In a small, gloriously cluttered room, six women chat while they embroider brightly coloured vulvas, guided by Jess de Wahls, an artist teaching them both skills and how to break a few taboos.
Easily identifiable with her bright red lipstick and necklace of silver ovaries, the 36-year-old Berliner has made a name for herself with elaborate works with a sense of fun, but which address serious topics of gender inequality and social justice.
In De Wahls’ workshop in her home in Brixton, in the south of her adopted city of London, visitors are greeted by portraits of women.
Further inside, floral works jostle for attention with embroideries of a menstrual cup or bloodied tampon, while everywhere are the tools of her trade – embroidery hoops and patterns, thread and recycled fabric.
There is jewellery and embroidery in her trademark symbol, ovaries, which take on various incarnations depending on how the mood takes her – transformed as a cactus, as a rainbow in the sky, or a defiantly raised middle finger.
“Pick your vulva,” a smiling De Wahls tells her guests, as she offers different models to work from.
‘Have this conversation’
Her students today are from all over the world, and they marvel at the diversity of female genitalia, comparing their views of nudity that reflect their own backgrounds.
De Wahls is delighted at the free-flowing discussion, which also takes in the forthcoming opening in London of the “Vagina Museum”, the first of its kind.
“I think it is very helpful to have this conversation, making people comfortable with saying vagina, vulva, clitoris and all that kind of stuff,” she told AFP.
“Some people still have primary school reactions about it.”
The students already have an idea of what they will do with their embroideries.
“I am going to take mine into work to show to my colleagues,” said Jane, a 40-year-old textile curator.
“I’d probably turn mine into a cushion,” added Dana, a 29-year-old student at the Royal School of Needlework, suggesting it would become something of a talking point.
Social media star
For a long time, embroidery was viewed as an inoffensive pursuit carried out almost entirely by women.
Its image is changing thanks to artists such as India’s Sarah Naqvi, who use it to challenge stigmas surrounding women’s bodies, and France’s Julie Sarloutte, whose works resemble paintings.
But textile artists still have some way to go to be taken seriously, De Wahls said, noting that when she wanted to showcase her work at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, there was not even a dedicated category.
She herself is a relative newcomer to embroidery, only having started four years ago after watching videos on YouTube. But quickly, “that just became a second language”.
Since then, she says social media has “helped massively” in raising her profile.
It was through Instagram that she was spotted by the Tate Modern in London, which asked her to host a workshop, and by an Australian gallery which put on an exhibition last year entitled “Big Swinging Ovaries”.
Social media has also helped raise the profile of embroidery more generally, she says, passionate that it “be seen just as much as an art form as anything else”.