“Abortion Stories USA” at Lump Gallery is a powerful assertion of reproductive rights

Abortion Stories United States | Until Sunday August 28 | Lump Gallery, Raleigh

At the corner of East Cabarrus Street and South Blount Street in Raleigh, past the neighborhood barbershop and the Baptist Church, you’ll find the modest gray storefront of Lump Gallery. Step into the gallery this month (dodging, perhaps, to escape the heat) and you’ll also come across more than a dozen multimedia works of art curated by the new-found artist, activist and curator. Yorker Rebecca Goyette. Their theme: abortion stories.

A pink and green Shireen Liane flag hanging from the back of the gallery marks this theme most directly, spelling out the words “Abortion Without Excuses.” This gives a bright and assertive tone to an exhibition that is just that. There’s also Michelle Hartney’s “Mother’s Right,” an installation of 100 handmade hospital gowns on a rack (the gowns are borrowed from a larger exhibit of 1,200, one for each person who died of a cause related to pregnancy in 2013); Viva Ruiz’s jubilant music video “Thank God for Abortion Anthem”; and watercolors by Goyette that reference her ancestor, also named Rebecca, who was hanged as a witch during the Salem witch trials.

The exhibit also has ties to Abortion Stories 2022, an interactive art and storytelling project founded by Cassandra Neyenesch and Carolina Franco that invites stories, according to the event description, from “absolutely anyone who wants to share their experience with abortion, whether or not they have been pregnant or not.

On July 22, during the opening of the exhibition, about thirty people gathered at Lump for a listening session hosted by Neyenesch, an artist based in New York. Towards the end of the exhibit, on August 17, Goyette will host a Zoom artist panel and story-sharing session on abortion.

“The positive effects of [sharing abortion stories] are many,” says Neyenesch. “There is the release of stigma when you tell your story. There is witnessing and being heard. Especially for the pre-deer people, there is the recording of their experience for history, because it is really forgotten.

This kind of sharing opportunity seems both obvious and rare. Although one in four women get an abortion before the age of 45, making abortion one of the most common medical procedures, it’s rare to hear about it outside of the quiet tones.

In the days following the Dobbs decision, that paradigm briefly shifted on my social media feeds, which swept over personal stories – one or two from cisgender men, if not entirely from people giving birth – about abortion and how it had changed, and in some cases saved lives. But Instagram Stories feel fleeting, disappearing after 24 hours, and even an Instagram post is algorithmically crafted to be pushed under the nooks and crannies of sponsored reels about hair gels and fat-burning creams.

Beyond those weeks in late June, a broad public pushback against the decision and its many future repercussions subsided. Street marches have stopped for now, as have Instagram stories and infographics. There is an element of exhaustion in this ebb (climate change disasters and mass shootings have come swiftly on the heels of the abortion news) and also anxiety, as it has become clear that the digital surveillance can collect and sell your story, even when – perhaps, especially when – you yourself are not ready to share it.

Reproductive rights may have broad support in North Carolina – a recent Meredith poll in the state found that 52.6% of poll respondents support Deer’s, compared to 40% of respondents who want to restrict access, but even in a time of abundant content, representing those rights seems increasingly difficult.

Goyette and Neyenesch, for their part, saw the writing on the wall long before Politics disclosed the Supreme Court’s draft opinion. Neyenesch began hosting the first Abortion Stories 2022 event after the passage of Bill 8 in Texas in May 2021, and it’s only a coincidence that this year’s Abortion Stories 2022 festival, May 6 in New York Tompkins Square Park, fell four days after the Dobbs leak. Goyette, who has been making artwork about the Salem witch trials since Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in, displayed the artwork at the event.

“Meeting these women and hearing these stories really reinforced my sense of urgency,” says Goyette. “Now Roe vs. Wade is overturned. Supreme Court justices are in office for God knows how long, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up. It’s time to keep fighting.

During this festival, Goyette met and began her collaboration with Neyenesch and was inspired to organize a program on abortion.

“When we see the variety of stories, which also include things like ectopic pregnancies, complications, economic reasons; there are so, so many reasons why people have abortions – it really makes you go back to the idea that no matter the story, you should have the right to make your own decision,” she says.

Films have recently paid for narration rights: there has been, for example, a series of independent films on the road to accessing an abortion. Documentary The Janes, currently airing on HBO, tells the story of a clandestine network that, beginning in 1969, helped women access more than 11,000 clandestine abortions. And then there’s a body horror thriller Eventplayed in select theaters, which brings Annie Ernaux’s memoir of her violent struggle to access abortion care to life.

These movies are important even though I’ve found watching a documentary alone in bed offers limited catharsis. We have been conditioned to experience reproductive health and abortion (and their attendant sorrows) as private and solitary matters. The calm of a gallery offers something more meditative and emotionally generative, and while Lump doesn’t see much foot traffic in the summer, sitting in public and being surrounded by stories feels communal.

At a time when North Carolina’s reproductive rights are at stake, Abortion stories in the United States is an invitation to sit and listen and, if you feel so moved, to speak up.

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