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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In June of 2020, RSP hosted a virtual Communal Lament in a Time of Crisis event in observation of the Juneteenth. June 19th, 1865 was the beginning of the Juneteenth holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States, but it did not end of racial inequity or even all slavery in the US. Overturning racism and instilling racial equality is still an up-hill battle. In recognition of this, RSP commissioned the above artwork by Elijah Marshall titled The Path Up. Unveiled at the Communal Lament event, The Path Up represents a different perspective on the myth of Sisyphus as it we relate it to the struggles that have faced Black people throughout history and the struggles that face Black people today.
The myth of Sisyphus contains a well-known uphill battle. According to Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was punished by Zeus for cheating death. For all eternity, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a great boulder toward the peak of a mountain only for the boulder to roll back down whenever it neared the top. For hundreds of years, Black people living in the United States have been handed the Rock of Sisyphus in the form of racial injustices, inequity, and trauma stemming from centuries-old systematic racism—both past and present. Overturning racism and instilling racial equity is still an up-hill battle, and generational and systemic racism still weigh heavily on Black people in America today.
In Marshal’s work, four figures heave boulders to the peak of a mountain like Sisyphus. Mr. Marshall explains that he designed the figures to represent the struggle for racial equity. The figures represent the four hundred years of mistreatment and subjugation that black people have endured. As these people 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 the white supremacy that exists to this day.
Mr. Marshall wants us to see a different ending to the Sisyphus myth. The purpose of this piece of art is not merely to remind us of the suffering endured—but to affirm that we continue to make progress. There is a possibility of reaching the summit that lies ahead. With this work and the Communal Lament event, we both condemn the oppressive weight of the boulders and gather strength through hope, resistance, and solidarity.
We invite you to look closely at the image above and see the myth of Sisyphus in a new light.