Sheela-na-gigs unveiled: the sculptures boldly challenging centuries-old stigma

Ella Sloane examines Project Sheela, a street art project that celebrates women’s rights, sexuality, and power

Project Sheela, an enigmatic street art project that has caused eruptions online, has been dubbed a celebration of women’s rights, female sexuality, and empowerment by its creators, two anonymous Dublin-based artists. Launched on International Women’s Day 2020, the project pays homage to the long-lived struggle for women’s rights in Ireland by erecting across Dublin a trail of Sheela-na-gigs, known for their traditional association with female sexuality and fertility.

Dating back to the pre-Christian and Medieval periods, Sheela-na-gigs are figurative carvings of naked women, posing in a manner to accentuate their exaggerated genitalia. Art historians have theorised about the meaning behind these mysterious sculptures, presenting a number of interpretations; from a protective talisman or fertility figure, to that of a warning against sinful lust. The latter is widely accepted in academia and might provide an explanation as to why these ancient carvings were found at conspicuous locations in churches and castles across Europe, most commonly here in Ireland. Romanesque architecture was renowned for its tendency towards grotesque imagery, which instilled a fear of God into its viewers, warning them to repent before their inevitable demise. However, the rediscovery of Sheela-na-gigs today has been met with disdain from some religious authorities, who deem the carvings vulgar and offensive. Many of them in Ireland have been defaced or removed by the Roman Catholic Church in the past century.

In a bold reclamation of power, Project Sheela aims to distribute unique renditions of these symbolic displays of female anatomy once again, placing them at sites significant to Ireland’s women’s rights movement. The project’s creators took inspiration from the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment, a vital step towards regaining control over the female body, which has been largely suppressed by Church interference throughout Ireland’s problematic relationship between Church and State.

“Project Sheela aims to distribute unique renditions of these symbolic displays of female anatomy once again, placing them at sites significant to Ireland’s women’s rights movement.”

The sculptures’ acute focus on femininity is reflected in many of their locations this year, like the Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry, former Pornhub offices at City Quay, Transgender Equality Network Ireland’s headquarters, and Head office of the Department of Health, to name a few. The final Sheela stands in recognition of the women who lost their lives to cervical cancer due to the negligence of the HSE and all who have suffered at the hands of Ireland’s lacking healthcare system. The project’s advocacy encompasses a wide range of pressing feminist issues, including migrant rights, image-based sexual abuse, domestic violence, reproductive rights, and maternity care. Project Sheela has also paid tribute to inspiring individuals who have championed women’s rights, including suffragettes Hanna Sheehy Skiffington and Constance Markievicz, and a founding member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, Rosie Hackett.

This refreshing contemporary take on an ancient iconographic tradition has been closely documented on their Instagram account, projectsheela. It provides step-by-step details of what the artists’ fascinating creative process entails as they craft each distinctive Sheela with care and precision. The pieces are hand-sculpted from stoneware clay and left to dry for a few days, before being fired in a kiln for the first time at 1000 degrees celsius. The vulva is then glazed with glass placed inside, which creates the sculpture’s notoriously eye-catching portal when it melts after the second firing at 1250 degrees celsius. Finally, genuine 22 karat gold is meticulously hand-painted around the portal and fired for the last time at 800 degrees celsius.

An alluring aspect of the project is that although they are all created using the same tried and tested method, each Sheela has a set of unique characteristics; some have flowing locks of hair, others have bulging eyes and prominent ears, and a few are even defiantly sticking out their tongues. In some cases, the glass portals are surrounded by radiant rust halos, formed as a result of a chemical reaction between the glass and iron in the clay, when heated at high temperatures.

Due to the widespread public attention and support that the project has garnered since its initial launch in 2020, the artists have been able to contribute donations to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Saoirse Women’s Refuge, both of which provide crucial services to women in vulnerable positions. This group of Irish feminists not only reminds us of the struggles women have endured since the beginning of time, but also suggest how changed the Irish woman is now, through the re-framing and reclamation of these mysterious artworks: powerful, significant, and sexually unashamed.