Coming clean: Knickers with a twist

15 November 2016 - 10:08 By Ufrieda Ho

Part gross, part intimate, but many more parts pure power. That's the SA's Dirty Laundry art project, an installation of 3600 pairs of worn and donated underwear - a raw and deeply personal statement on rape, abuse and gender violence. The work by Jenny Nijenhuis and Nondumiso Msimanga explores the journey to healing or transcending the entrapment of cycles of injury and trauma. Above all it's a call for collective responsibility to shape a South African story in which "rape" and "culture" are two words that should never belong together."The number 3600 is symbolic of the number of people in South Africa who are raped or sexually abused every day," says Nijenhuis, a sculptor."It turned out to be more difficult than we expected to collect old and used underwear because it's such an intimate garment." The fabric covers the most guarded parts of human anatomy; the pieces of cloth hold residues of bodily secretion - at once natural but relegated to the discarded and polluted.The artists started collecting the underwear in June. Many pairs arrived with personal stories. There was the pair in a brown paper bag with the note written on the bag: "I never said yes". Some people left underwear anonymously, while others were desperate to share their stories."Some people just told us they didn't have anyone else to tell," says Nijenhuis.PANTY WASTE: Performer and Wits Drama PhD student Nondumiso Msimanga in her 'wedding' dress made out of worn underwearShe and Msimanga, a dancer, lecturer and writer, both have personal stories of abuse they wanted to confront. It's made SA's Dirty Laundry painful and profound but also powerful.Msimanga says working on the show has at times whipped up the frenzy of "shadows that chase me". Other times just looking at a pair of collected panties belonging to a child makes her shake with reawakened trauma."I live with the trauma every day, it's just about what triggers may set me off," says Msimanga. It's a reminder that there's no time line or blueprint to "get over" sexual violence.The symbolism of stringing together panties for the installation represents a unifying thread running through victims' stories. There's been "statement and strength" in presenting vulnerability so publicly, the two women say.The panties threaded together on washing lines will be strung for 1.2km in Johannesburg's Maboneng precinct during the 16 Days of Activism of No Violence Against Women and Children. The line will end in the Soma Gallery as part of an exhibition.Some of the panties are being sewn into a "wedding" dress which Msimanga will wear for her dance performance at the opening of the exhibition on November 25.To donate to the project visit SA Dirty Laundry's Facebook page or check out

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