blood art

Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of Monstrosity – 4th Global Conference, Lisbon, Portugal – 22-24 March 2015

I am on my way to Lisbon, Portugal (via London) where I will be presenting a paper at the 4th Global Conference Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of Monstrosity – 22 – 24th March 2015. See abstract below.  For more information please visit Interdisciplinary.net.


Gendered Heterotopias: Creating Space for Menstrual Blood in Contemporary Art

Many social and cultural attitudes towards menstruation are intricately linked to the affective recognition of blood, which then becomes gendered and socially excluded as menstruation. Numerous cultural traditions add further negative values to menstrual blood, associating it with pollution, abjection and inferiority.  This may be because menstruation is implicitly understood as destabilizing the boundaries between inside and outside of the body, private and public, natural and reviled. 

My research considers the work of Michel Foucault and his notion of heterotopias as imaginary spaces that exist in reality as ‘spaces of otherness’. Most importantly, his account of ‘heterotopia’ (a neologism that rejects the negative and positive values associated with utopia and dystopia creating an in-between space) places menstruation into a transient space that women inhabit through cyclical reproductive states of being.

This paper will examine the way a number artworks concerning menstruation utilize actual physical space.  The structuring of social space, and how it makes us see, act and ‘make natural’ in space, can be challenged by the spatial practices and visibility of artworks through directly immersing men and women into the ‘quarantined’ areas of menstrual huts and gendered space. These spatial heterotopias are immersive spaces that position the viewer inside of them, a phenomenological consideration of the body in relation to space.

Menstruation is a significant marker of sexual difference; it is ‘gendered blood’ that divides and distinguishes women, and that has made them in many cases by association, the ‘subjects’ of evil and taboo.  One of the main tools used to maintain this stigma is to erase the presence of the scene of menstruation in speech, image and representation.  The artworks I examine in this paper are instrumental in undermining this stigma. Additionally, this process of undermining also manages to bring about changes in what we assume to be the function and value of art.

Keywords: art, heterotopia, gender, menstrual blood, menstruation, performance, phenomenology, spatial practices, space, taboo.

Zanele Muholi – Isilumo siyaluma

Zanele Muholi is an award winning South African lesbian photographer and visual activist, making photographic images to challenge her community and their perceptions of female sexuality.[1]  Her ongoing investigation of the experience, vision, representation and politics of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community makes visible the multiplicities and different lived bodies. Muholi’s photographs and digital prints employ menstruation as a vehicle to question the predominant prejudices in South Africa towards lesbian women. Muholi has to contend with patriarchal dominance, that places females lower than males; a global situation of whites colonising blacks; and a society that on the surface accepts individual freedom to choose one’s own sexual orientation, but refuses to acknowledge rape as a hate crime.[2] In the society is which Muholi’s work is presented, sexual difference is not something that is openly tolerated.  Female same sex practices are often so unacceptable that it can often be families who are first to discriminate.  No sooner than being turned out of their home, young women are abused through acts of ‘curative rape’.  “It has always been in society since the onset of patriarchy and been used as a tool to control people’s sexuality”.[3]  Muholi’s digital prints push the boundaries of social and cultural tolerance and ensure that those whose voice has been historically ignored can begin to reclaim a visual culture that was previously denied to them. Through her art, Muholi allows the viewer to experience the ‘body’ imaginatively and from multiple perspectives, thus creating a space to value difference.

Zanele-Muholi-03

Muholi’s Isilumo siyaluma series depict the notion of ‘painful periods’ in a decorative pattern using her own menstrual blood.  As representations of flowers, these images symbolise a de-flowering of women, and a brutalisation of their sexual rights. This idea of de-flowering continues through as what Muholi refers to as South African men intending to ‘cure’ lesbian women by means of rape.  This notion of ‘curative rape’ is intended to be a form of punishment and a method of ‘correcting’ gender roles that conform to social normative behaviour.[4]. She explains, “there is nothing to correct, this is who we are.”[5]  Muholi collected and documented her blood to express her anger at these curative rapes; her Isilumo siyaluma series becomes like a suite of documents, incorporating a trace of the artist’s body, signing in blood but also refer to criminal investigation by the repetition of thumbprints.

References

[1] In April 2012 Muholi’s home was burgled.  The items stolen were a laptop, and more than twenty primary and back-up external hard drives containing five years of photographic archive, including, yet to be exhibited images and other unfinished projects, which ultimately resulted in Muholi cancelling an upcoming exhibition.  Nothing else was stolen, leading to suspicion that Muholi was targeted for her efforts in documenting the lives of black lesbian women. This kind of censorship is evidence of the discriminating actions Muholi and others have received.  “Muholi’s plight has been largely ignored by the media” in South Africa, despite being “described by the Open Society Initiative for South Africa as ‘one of the country’s foremost artists’” – Archived from the original at (http://archive.is/Vl2L) – Accessed January 30, 2014. http://news.pinkpaper.com/NewsStory/7399/15/5/2012/Media-ignore-theft-of-photographers-work-documenting-black-lesbian-lives-.aspx

[2] South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.  South Africa was the firth county in the world, and the first in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage.

[3] Nathalie Rosa Bucher, “South Africa: Law Failing Lesbians on ‘Corrective Rape’”, Inter Press Service News Agency, (August 31, 2009) Accessed October 10, 2013. http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/08/south-africa-law-failing-lesbians-on-corrective-rape/

[4]This act of violence has been established in countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Thailand and Ecuador and is often overlooked due to women’s unstable sexual and economic power in these countries. Whilst rape as a crime enforced; ‘corrective of curative’ rape is not demarcated as a hate crime or acknowledged as an attack on someone based on their sexual orientation.  The political system in South Africa provides protection for homosexuality; however, the police appear in many cases not to enforce this law.  Ibid.

[5] “Zanele Muholi explains to Toxic Lesbian her Project “Isilumo siyaluma””, (October 24, 2011) Accessed December 15, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHmdPIgO47g

Zanele Muholi. Ummeli, 2011. Digital print on cotton rag of a digital menstrual blood stains.

Zanele Muholi. Ummeli, 2011. Digital print on cotton rag of a digital menstrual blood stains.

Writing in Blood

For Irigaray, blood is simultaneously metaphorical and literal, a foundation of female sense and sexuality.  She writes, “[y]our blood is translated into their senses” (1)  which refers to a wordplay between sang (blood) and sens (sense/direction) which extends the parallel between sexuality and writing. Irigaray’s celebration of menstrual symbolism creates an inter-textual link with Helene Cixous and her notion of Écriture Féminine, which literally means ‘gendered women’s writing.’  Therefore, menstrual blood becomes a pigment that embodies the creative value of women.

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Spanish artist Isa Sanz’s photographic self-portrait, Alquimia (Alchemy) (2007) depicts the artist with blood between her fingers as she writes the word amor (love) on the wall. The blood ink comes from the fountain of menstrual blood that cascades down her legs.  This creative deed becomes an ‘alchemy labour’, a purifying act where the abject transforms into clean fluid, a natural feminine essence.  Using blood to inscribe the body parallels another artist, Cuban Ana Mendieta in her performative painting, Untitled (Blood Sign) (1974) she scripted in blood ‘She got love, there is a devil inside of me’.  Sanz creates homage to the Cuban artist because of their joint concerns of the cyclical nature of life birth, death and re-birth  and through the use of the body as a medium for expressing in blood.

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(1) Luce Irigaray, ‘This Sex which Is Not One’, in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, eds., Kate Conboy, Nadia Medina and Sarah Stanbury, (New York, Colombia Press, 1997), 69.

‘Rachel Hides the Idols’

Tiepolo’s  fresco ‘Rachel Hides the Idols from her Father Laban’ (1726-1729) makes a direct reference to menstruation.  The painting depicts a passage from the Old Testament, “And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me. And he searched but found not the images,” Genesis 31: 35.

To make up for the fact that she has no dowry, Rachel takes her fathers statues before she sets off to Cannan with her husband Jacob.  Laban, her father, catches up with them and demands his precious statues back, but Jacob is unaware of stolen idols.  In Tiepolo’s fresco, Rachel is depicted sitting on the saddle with the statues demanding that she cannot get up insofar as she is menstruating.  The biblical story infers that Rachel uses menstruation as away to deceive her father, and also her husband (by not telling Jacob she took the idols), which enforces the attitudinal tendency to see women as living in ‘original sin’.

tiepolo, rachel-hiding-the-idols-1728