Hairless Beavers (and other controversies)

The other day a video popped up on a friend’s Facebook feed. It featured a small image of what appeared to be a t-shirt on a mannequin. There was a big, blurry circle in the mannequin’s crotch area.

Next to it was this headline: controversial window display in Halifax, N.S. turns heads. Figuring it might involve pubic hair, I could resist clicking the link. I wasn’t wrong. (you can watch it for yourself here).

It took me to a news segment that aired earlier this week on CTV news in Halifax. Before running the item, host Steve Murphy looks at the audience and says “we caution you that some of you may find this offensive, and it may not be appropriate for younger viewers.”

Which is what made the item so extra hilarious. In short: it’s a very short news item about an “art installation” that’s getting “mixed reviews” in a store-front window on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax. Apparently a whole whack of people are incredibly offended by it and there’s a petition circulating to have the work taken down. The news item, which is shabbily put together, clips a couple of people talking about how terrible they find it, along with a few who shrug their shoulders and say they don’t really know what it’s about. While the item fails to credit the artist entirely, it does clip the curator, Scott Saunders, who makes a couple of valid points about how there is much more offensive stuff going on  in the windows of the sex shops down the street. He says the work is about “Canadian identity, sexual politics, and the idea of Canadiana.”

At no point do we ever get to see what everyone is so upset about because of the HUGE, BLURRY CIRCLE shielding us from the display’s horrors.

Well here, ladies and gentlemen, is what the news needed to protect you from:

That’s right: a mannequin wearing a T-shirt reading “Canada: Go Beavers!” and a furry, pubic-hair-esque loin cloth. Though she is not mentioned in the controversy, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the artist is Bonita Hatcher, a NSCAD grad.

Here’s a wider view of the entire window:

(Sorry it’s so small! Halifax’s alt weekly, The Coast, posted a great photo to Instagram, too). 

Curious to know more (and so thoroughly dissatisfied by the news item), I booked a call with the artist.

Our chat was wonderful – hilarious, energizing, and informative. Bonita immediately filled in some of the blanks around the window work for me. Firstly, the news item omitted some significant details: most significantly, that the beaver featured in the lower left hand corner of the window IS COMPLETELY SHORN! That’s right – in what sounds like a painstaking process, she SHAVED A TAXIDERMY BEAVER. She then cut up a bit of an old (beaver) fur coat, adorned a particularly phallic piece of it with red ribbons, and turned it into a loin cloth. She had the T-shirt created especially. Though it’s hard to read at first, the beaver in the image is hairless.

Bonita, who is in her early 40s with a background in marine biology, was as appalled as anyone by the upset her piece had elicited among Haligonians. She said she was most fascinated by the fact that there was nothing ACTUALLY offensive in what she had created — a shorn beaver, a furry merkin, and a printed t-shirt. It was, she pointed out, up to viewers to make connections if they wanted to – and in order to do so, one had to be properly equipped (a shorn beaver, for example, has no meaning in itself unless you know that ‘beaver’ is a slang term for a woman’s genitalia).

While Bonita told me she hadn’t sought out to make a statement about pubic hair (in fact, the shorn beaver was originally part of a larger piece addressing ‘Canadiana’), normalized pubic hair removal among women has fascinated her for some time. She described re-entering the dating scene after the end of her marriage and coming to terms with what a ‘Brazilian’ was (“it took me awhile to figure out what it was,” she recalled, “I remember going ‘oh-my-god, are you kidding me?’ In my mind, if I had a hair caught in the elastic of my underwear I would cry.”

For Bonita, who only started making art as an adult has always been interested in feminist art and performance. In one of her first performances at art school, she cut off her clothes and painted herself with latex. “I got that stuff out of the way,” she laughs, later wearing a wedding dress 24-hours a day for a week in a bid to explore the idea that traditional female wedding garb serves to cover the body from head to toe and restrict movement.

I don’t even think that Bonita has a precise grasp on what she was trying to say to the world with her “controversial” window display — but she definitely managed to make a statement. The shorn beaver is visually clever, the phallic merkin, provocative. It’s not entirely clear whether we are supposed to celebrate the hairless beast and lament the loss of his fur, or whether we should be re-embracing our own Canadian short-n-curlies, but in a sense it really doesn’t matter. The work does (as Bonita intended) start a conversation that is definitely worth having.

Bonita also let slip that she’s intended to start selling her “go beavers’ T-shirts. I can’t wait to stroll the streets of my city in it this summer. No blurry circle required.

 

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