Art exhibition used humor, information to illuminate women’s bodies
by Whitney Stoepel
A giant plush vulva confronts gallery-goers entering “Everybody! Visual Resistance in Feminist Health Movements, 1969-2009” at I Space. As I wandered toward the piece, Mary Antonakos, the gallery director, hurried over with a smile saying, “Excuse me! I have to tidy up my vulva,” referring to the scattered decorations strewn on the floor meant for audience participation. Antonakos’ humor about the show does not offset her feelings about the show’s ability to educate. This show, curated by Bonnie Fortune, a University of Illinois graduate student, presents
the female body candidly, unabashedly and informatively.
Illustrations by Suzann Gage show women exploring their bodies with scapulas accompanied by encouraging, smiling women leaning in for a look. The textbook-like appearance of these images makes them surprisingly nonconfrontational. In fact, these drawings appeared in “A New View of a Woman’s Body” (Federation of Women’s Health Centers, 1981). The images defy the notion that because female genitalia exists inside the body, unlike the male’s, they have to remain a secret.
When Suzann Gage saw her cervix, her life changed. Gage had always been a visual person and loved art as early as she could remember. In 1972 Gage attended a meeting with other young feminists to learn about cervical examination. This was a radical new trend in the Women’s Health Movement. However, Antonakos talked about why these images have the potential to be incredibly uncomfortable, even for female viewers, because modern female sexuality does not necessarily include familiarity with one’s own body.
This show includes Riot Grrrl zines from the collection of Duke University and Barnard University titled “The Herbal Abortion” as well as literature from Women on Waves: Abortion with Pills Saves Women’s Lives. Yet the only negative feedback, according to Antonakos, was related to the discomfort people felt from Gage’s “explicit” drawings.
Christa Donner’s installation wall painting, “Inheritance,” is also on view at Everybody! Resembling comic art with bright colors and flattened figures, it depicts a woman whose insides are filled with partially developed fetuses. That same image is duplicated into a bubble hovering over her head, as if she is admitting a secret to the three girls facing her. In contrast, the three girls insides are full of eggs and they all lean into each other, as if telling a secret about the outcast speaker. Again, this solidifies the idea of the female body as a secret or an embarrassment, this time in relationship to abortion.
Antonakos made it clear this show is not pro-abortion. Nor is it pro-life. It is “pro-women’s health.” Throughout the gallery are poster collections from the Chicago Women’s Health Center, the Federation of Feminist Health Centers and the Chicago Women’s Graphic Collective. Although the show has a heavily feminist and activist slant, its main objective is to educate, not preach.
The show seamlessly integrates the Women’s Health Movement with art. Bonnie Fortune is an artist as well as a doula, a woman who assists women during labor and after childbirth. Gage runs Progressive Health Services in San Diego as an OB/GYN nurse practitioner and is an artist. Donner’s artist statement says, “Through public projects and collaborative zines, I exchange stories of bodily experience to provoke dialogue both in the art world and beyond it. This inquiry allows me to transform misunderstanding and anxiety into a personal, magical, powerful re-visioning of alternative anatomies.”
Antonakos declared, “Yes!” when I asked if she thought I Space, a University of Illinois gallery, felt an obligation to educate. “The University of Illinois is a research institution and facilitates a public service mandate. That is taken very seriously.” She also feels that artists have that accountability as well. Students and artists alike have a responsibility to interact and give back to their communities. Antonakos added, “Where are you thinking about going as an artist? How are you being a good citizen? I think that’s what it means to be an artist.”
I Space is at 230 W. Superior on
the second floor. The show
closed October 10.