Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Talita Swarts

I was invited to a morning tea in the winelands two weeks ago and unknowingly ended up attending a breast cancer awareness event. Out of the 10 women that were invited to attended, 5 women have survived breast cancer, what an eye-opening morning! Driving home it occurred to me that we live in a country were talking about breasts have always been a taboo subject, and I wondered if this is perhaps the root of our problem fighting this disease in South Africa.

Many artists, interestingly more women than men, have been investigated by the authorities and had work removed from galleries in South Africa because the work represented female nudity often showing breasts.

The most iconic examples that sprung to mind was Irma Stern’s first solo exhibition held in Cape Town in February 1922 at Ashbey’s Art Gallery that were under police investigation for immorality and Cecil Higgs’ “Pink Nude” that was removed by the University of Stellenbosch from the Carnegie Library during the New Group exhibition in 1939. Why were these paintings so unsettling to the South African public during the early 20th century? The depiction of breasts in art history dates to ancient times, the most well-known example, the Venus of Willendorf. Depictions of naked women were prevalent throughout the Renaissance as well as the Modernist art movements throughout Europe.

A more recent example of our collective uneasiness with breasts in South Africa was the exhibition in April this year at the Boschendall wine estate. On arrival viewers were greeted by a massive sign stating that the exhibition by Zanele Muholi included explicit content, which on closer inspection referred to the artist’s exposed breasts.

How can this still be an issue today? Why do most women feel uncomfortable talking about breast cancer? Why do we need to have an awareness month to talk about a disease that effect countless women all over the world every month of the year?

Breast Cancer awareness month is an international health campaign lasting the entire month of October. The first organized effort to bring widespread attention to breast cancer occurred as a weeklong event in the United States in October 1985.

With this beautiful photographic work of a breast print by the internationally acclaimed artist, Viviane Sassen, we want to place emphasis on this very important awareness campaign. 

In 2020, there were 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685 000 deaths globally. As of the end of 2020, there were 7.8 million women alive who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past 5 years, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer.