Diverse Art Center / The women look ready to attack. Clad only in push-up bras and tasseled underpants, they’re poised to pounce off the wall at the new Victoria’s Secret location at Ala Moana mall, ready to jump from the screens of our television and out of magazines sold at supermarkets and bookstores. Not only does sex sell, it’s being sold it everywhere.
That’s part of why Rita Coury was so surprised when employees at the ING Direct Café insist that her photography exhibit depicting topless breast cancer survivors who had undergone mastectomies be taken down before the installation was even complete.
“We live in a society where you can watch every type of commercial with half-naked people every single day,” said Coury. “If that’s considered fine and normal but drawing awareness toward a disease is considered obscene, come on, aren’t we above that?”
Coury’s inspiration for the project came from a public awareness campaign that featured topless women who had undergone mastectomies on billboards in California. After California lawmakers scrapped the campaign for being “obscene,” Coury sought breast cancer survivors who would allow her to photograph them.
“The whole point of the project was to eliminate the idea of shame from removing your breasts,” said Coury. “These women all collectively said, ‘I hate that I won’t take off my shirt anymore and I hate that I don’t want anyone to see me naked and I feel so awful.’ And for outsiders to be reinforcing those feelings? I couldn’t believe it. To me it’s like, you’re even more of a woman, you’re a warrior.”
The exhibit at ING Direct was to be featured as a part of Girl Fest Hawaii, an annual event aimed at empowering women and girls through the arts. ING Direct’s Cleo Brown apologized to Coury for the decision, which she said in an e-mail was based on company policy.
“Our policy is–all art must be appropriate for all audiences and age groups,” she wrote. “We respect all forms of art but as a federal savings bank, we err on the side of caution.”
Coury says this so-called caution sends the message that there’s something shameful about illness.
“I don’t think that any survivor, be it survivors of rape, molestation, of any abuse of any form, even survivors of trauma should feel like there’s anything wrong with them,” said Coury. “As a society, we need to come together and celebrate them as survivors. Associating shame and saying, ‘oh, don’t talk about it, that’s scary,’ I think that’s crap.”
Others in the art community agreed with Coury and rallied around her to find the exhibit a new home. The photos are now on display at Diverse Art Center on Queen Street. Meantime, Coury says the support she’s been getting from people in the community is heartening. One story came from a woman who saw the exhibit with her 10-year-old daughter.
“Her daughter was looking at the photo and her mother asked her, ‘how do you feel about the photo?’” said Coury. “The girl said ‘it looks like the bumps on her body hurt’ and her mother asked, ‘does it scare you?’ The girl said it didn’t scare her because she could tell that the woman was happy that she was able to survive breast cancer. Adults are the ones who attach all these negative associations, but a 10-year-old gets it, no problem.” –Adrienne LaFrance