On fiction, art, and advertising: inspiration for an exhibition

When in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1980s, advertising executive Joy Keshi realized that the reason for her young neighbor’s extensive hospital stays was a botched excision, she posed a perennial question. How do we change a ‘social norm’ which really means altering behavior?

Advertisers know we can change behavior. Take cigarettes, for instance. Ubiquitous a mere twenty years ago, an indispensable prop for authors, actors or anyone wanting to project sophisticated allure, they are now frowned upon as polluting carcinogens. Expectorating has experienced a similar demise. In Parisian trams and subways in the 1970s, you found numerous ‘défense de cracher’ — spitting forbidden — signs which would not have been there had the habit not been prevalent.

So what can advertising teach us that may help to end FGM?

Program accompanying the exhibition in London

The medium appeals to emotion and moves viewers to act on their feelings. But which feelings? Students of empathy, looking at depictions of pain, have revealed mixed results. Portraits of suffering can have an effect opposite to the one intended, encouraging not an empathic reaching out but a turning away.

Especially when the subject is excision of a child’s clitoris and labia.

In 1998, Joy undertook to explore this issue with painters and sculptors, students and faculty, in Nigeria. She assumed that fine artistic expression, on canvas or marble, elicits admiration; the medium is dignified, especially when serving an ideal of human rights.

The works of art that emerged from her coaching have had an illustrious career, among dozens of venues, mainly in Germany, we can add a display in the British Parliament in November 2000.

Many of these canvases will illustrate my 20 May talk at Christ Church, Oxford.

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