Reproductive Justice & Artwork
One of the goals of RSP is to use art as a medium to bear witness in order to connect the past to the present. While recognizing the harm and exploitation caused by the institution of slavery on Black women’s reproductive health in this country, we seek to illustrate stories that uplift the human dignity of these ancestors, Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Our paintings draw deliberate historical focus on the intersection of health, medical, and socio-political concepts of race and Black women’s reproductive health.
During the 1840s in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. James Marion Sims, long lauded as “the father of modern gynecology” by the medical establishment, exercised inhumane and unethical conduct through his experiments on nearly a dozen black women only three of the women he bought—known to us only as Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. In an era when anesthesia was beginning to be used for operations, these multiple surgeries were done without the benefit of anesthetics because he claimed that black people did not feel as much pain as white people. Dr. Sims is credited with having invented the vaginal speculum and a corrective method for vesico-vaginal fistula—a severe disability often caused by prolonged labor, particularly among young women. Vesico-vaginal fistulas were a common problem for all women in the 19th century, but they were frequently by-products of slavery due to malnutrition, repeated rapes, and unspaced pregnancies demanded by slave owners. Dr. Sims personally noted that he conducted thirty experimental surgeries on Anarcha before he finally perfected the techniques to repair this condition.
The paintings by Mr. Arthur dignify the experiences of these women by reframing the narrative from one that focuses on Dr. Sims as the “father of modern gynecology” for his corrective surgeries and general gynecological inventions. He humanizes them through his artistic genius rather than showing them as mere victims of Dr. Sims. Although these young women were not nameless, we have no images of them to know what they may have looked like. With the creation of this group of paintings, Mr. Arthur gives us faces for Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy as he poignantly portrays their struggles and sisterhood born of shared trauma. We hope the paintings elicit curiosity and empathy as well as introspection, and we invite you to bear witness alongside us.
See the pictures for our event organized on Saturday, May 11th, 2019 where we took a leading role in regard to the nationally significant agenda that brought to light the contributions to modern gynecology of three enslaved women from the 1840s. The paintings above were unveiled during that evening. They were commissioned by the well-known African American artist, Jules Arthur, depicting these enslaved women.
RSP is deeply grateful to all of the people who generously supported the commission of these paintings.
Remembering Our Foremothers Event
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Many mountains to climb. Juneteenth, a day marked for the Emancipation Proclamation— even such an important event was handed to us with heavy boulders.
In recognition of the historical importance of Juneteenth, RSP chose to draw a parallel between racial and systemic injustices and the Greek Mythology of the Rock of Sisyphus—a rock that clearly belongs in the hands of oppressors. Undeservedly, and for 400+ years, Black people living in the United States have been handed the Rock of Sisyphus in the form of these injustices.
For his great offenses and misdeeds, Sisyphus was punished by the gods. For eternity, he was forced to push up a great boulder toward the peak of a mountain only for the boulder to roll back down whenever it neared the top. Oftentimes, the struggle to achieve racial equity in this country resembles a Sisyphean effort as we perpetually carry and resist the endless burden of white supremacy.
The drawing above is by the artist, Elijah Marshall. This drawing was commissioned by RSP for this specific communal lament event. Mr. Marshall titled this piece “The Path Up.” In this work, we observe four figures, each heaving a boulder to the peak of a mountain in a similar fashion to the tragic disgraced Greek king Sisyphus. Mr. Marshall explains that he designed four figures struggling for the cause of racial equity. The figures represent the four hundred years of mistreatment and subjugation that black people have endured. As these people in the drawing traverse the mountain, their boulders become smaller and more jagged. The smaller boulders reflect the progress made throughout our history and the jagged ones to show the resistance to white supremacy that exists to this day.
However, Mr. Marshall wants us to see a different ending to the Sisyphus myth. The purpose of this drawing is not merely to remind us of the suffering endured—but to affirm the possibility of reaching the summit of the peak that lies ahead. In this light, communal lament leads us to condemn the oppressive weight of the boulders and to gather strength through our hopes, resistance, and solidarity.
We invite you to look closely at the drawing and create your own meaning.