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Fighting Sexual Harassment With Guerilla Art

Allison Bouganim's Wax That Ass is aggressive, ironic, and (very) temporary.

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At Google’s San Francisco campus around 11 a.m. on Sunday, people who passed by were confronted with a startling sight: Butts.

In varying skin tones and shapes, five wax and plaster sculptures of the female anatomy were perched in a row underneath the tech company’s Embarcadero-facing sign. The unauthorized (thus temporary) installation was the work of 19-year-old artist Allison Bouganim, whose ongoing project, Wax That Ass, exposes street harassment and sexual assault.

With scores of women recently breaking their silence over film producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged crimes, the installation could seem particularly timely, until you realize that so many harassment cases fill the news that any time would seem relevant.

“They’re a platform for women to speak their minds and share their stories in a way that can’t be ignored,” Bouganim said. “Often, women are told that they’re lying, that they should just be quiet, or that it’s their fault.”

Each of Bouganim’s butts are sculpted from the body and the story of a single woman, which she places at a site significant to them. For this project, one of the women chose Google’s office because that’s where her alleged rapist works. Other sites requested by her collaborators, 30-and-counting in San Francisco, included the Civic Center Courthouse, Uber, and Civic Center BART.

The butts, just like the behavior they represent, are largely unwelcome in these spaces. Bouganim often has time for little more than to take a photo before getting the boot.

But when the situation allows, the sculptures have a second function. Each one is rigged with buttons that, when pressed, play the recorded voice of the woman repeating comments they’ve received from men. “You’re awfully pretty to be alone right now,” one butt is programmed to say. Another: “You’re dressed like a whore. Go back upstairs and change, or we ain't going nowhere.”

When the photo project turns social experiment, the artist observes the reactions. In contrast to earnest campaigns that have hit San Francisco previously, like Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s 2014 campaign, Stop Telling Women to Smile, the ambiguity of Wax That Ass acts as a kind of butt Rorschach test. “I’m using humor and discomfort,” Bouganim said. “Once I get their attention, I can talk to them.”

Since launching the project in her hometown of Miami, responses have included anger, bemusement, and confusion. “It’s really interesting the ways that people, especially men, interact with them,” Bouganim said. “I’ve found that men are the ones most concerned about interacting with them.”

On Sunday at the Civic Center Bart Station, she looked on as a man yelled that the installation was “trash” and then kicked one of the butts down the stairs into the station. While not everyone welcomes Bouganim’s racy dialogue, she plans to continue San Francisco’s Wax That Ass through October and eventually take it to New York.

“Some women have asked me how they can get involved,” Bouganim recalled. “One woman came up to me and started to tear up and thanked me for making these sculptures.”

 

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