject of the merkin in their exhibition Pubic Art.
Co-contributor and co-curator Laura Lay says Mardi Gras festival program manger Liza Bahamondes approached the gallery to produce the exhibition after seeing their previous event Masked Intentions. It featured new masks for the 21st Century.
“What started out as a show with a strong focus on Mardi Gras has actually gone beyond gay and lesbian culture,” says Ms Lay.
“Regardless of our sexual orientation or our gender we’ve all got bits and we’re either super protective of them or happy for them to be exposed.”
The Pubic Art exhibition features both female and male merkins by Lay and co-curator Lulu Ruttley, with a number of other artists and collaborators.
Lay says using the pubic wigs allows for the exploration of the concept of public versus the private and also the changing concepts of beauty.
“It’s only in recent history where we’ve done away with hair ‘down there’. Now it’s Brazilian strips or the emphasis on not having any hair there, even to the point of cosmetic labiaplasty and vaginoplasty.
“We were struck by the fact that merkins were originally made to emulate a real life pubis and what was normal and beautiful then has completely changed, especially when you consider the display of female genitalia in pornography. Our private parts are now very public.”
The merkins, the artists and the stories behind Pubic Art are very broad and varied. Fellow artists and collaborators include QWUX, Angelique Hering, CONSUME, Wayan Kock, Indra Geed Saputra, Ray Ray, Timothy Jackson and Alexander Lay.
Some merkins in the exhibition are tongue-in-cheek and hyper stylised. Georgia Hill’s black printed typography merkin spells out ‘My Daddy Will Kill You’ in ‘80s lightning bolt font and designer Thi Nguyen’s more vicious gold pin merkin called Nest looks at creating a feeling of safety and security in the pubic area.
A merkin artwork Vagged by North Left collective is less playful. It attempts to capture a sense of restriction and entrapment as it explores the complex condition of vaginismus, where women find attempts at sexual intercourse impossible or painful.
It’s serendipitous that a pubic art exhibition can turn something seemingly irreverent into something quite serious, but does that mean merkins will become the next fashion trend or nightmare?
Does it mean there is a growing grooming backlash against the vaginal-beautification trends of Brazilian waxing or the landing strip effect? As women get older perhaps being bare ‘down there’ from permanent laser hair-removal becomes boring.
Debbie Black, the editor of the Australian social beauty network beautyheaven.com.au, questions what it means for women and the beauty industry.
“My first thought was that the popularity of merkins was due to a complete reversal of the laser hair-removal trend that really came into its own around five years ago, but I don’t think that’s the case,” she said.
Black says that women have been experimenting with adorning their private parts for many years now with Vajazzle kits.
Vajazzling takes its name and inspiration from the BeDazzler craft craze from a couple of decades back, where wannabe designers could add rhinestone studs to ordinary fabrics and materials in order to ‘take something dull to dazzling’.
“Vajazzling is where women add body crystals to their bikini area to make that area more surprising, more sexually desirable and enticing,” says Black.
“Women have already been embracing experimenting with temporary adornment of their pubic area by applying these crystals and that can be seen as a way to spice things up in the bedroom. So, they can try something lively and colourful out without committing to anything permanent like hair removal with a merkin.”
More and more women are rejecting the expectation that their genitalia should be hairless by embracing the more natural fashion of a bygone era and cultivating fuller pubic hair. It could be said that women are looking backwards to become fashion forward.
That may not be the same as merkins making it into mainstream culture, although pubic wigs have popped their heads up in the popular, albeit niche, press.
In 2009 Vice Magazine featured a gallery of merkins by Hilary Olson cheekily captured by photographer Ed Zipco called Merkin’ Around. It showed semi-naked models shaving their legs displaying pink pubic wigs and young women seductively lounging in American Appeal t-shirts with rainbow-coloured fluff covering their crotches.
Perhaps the question is whether attending a photographic exhibition of merkins today is any different to ponderously peering at Gustave Courbet’s notorious 1886 oil painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) – a close-up view of female genitals that was hidden from public view for over a century and now hangs in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay.
Until Mar 28, He Made She Made Gallery, 70 Oxford St, Darlinghurst, free, hemadeshemade.com