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Gender students get Red Trench beach ready

By Janet Harron | March 10, 2014

Students in Dr. Sonja Boon’s Feminist Practices class have been working on a collaborative art project that has resulted in a knitted bikini bottom for Red Trench, a piece of art that was the subject of some controversy when it was installed in the atrium of the Arts building in 1994. 

The knitted bikini bottom – together with textual commentary - will be displayed in the Arts atrium on Thursday, March 13.

Dr. Boon explains that the unique projMary Germaineect connects theory with practice.

“I have structured the course to look at a number of different iterations of feminist activism: we considered the notion of activism, different forms of activism in different parts of the world and then we have looked at different themes,” said Dr. Boon. 

The project combines craftivism, a movement connecting craft and activism, and yarn bombing, a non-permanent form of graffiti knitting.

Red Trench seemed to be a great starting point around yarn bombing,” said Dr. Boon. “It’s a sculpture that has, in some ways become part of the "furniture" in the arts atrium. Very few students really notice it. It’s been dusty. It’s had a paper airplane and an old T-shirt on top of it. In some ways, you could say it’s languished. And yet there is a lore surrounding it. The lore of the giant vagina in the center of the university.”

The artwork by late Newfoundland artist Don Wright hung for years in the Confederation Building before being removed in the early 1980s by those who felt that its possible depiction of female genitalia was pornographic. It was in storage for several years before finding a home in the Arts building. Inspired by sea, sand and waves, Red Trench also raises issues around gender and shame, patriarchy and pornography -- ideal issues for a gender studies class to ponder while knitting a bikini bottom.

The bikini itself has a number of meanings, according to Dr. Boon.

“Bikinis in relation to women’s sexual liberation in the 1960s. Bikinis as something that you wear at the beach, which is where Red Trench was made. And in this instance, a bikini that is not designed to expose the body -- as the original bikini was -- but rather, to hide the "offending" parts of the female body.”

Students Juls Mack, Mary Germaine and Megan Beaudoin have been involved in the project from its inception. They learned to knit on the first day of class and can’t believe that they are now part of a collaborative art project.

“We’re like riot grrrls. Originally they didn’t even know how to play guitars,” said Ms. Mack, a fourth-year gender studies major. “We’re blurring the lines between professionalism and amateurism.”

Ms. Germaine, a third-year philosophy major and gender studies minor, says that the act of knitting opened up discussion.

“When you knit and you’re with other people, there’s nothing else to do but talk – nobody’s checking their phone when they are knitting . . . in class we are looking at things that are hard to talk about, like what happens to women in Sierra Leone. We’re not socialized to deal with that sort of information. Having our hands busy helped to play out the discussion in a physical way.”

For gender studies major Ms. Beaudoin, concepts around yarn bombing were “really fascinating to see” and the project opened up a comfortable space to talk about vaginas, “something I had never really discussed previously.”

Dr. Boon says knitting in the classroom also challenges the notion of public and private space and the question as to where “critical” work takes place. She says introducing the anachronism of such a domestic activity into the classroom allowed the students to think critically about the role that art can play in challenging discourses and changing minds.