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Eye-opening photo exhibition on FGM comes to London

AN PHOTOGRAPHIC exhibition to raise awareness of the wide-spread practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comes to London this week.

Unsterile Clinic, a project by photographer Aida Silvestri opens at Rivington Place on July 8 and is on until the end of August.

In 2015, inspired by personal experience, Silvestri began an in-depth investigation into the practice, and began interviewing and photographing women living in London.

"After comparing the stories of women from Mali, Gambia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti, I discovered that the majority of FGM cases in the United Kingdom are diagnosed during pregnancy or labour. The aim of this project is to raise awareness in the hope that women, young girls and children, who may not realise the severity or the kind of FGM type they have, are encouraged to attend early screening processes before an emergency occurs. I also hope that this project empowers medical staff to have the courage to speak openly, and the visual tools necessary, when examining women affected by FGM."

Silvestri’s sculptural photo-works are presented together with text poems extracted from interviews conducted with participants, whose personal testimonies provide harrowing insights into their experiences. Some have since undergone reconstructive or reversal procedures – which part-remedies the physical damage inflicted onto their bodies, yet the psychological and emotive scars remain in perpetuity.

As a severe form of violence and discrimination against women, the performance of FGM - which involves procedures that include the partial or total removal of the external female genital organs for non-medical reasons - has been a criminal offence in the United Kingdom since 1985.

The 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act amended the law to include UK nationals or permanent residents taking children abroad to undergo FGM, and was further strengthened by the Serious Crime Act of 2015, extending extra-territorial jurisdiction to acts of FGM undertaken abroad [by and/or to a UK national or resident]. However, very few convictions have been made in the UK for performing or arranging FGM.

FGM is informed by complex ideas of cultural identity, tradition and often religious misconceptions - neither the bible nor the Quran endorses the practice - and can have fatal consequences and/or result in complications during childbirth, infertility, infections and the loss of sexual pleasure in women subjected to cutting procedures.

While FGM is primarily practiced in Africa, the Middle East and parts of South East Asia, due to increasing migrant populations Europe is equally implicated. Estimation of figures for those affected by or at risk of FGM are difficult to measure; it is believed that 125 million girls and women globally are living with the effects of FGM.

Categorisation of FGM types are not fixed, varying and constantly changing; in response, and working closely with NHS specialist clinics, Silvestri has created her own set of sub categories adapted from the list published by the World Health Organisation, as demonstrated by her intrinsic leather work shown in the vitrine display and stitched onto the black silhouette portraits. Each leather piece is handcrafted and unique, reflecting the particular type of FGM the women portrayed were subjected to; collectively they illustrate the different stages of tissue removal, cutting and/or stitching. The distinct leather tones resemble the participants’ individual skin colours.

Autograph ABP commissioned Aida Silvestri to create five new portraits in this continuing body of work; the sixth portrait in the commission featuring razor blades represents the artist’s current experimentation with new forms of expression.

“Silvestri skilfully operates in the contested terrains where art and advocacy meet, photography and human rights converse, courageously and creatively addressing an urgent and critical condition affecting women and girls globally," said Renée Mussai, the exhibition curator.

Visitors are encouraged to participate in the creation of a group portrait as an act of solidarity, and to mark the second anniversary of the Girl Summit, first organised in July 214 by the UK government to mobilise domestic and international forces to end FGM globally within one generation. Please ask the gallery’s visitor assistant for a pin.

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