Uncensored explores the underlying importance of the art exhibition, Sex Workers of Aotearoa; A day in the life of. While SWoA's main aim was to reach the public eye and challenge how sex work is perceived, the unexpected result of such an exhibition was the safe space — the uncensored space — it created for sex workers to be themselves.
The Sex Workers of Aotearoa art exhibition was spawned from a desire for self-representation — to peel back the red veil that cloaks the industry and challenge the usual sex worker tropes. Too often the sex industry is portrayed by a biased outsider, or within the agenda-driven media, and rarely by sex workers themselves.
Is it any wonder that sex workers don't publicly depict their experiences and tell their stories, when the industry is burdened with so much stigma?
How could such a stigmatised community speak to the public without doxing themselves?
How could such a community come together to portray their unique, individual experiences and voices and be heard?
These are the questions I asked myself.
Art was the answer.
For centuries, stories have been told through art (and the sex worker is no stranger to the art gallery). Art would allow an individual to reach Mr and Mrs Blogs from within a safe space — not only with respect to the sex workers' anonymity, but for the viewer as well. Art is an experience where the viewer can take in as little or as much as they feel is right for them. It is non-threatening and can be deeply personal.
Sex Workers of Aotearoa began in 2019 with the help of my friends Addison and Claire. Our first show was held at Flux, Wellington Museum, over three weeks during July. After multiple failed attempts, passed application deadlines, and unanswered emails, Flux was the fourteenth venue we contacted to host our exhibition. When I received that unexpected yes, I danced around my living room like it was my greatest achievement. Wellington Museum! I elatedly repeated to myself. Until receiving such good news from Flux, I had twenty sex workers ready to submit their artworks and nowhere to host them!
For 2020, we planned to take SWoA on the road to multiple cities — not only Wellington, but Christchurch and Auckland, too. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, our road-tripping art plans were busted. We had to cancel both Wellington and Christchurch, closed businesses meant some artists weren't able to procure art supplies, and for others the creative zest had gone with the uncertainty around COVID-19.
Ever the optimists and spurred on by the overwhelming success of the first show, Addison and I persevered with our Auckland venue — the Depot Artspace in Devonport. The Depot wasn't my first choice of gallery. Not knowing Auckland well, I had concerns that the ferry ride away from the city would turn some people off, but the gallery's reputation and the sheer enthusiasm of Tracey and the Depot team put any concerns I had to bed.
On Saturday July 25th, the Sex Workers of Aotearoa; A day in the life of, art exhibition of 2020, opened to the Auckland public. Twenty-four artworks by twelve artists, discussing varying topics — from stereotypes to stigma, history, perceptions, everyday life, humour, and the highs and lows of sex work in New Zealand — were on display for any viewer who was willing to enter.
And enter they did! Whether by accident or with intent, the gallery was patronised by a steady flow of curious minds and art lovers alike. The first artwork sold on Opening Night, and by the end of the evening, another seven artworks proudly displayed their little red dots.
On Opening Night, I couldn't have been prouder giving my speech and thanking everyone for supporting the exhibition once again.
When I successfully created the first SWoA exhibition in 2019, I was so wrapped up in finding a gallery space, making sure artworks were on time and getting the catalogue ready for printing, that the Opening Night wasn't in the forefront of my mind. My thoughts were simply along the lines of: All exhibitions have an Opening, right? Let's have an Opening Night to make the Sex Workers of Aotearoa art exhibition official! Organised. Done.
It wasn't until after the official opening of the first SWoA that I realised just how important the evening was to the people who came — this is because it was a sex worker and allies only space. The community vibe, the shared joy over sex worker art, and the opportunity to meet colleagues who you've only known by an avatar and Twitter handle made the night extra special.
I knew I wanted to write about the 2020 Opening Night, but what exactly? Oh, it was awesome, sorry you couldn't be there...? When I asked for feedback about the evening, a common theme emerged: It was just so nice to not have to mind what I was saying or who I was talking to, and I could actually relax and enjoy myself being repeated to me more than once. Like the first exhibition, these comments came out of the fact that the attendees at Opening Night were current, or had previously been, sex workers. OK great, I thought, I'll write about sex worker only safe spaces.
It wasn't until a Facebook post emerged from a resident of Devonport, concerned that our exhibition would be normalising prostitution and his following comments asking: Why should prostitution be destigmatised? that the importance of the Opening Night really hit home.
There are a lucky few sex workers out there who, when asked what they do for a living, will point blank, without shame or fear, proudly answer: I'm a sex worker. For the majority of us, we're likely to first ask ourselves: Who exactly am I talking to? and consider whipping out the cover story — for who can know when first meeting someone, whether their beliefs align with yours and what their understanding of sex work is?
The fear of being immediately judged by someone or having to explain yourself and your choices is enough to make a cover story a much more enticing option. Whereas in a sex work positive space, those worries vanish. For that night on July 25th, tucked away in the modest Devonport gallery, a crowd of sex workers and their allies could celebrate the industry in all its forms; what it means to us, away from judgemental eyes, and without fear.
If we lived in a world where no one blinks an eye when the response to the inevitable question of What do you do for work? is I'm a sex worker, then the purpose of the Sex Workers of Aotearoa art exhibition would be irrelevant. The conversations about the industry and the nuances of the profession would be spoken and shared freely. There would be no need to create a safe space for sex industry workers to have a voice, no need to protect oneself when engaging with the public. But this isn't the case, due to the fact, and as insinuated by the words of that man on Facebook, that many in our society don't consider sex work normal.
The Sex Workers of Aotearoa; A day in the life of, art exhibition, aims to pave the way for sex workers to share their voices with the public directly but safely, and to challenge the stereotypes sex workers face. Art is the medium by which our unique (and often overlapping) stories can be told without the weight of judgement that stigma holds over our industry.
The 2020 SWoA Opening Night created a safe space where our community could come together, feel completely at ease, be present and uncensored, and celebrate who we are. There is nothing clearer in my mind that the exhibition must continue in 2021, to continue to celebrate all of our diversities, and challenge those who think it's there's a problem in normalising sex work.
Jordan has worked in the sex industry since February 2014, from agencies, to brothels and independent work. The profession fits in with how she chooses to live her life; it's flexible and overall she enjoys it.
Jordan began the Sex Workers of Aotearoa art exhibition after being interviewed for a documentary on sex work. She wanted to create a means by which sex workers could represent themselves and reach the public eye, whilst maintaining control over their anonymity.
Visit SWoA's website at swoa.co.nz