Abortion is Normal: Using Protest Art to Envisage Reproductive Rights

By: Bluma Gross  |  February 6, 2020

By Bluma Gross

Titled an “emergency exhibition,” the Abortion is Normal exhibition in Manhattan’s Lower East Side brings awareness to the new legislative restrictions on abortion laws and the threat of Roe v. Wade’s reversal under the Trump administration. The exhibition, composed of two parts, features pieces from famed feminist artists like Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons. The exhibition aims to destigmatize this highly controversial issue while empowering women’s reproductive rights. 

In the South and Midwest, states have increasingly been picking up bans and restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, threatening women’s rights to safe and legal abortion. Offering no exception for cases of rape or incest, Alabama’s state legislature enacted a near-total abortion ban under the Human Life Protection Act; physicians who perform the procedure there could be sentenced to life imprisonment. 

Abortion is Normal follows historical precedence in the use of art for protest. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s through the 90s, artists sought to express the grief and anger caused by the virus and lack of healthcare support by the government. Suffering from the illness themselves, artists like Keith Haring and Robert Maplethorpe created pieces demonstrating their frustrations and those of the gay community. Despite their untimely deaths from AIDS-related complications, Haring and Maplethorpe’s impression on contemporary art, and specifically protest art, endures. 

Jasmine Wahi and Rebecca Pauline Jampol curated Abortion is Normal together promptly after hearing about the ban in Alabama. Both Wahi and Jampol are co-founders of Projects for Empty Space, a nonprofit organization based in Newark that aims to create a relationship between artist and audience and break social taboos through open dialogue. The activists paired up with the artist-run political action organization Downtown Democracy. As the exhibition’s website states, all proceeds from the exhibition will go toward funding voter education and Planned Parenthood’s PAC efforts. 

The first part of the exhibition, straight off of Bowery in Galerie Eva Presenhuber, features portrayals of and by well-known female activists, ranging from a watercolor portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a hazy photograph triptych titled Cuntrol by the feminist activist Marilyn Minter. Provocateur Christen Clifford displayed her piece I Want Your Blood, composed of 25 shelves of perfume bottles containing menstrual blood. The installation captures the stigma around periods while pushing the boundaries of expected artistic medium. This is not the first time an artist has used bodily fluids for artistic purposes; in the early 2000s, Vanessa Tiegs coined the term menstrala to describe 88 pieces made from period blood. Since then, feminist artists have embraced blood as a medium, in an attempt to destigmatize the natural cycle and bring the controversial topic to the table. 

The second part of the exhibition in Arsenal Contemporary gallery, nearly four blocks away, contains a modest amount of tactful pieces. Upon entering the gallery, I was taken aback by Carrie Mae Weems’ The Broken, See Duchamp. Weems’ rendition of Duchamp’s Étant donnés, is much darker than the original, deliberately erasing the scenic background and exposing the model’s face. The piece is suffused by a bleak and enigmatic air, similar to the current situation on women’s reproductive rights in the United States. A few works by Colombian artist Elektra KB were displayed at the exhibition. The artist is known for exploring contemporary issues like ethnicity and gender identity through a feminist vernacular. The artist brings awareness to trans and non-binary people’s relationships to reproductive health in her photo series, Queer Alterations For A Post-Nuclear Kin. In one of the photographs, a pregnant woman sits topless gazing into the lense nonchalantly. The woman’s tired expression perfectly captivates how feminist activists feel after years of fighting for women’s reproductive rights. The ban on safe and legal abortions is a step backward for the United States and a challenge for feminist activists. Abortion is Normal sheds light on feminist artists’ relentless plight and is a sign of hope for the progression of women’s reproductive rights. 

Part one of Abortion is Normal took place in Galerie Eva Presenhuber from January 9th to the 18th, part two at Arsenal Contemporary from January 21 until February 1.