At first glance, French Canadian artist Rosalie Maheux‘s artwork displayed in the lobby of a government office building in Toronto resembles a kaleidoscopic mandala composed of harmless, symmetric shapes. A closer look at the nearly three foot by three foot picture, however, reveals that it is composed of photographs of naked women engaged in sexually explicit acts, images that have prompted Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party to call for the work’s removal.
As the Globe and Mail reported, the party considers Maheux’s “Sacred Circle VI” (2014) inappropriate art to hang in a government building. The piece is on view as part of John B. Aird Gallery‘s current exhibition highlighting 30 artists under the age of 30, which opened at the end of June and runs through July 24. Although the Ontario government provides the exhibition space, community volunteers and representatives from four art societies direct it. Still, Progressive Conservative member Laurie Scott said she was “disappointed” by the display of such provocative images in a government office, finding them demeaning.
“Regardless of the aims or intent of the artist, Ontarians expect their government to lead by example in combating the sexual objectification of women,” Scott said in a statement. “The fact that a publicly housed gallery has been allowed to not only display but to sell images of this nature is very worrisome.”
“Sacred Circle VI” is just one such work in a series that Maheux began in 2012 and is intended to initiate conversations about the objectification of women. In a statement released over the weekend, Maheux described the series as
a social critique of the excessive value that society places on women’s sexual attractiveness. Given these standards, as a woman artist it only makes sense that I would take the images of women that are out there, including the sexualized and the pornographic, reconfigure them on my own terms, and offer them back as something transformed.
Her adoption of the mandala is particularly significant to her for its sacred symbolism of “life, purity, and the glorification of god in many cultures and religions,” which clashes with the profanity of the explicit imagery from which she makes it.
In an email to Hyperallergic, Maheux said she was surprised by Scott’s reaction, particularly by the politician’s statement that she did not care about the artist’s intentions.
“So that sort of defeats the purpose of contemporary art,” Maheux wrote. “What a thing to say regarding a conceptual artwork intended to promote dialogue about the representation of sexuality in our society … because she did not see the work, did not want to hear about it, I think her comment on objectification of women regarding my work is misunderstood.
“The irony of the Conservative reaction to the piece is that the denotative significance of the imagery sends them into a puritanical frenzy, unable and unwilling in the case of the MPP [Member of Provincial Parliament] Scott to think about the work,” she continued.
While the Conservatives cited “recent public outcry” over crimes such as sexual harassment and human trafficking as reasons to remove works that objectify women, the collage will remain on view at the gallery, which said in a statement that it does not censor images in support of artistic freedom of expression. Curator Gary Michael Dault had chosen the work “for its inventive, thoughtful, and searching nature,” the statement explained. John B. Aird Gallery has since posted notices at the exhibition’s entrance warning viewers that the show contains “images intended for a mature audience.”
Notably, the controversial mandala is not Maheux’s only work in the show that explores themes of sexuality. “Impress the Reaper,” a life-size sculpture of a coffin bent into the shape of a rainbow, is meant to allude to Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos. The sculpture, she explained, proposes an orgasmic end to life rather than the traditionally somber funeral practices and riffs on the euphemism “la petite mort.”
“Once again, this piece is about sex! Pure sex!” Maheux told Hyperallergic. “But I guess the sexual nature of this piece was not clear to [the Conservatives], and they were unable to stop looking at some genitals in the other corner of the gallery.”