Judy Chicago

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.

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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.

Red Flag, (1971) – Judy Chicago

Image

Judy Chicago’s representation of a used tampon in her photographic lithograph, Red Flag (1971) is characteristic of the American feminist objective. [1] She elaborates, “I wanted to validate overt female subject matter in the art community and chose to do so by making “Red Flag” as a handmade litho, which is a high art process, usually confined to much more neutralized subject matter. By using such overt content in the form, I was attempting to introduce a new level of permission for woman artists. It really worked.”[2] At the time, she exhibited this work, some members of the audience assumed that it was a ‘blooded penis’. In response, Chicago commented that such confusion was “a testament to the damage done to our perceptual powers by the absence of female reality”.[3] The practice of ‘menstrual denial’ was what Chicago was trying to abolish. In hindsight, the notion that the lithograph is something other than what it depicted, a blood soaked tampon, seems strange. However, given the widespread attitude towards menstruation as unspeakable and unshowable, it is logical to posit that this was one of the first images that depicted this routine action that women know intimately so well[4] yet is so visually absent in western culture.

[1] Chicago had arranged for Hamrol to take a picture of her pulling out a bloody Tampax and print a photograph from which the lithographers would make a working negative.

[2] Delaney, J., M. J. Lupton, and E. Toth. The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. New York: EP Dutton and Co. Inc, 1976, p. 275. It may have worked well in the 70s however, in post-modern society, women need to be more creative with the ways in which they explore menstruation.

[3] Rosewarne, L. Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television. Lexington Books, 2012, p. 168.  See also, Bobel, Chris. New Blood Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010, p. 47.

[4] Delaney, Lupton, & Toth, 1998, p. 275.