On May 14 last year, the Alabama Senate passed a bill that effectively banned all abortions in the state and criminalized the procedure. The next day, a curator named Jasmine Wahi texted her friend and collaborator, visual artist Marilyn Minter. The message, Wahi said, was simple: “We gotta do something.”
This week, “something” became Abortion Is Normal, an exhibit currently at the Eva Presenhuber gallery in New York City’s Nolita. The space is just two blocks up from Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Center, often a first stop for young women new to the city and looking for birth control and affordable health care. (Later this month, more work will pop-up at Arsenal Contemporary.)
Wahi co-curated the event with Rebecca Pauline Jampol; both women run the Newark, New Jersey, nonprofit Project for Empty Space. Artists Minter and Laurie Simmons co-organized, along with Gina Nanni and Sandy Tait.
The tight-knit gang came to the show’s opening with its title blazoned in glitter letters on black T-shirts. At first glance, there were a few hallmarks of popular feminism one might expect to see at something like this—stickers, cross-stitch art, the obligatory RBG portrait. But the show is more than something to appease the pink pussy-hat crew.
“I wanted to take an intersectional approach and inclusive approach to abortion rights, because they really impact all of us, whether or not we realize it,” Wahi said. “‘Empowerment’ is really a buzzword now, but I hope that some of these works really function as a form of strength and reclamation of space.”
Those involved hope that the pieces will be bought, with the proceeds going to the super PAC Downtown for Democracy and Planned Parenthood’s 2020 election efforts.
Despite the many iterations of “Abortion Is” sayings out there (health care, moral), the use of the word “normal” got pushback from some on the left, who felt that the subject matter shouldn’t be taken lightly. (Artnet called the title “provocative.”)
“We wanted to look at abortion from a health-care procedure—any health-care procedure you do that is your choice to do should be considered normalized and not stigmatized,” Wahi said. And indeed, for a show that could be incendiary—women have much to be mad about right now—the most radical thing about the art is that most of it looks very tidy.
Famed photographer Cindy Sherman, who often takes on fictional characters for her self-portraits, portrays a middle-class woman in a LeAnn Rimes T-shirt, clutching her stomach and staring off as if lost in a memory, bathed in an ominous shadow.
The artist Viva Ruiz, whose project Thank God For Abortion celebrates and champions access, included a group photo taken at last year’s joyous Pride March—an ebullient sight, far from a fearmongering Very Special Episode.
“The fact that people were objecting to the name ‘Abortion is Normal,’ was kind of stunning for us, because women have been getting abortions for millennia,” the artist Marilyn Minter said. “And it’s normal. It’s always been normal, but the right wing has made abortion toxic.”
“They coopted the language,” Laurie Simmons said. “They’ve taken the language and used words like ‘murder,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘shame.’”
“And we’re trying to raise money to erase it!” Minter added. “That’s the one thing Donald Trump has done, he’s gotten our old group back together again.”
Minter’s piece, “CUNTROL,” was made just for the exhibit, a triptych of stills from her 2018 protest video “My Cuntry ’Tis of Thee.” The sensual, softly-lit images—focusing in on a woman’s cherry red lips and tongue, licking the c-word onto a wet shower door—look elevated enough for a glossy magazine, if said glossy magazine were guest-edited by your punk rock aunt.
“If they’re going to call us cunts, I”m going to push it down their throats,” Minter shrugged. “Choke on it.”
Simmons, a photographer best known for her portraits of spindly, wide-eyed baby dolls, offered up her 1976 photo, “Mother-Nursery.” Taken just three years after Roe v. Wade, the haunting image conjures notions of forced domesticity.
“It’s really personal because I see the clock going backward,” Simmons said. “I have children, I have a daughter, a son, young friends. I can’t bear it. We can’t leave this planet leaving this mess for women’s reproductive rights. It has to be taken care of.”
Among the protest art and nude portraiture—or both, as the case may be with Nadine Faraj’s watercolors of topless women, bodies painted with “My Pussy, My Rules”—is perhaps the most titillating piece of all, Christen Clifford’s “I Want Your Blood.” The feminist performing artist displayed 25 shelves stocked with vintage glass perfume bottles, all filled with menstrual waste.
“We suggested Clifford do an installation,” Wahi said. “She’s been collecting this material since 2003 from all over the place, from people with different gender identities who all have uteruses.”
During the first installation of Clifford’s piece, one of the sealed bottles dropped and broke. “It was very intense,” Wahi remembered. “But it was OK. When you work in a gallery full of women, you’re like, ‘OK, whatever.’ We lean into it.”