CUNT: Understanding the Contemporary & Cultural Perception of a Word

Words by Sara Radin

What once was seen as a vulgar, derogatory term is now being reclaimed by a group of women from across the globe: a new exhibition is breaking down barriers and challenging accepted taboos surrounding the word. Launched by Laundry Service founder Georgina Johnson, “CUNT” aims to unpack the term and its negative connotations while shedding a positive light on infertility, gynaecology and mental health. Taking place in London at KK Outlet, the exhibition features artwork by female creatives hailing from London, Saudi Arabia, Israel and more. Plus, tee shirts and zines are on sale thanks to Depop, and a corresponding podcast series called “Cunt Qualms” was released with help from NTS and Babyface. It is through these kinds of projects that we can dismantle the term and take back its power to spread its true meaning.

I first met Georgina online a few months back when I wrote about my personal struggles with menstruation for BRICKS Voices. She reached out over Instagram, sharing her own experiences and thanking me for speaking up — the timing was perfect, she was just gearing up for “CUNT“, and I ended up being in London a few weeks later. This led to me being part of the exhibition’s podcast series.

Ahead of the exhibition’s closure this weekend, we sit down with Georgina and other artists featured in the show to learn more about the project.

How did the idea for this project come about? What inspired you to launch it? What’s your goal for this project?

Georgina Johnson: The idea for this project came about pretty organically. I was actually in a pub/exhibition space having a conversation with some friends, a girl came up to us and said – “Do you know that the word Cunt used to mean – Goddess in ancient Indian culture”. We were all pretty baffled but intrigued, but what that did was start a conversation amongst us about words and how we use them to describe ourselves, words that are used toward or to write women in general. That intrigue clung to me. I began to research it and continued to have conversations with people about this. What was always interesting was the themes that cropped up in those discussions. When speaking to women many of them felt they couldn’t actually discuss or find the words to describe their experiences. That inspired me to start something.

There’s a lot of stigma associated with the word “cunt”. How do you hope this project will move the needle forward and challenge perceived notions around the term?

Georgina Johnson: Well what I’d hope has started to happen actually. When I speak to my mum, dad, sister or people in general about the exhibition, there is a lot less wincing about the word. In the workshop we had on Saturday, there were so many women speaking so confidently about the words they use to describe the varying parts of their character and physicality. It was incredibly powerful. I guess it’s about not only normalising the word but understanding its character, meanings to other people and how that can be very positive. 

Seems like there’s a lot of different layers to this project. Can you share more about each part and how they worked in tandem?

Georgina Johnson: Each project on The Laundry is between 4/5 months with an outcome of an exhibition, installation or event. We also try to produce events to coincide with the shows such as talks, workshops or the like, to keep the conversation going. For this we were supported by Babyface and took over their radio slot on NTS for a series of podcasts with some incredible women:- BBZ, writer- Bwayla Newton, Yourself, artist- Sandra Falase and two of our contributors Giulia Tomasello and Sophie Rawlingson. These were really amazing because it was a chance to speak about some things that cropped up in conversations within the project and just produce something that is widely accessible. 

These conversations were really low-key and informal and a chance for us to create a space that these women could share and where we could inform each other and just chat really. We also just had a workshop over the weekend in the exhibition space hosted by Sophie and Elisa Magalhaes from Fly Trap Zine. This again was a really informal and fun way to carry the conversation on. I think a lot about the anxiety around gallery spaces, the fact that the work can spark or trigger something in you and there isn’t a place to air or explore that. Our programme is a way of reaching folks with the message, conversation around our exhibitions but also a way of bringing people together around it and creating room/space for actual conversations. This is also something we hope to do with our resources.

It would be amazing if the Zine and T-shirt desensitise and reframe peoples perception of the word and encourage conversations around its rich history as well as help folks understand how this, as well as other words,  illustrate the socialisation of the female experience and how it has been manipulated and silenced in a lot of cases. I personally really hope our posters resonate with people and encourage them to get to know, spend time with and listen to their bodies. 

What was your process for curating the exhibition? What kind of artwork are you showcasing? Tell us more about the breadth of work that is being shown, and some of the artists who have work on display.

Georgina Johnson: So I’m kinda DIY by nature but the way these projects work right now aide my decisions around curating pretty heavily. The thread connecting the work in this exhibition was the fact that they were majority wall based pieces and responses to the theme of course. So unlike Memories – which was heavily technology-based, this was really about the relationship; colour, style and form of the pieces and their neighbouring work. In general, I am pretty particular about colour, so when putting this together thought about what is easiest to read and absorb as your eyes travel across the gallery. This is however very multi-media. There is paint, collage, shy sculpture, film and textile. Some amazingly vivid work and some work that allows time to pass through it such as Giulia and Ahaad’s Pomegranate piece, which ages with the duration of the exhibition. I wanted to give everything enough space to be absorbed. 

What was it like working with Depop on this collaboration? How did they help you bring your vision to life? 

Georgina Johnson: They have been really supportive. When I initially brought the idea to them, as with any brand, I was concerned about them wanting to over brand whatever we produced together, but that wasn’t the case at all. They understood the concept and really got behind it and were really passionate about what we were trying to achieve. We design everything in-house; Zines, books, logo’s etc. which is brilliant and we have a lot of fun doing that. So we brought the ‘Cunt Club’ logo to them, and they agreed to sponsor the production of the Tee’s which was amazing.

Things like this as well as the zines, books, events etc. we produce help us actually fund the programme and do more of those type of things. I only started The Laundry this year and have been really blessed to be supported by some great organisations. 

What other events do you have going on in the space? (Tell us more about the other two events).

Georgina Johnson: We had a zine workshop on Saturday entitled ‘Writing Ourselves‘. This was utterly incredible; I left feeling really refreshed. It was a great environment in that the women involved got really stuck into not only the zine making madness but the conversation. Literal strangers opening up and speaking about the way’s they feel they have been conditioned to view themselves, their bodies and their identity. It was a workshop highlighting the things we’ve learnt and facilitated a unlearning. It was just fun and necessary. Something we will most definitely be doing again! 

How has the project been received so far? What are your future plans for this project?

Georgina Johnson: I’d like to do something around women in Film and think ‘Cunt’ has started some great conversations so I don’t see why it shouldn’t continue as a series of one-off events or something. I will have to see. I definitely think the conversations we have been having and the thoughts, themes and ideas that have been explored through this exhibition need to continue in some format so that we will be looking into that next year! 

The response so far has been amazing and hard-hitting. I have had women come up to me and say how some of the work really touched them because of experiences they have been or are going through and felt completely alone in. People come up and say how much they’ve learnt and want to learn solely because of the conversations the work has spurred amongst them and their friends. It’s been incredible, and I’m really proud of all the artists involved for their vulnerability and having the courage and confidence to share their work. Because it is courageous every time, you share a piece of yourself. 

Sophie – What inspired you to launch The PEACH Diaries? Did any part of the creative process surprise you? Tell us more about your illustration on display. What does the “magical space bitch” represent for you?

My sister and I launched The PEACH Diaries zine because we realised that topics such as issues around female contraceptives are rarely spoken about, even among friends sometimes. I recently read that 56% of girls said that they would rather be bullied at school than talk to their parents about periods… that’s crazy! Talking about contraceptives can be seen as boring / taboo or too intimate among friends – sex can be a fun thing to talk about, but depressive symptoms, acne, mood swings and even suicidal thoughts can take a back burner. The PEACH Diaries gives takers of female contraceptives a space to write whatever they want – get it out there! 

The illustration on display is taking further this idea of giving confidence to women to speak out. When I think of the word cunt, I think of a powerful space bitch in the sky who gives birth to the universe. By imagining women in positions of power gives me the confidence to speak out about my own issues with female contraceptives. The words ‘why is it assumed I must alter my body & mind, my physical & mental state, just for easier sex?’ is written across the page – this is ultimately my conclusion to female contraceptives as they are today… 

Jameson – What was the process for creating your painting showcased in this exhibit? In the work, you repeat the phrase “Please Don’t Spin Me Out of Control” — what does this mean to you, in relation to the theme of the exhibit?

The process was pretty straightforward for me to be honest, well it seems that way in my head. I had done a lot of research around the theme and into to how I currently feel like a woman. Research is how I come to apply my skill to a theme. I take info in and exhale it in the way my mind thinks and works. Approaching my canvas was welcoming, and I felt ecstatic when I had completed my piece, it was like all the pent-up energy I had toward the theme just spurted out of me, and created something very fitting.

I approached CUNT not just by the word but embodying women’s everyday struggles as a whole, so In the plainest explanation, this work is in response to the contraceptive pill. I won’t go into the whole spiel, but as a lot of women are aware this certain contraceptive can drive you crazy, this work was my interpretation. Your being pulled left and right by outside opinions on your body that can make you just curl up and beg for it, not to all go pear-shaped, it makes you feel trapped mentally like you’re being boxed in and I want people to understand that from the repetitive words and colour I use.

Giulia – Why did you decide to use the pomegranate as a representation of the word “cunt”? Will you tell us more about the different parts of your multi-disciplinary project?

This project is a collaboration between me and the artist Ahaad Alamoudi. From the very beginning we started to imagine the word Cunt as a mystical creature and at the same time as something physical, organic and well known to our senses. This exploration was immediately materialised with the fruit pomegranate. Pomegranate became our muse. Pomegranate is cunt. It’s curvy. It’s a Her. When you cut it, it bleeds. It tastes acidic. It is edible. It has a womb with seeds. In art history pomegranates painted alongside beautiful women symbolise their abundance and fertility.

In Saudi Arabia men sing to a pomegranate to court women. Using the character of the fruit we used it to boil and dye our own ‘Cunt Fabric’ with a ‘Cunt dye’ made of pomegranate. The result was quite unexpected, and the colour was always different, depending on the ripeness of the fruit. The project is a combination of the Pomegranate wall piece, ‘Cunt Fabric’ a zine and a video. The zine, called ‘TNUC’ is the analysis of the word Cunt, how it is represented socially, historically and metaphysically.

Based on our personal skills and interests, we formed a unique narrative and deception of the word to add our own commentary and regain a sense of power over a word that tips in a balance between the humane and the inhumane. In the zine, we researched the etymology of the word Cunt, its pronunciation and the how the meaning of the word changed historically, culturally and scientifically. The last element is the video ‘The sacred and profane’ that represents the word Cunt portrayed from a wide range of visual media. The video includes cult films, youtube videos and archives. Showing the contemporary and cultural perception of the word Cunt, in particular, the use of this word towards women.

CUNT is on until 28th of October at the KK Outlet, 42 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB