Lower East Side gallery shines light on untold abortion stories

Last week, Policy leaked a draft Supreme Court opinion that threatened to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and late last summer, Texas banned most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. In the United States, nearly one in four women will benefit from an abortion before age 45, but even though the procedures are common, talking about them is still rare.

This weekend, the Cindy Rucker Gallery on the Lower East Side hosted a three-day festival honoring these often unheard stories. The event provided a space for people to share their experiences with abortion and featured an exhibition of artwork inspired by them.

“I saw the writing on the wall with the Supreme Court,” writer Cassandra Neyenesch, who started hosting the festival last year, told Hyperallergic. “I said, ‘This stuff will come back, maybe we should be prepared this time. “”

Last October, Neyenesch sat down in Tompkins Square Park with two chairs and a tent and asked people to tell her their abortion stories. She was surprised at how many people did it and moved by the fact that for many of them it was the first time they had spoken about it. On Saturday, the nonprofit group StoryCorps visited the gallery to record some of these stories, which will be sent to and archived at the Library of Congress.

From a pile on the floor of the gallery, visitors could pick up a box of “abortion pills” depicting a QR code that links to resources for those seeking to terminate a pregnancy. The boxes were created by Shout Your Abortion, a group dedicated to documenting women’s experiences with abortion. Their stories are nuanced, touching not only on how they had their abortions, but also how they felt.

Lena Chen, “We lived in the gaps between stories” (2021) (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

A focal point of the exhibition was “We Lived in The Gaps Between the Stories” (2021), a large wreath created by artist Lena Chen from plants traditionally used for abortions. Beginning last June, she worked with an herbalist who uses plants such as mugwort, which is widely considered an invasive species, to provide out-of-clinic abortion support to women.

“I specifically wanted to work on a piece that celebrated the work of abortion workers rather than focusing on the debate over whether or not abortion should be legal,” Chen told Hyperallergic..

Christen Clifford creating “indoor portraits” (photo courtesy of Cassandra Neyenesch)

“I think there’s a lot of art and significant political activism already addressing the latter, but what gets lost in the shuffling and debate is the work of these very real people who dedicate their lives to something that is not only controversial, but can lead to them being victims of violence,” Chen continued.

Downstairs, Christen Clifford’s performance “Interior Portraits: We’re All Pink Inside” was recorded and played on a loop on a television set in the window overlooking the street. For the latest installment of the project, which she started in 2015 taking portraits of herself, Clifford sat down with her subjects as they used a sex toy with a camera to take the ‘portrait’ video. It was the first time she performed in a gallery.

Clifford, who incorporates pleasure-based sex education into the classes she teaches at The New School, focuses on removing feelings of shame from women’s relationships with their bodies.

“At first, I had a kind of inner cry, like, ‘What should I do to get people to pay close attention to what bodies with vaginas and wombs need? ‘” Clifford told Hyperallergic. Since then, the project has grown to include all genres.

“This isn’t just a women’s health project, although that may come out of it,” continued Clifford. “A lot of my research comes from early feminist art and early feminist body art. What I’m hoping to do is expand that and blow it up a bit to include all bodies, because all bodies deserve bodily autonomy.

Christen Clifford, “Interior Portrait, Lydia” (2022), digital photograph taken at Cindy Rucker Gallery for Abortion stories 2022 (photo courtesy of Christen Clifford)
Lydia Nobles, “Claudia” (2022), jade, acrylic, acrylic latex, rubber, 41 x 22 x 30 inches (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

For his series As I sit and wait, artist Lydia Nobles has created abstract sculptures, each based on a different abortion experience. Nobles has been telling these stories — what it’s been like to be in the waiting room, having the procedure, the emotions that surfaced before and after — since 2018, after she had an abortion herself. She mostly found people to talk to by messaging them on Instagram, and like Neyenesch, she found many were willing and ready to talk.

Nobles told Hyperallergic that in the pro-choice, pro-life political binomial, women often lack the space to talk about the elements of abortion that were difficult for them. Even when they don’t regret terminating their pregnancies, their stories are often misinterpreted.

“There’s so much spectrum that we’re really missing in the conversation,” Nobles said. “I try to get into all of those nuances, because they’re often overlooked.”

Works by Darryl Lavare (left) and Rebecca Goyette (right) (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

In the exhibit, Neyenesch included abstract paintings created by her mother, Judith Vivell, who has her own abortion story to tell. In 1960, before Roe vs. Wade was adopted and when abortion was still illegal in California, Vivell drove her friend from Berkeley to Mexico and brought her back to have an abortion, and years later Vivell had one too.

In the photographs of Morgan Cousin, the artist documents himself having an abortion. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
Morgan Goyette’s paintings imagine the life of her ancestor, who was hanged as a witch in Puritan Massachusetts. In the foreground, a looping video showed Kwajelyn Jackson, the executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, speaking about access to abortion. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

The exhibit also included works by Darryl Lavare, whose punk rock-style paintings center political discourse around abortion. In one piece, cartoon characters of conservative politicians are combined with pro-life messages in what almost looks like a collage. Meanwhile, Rebecca Goyette’s paintings imagine the story of one of her ancestors, who was hanged as a witch in Puritan times; on the same wall, Jamaican artist Morgan Cousins ​​documented herself having an abortion in intimate, low-light self-portraits.

Far right: Judith Vivell, “An Infinite Capacity” (2022), mixed media on canvas, 48 ​​x 36 inches (photo courtesy of Cassandra Neyenesch)
Lena Chen honors abortion workers at a ceremony in Tompkins Square Park.

Last Friday, May 7, in Tompkins Square Park, Chen used her crown to perform a ceremony honoring abortion workers. Previously, people had told their abortion stories, in public or in private, and clinicians had provided information about access to abortion.

“I think maintaining space, and especially the emphasis on storytelling in this festival, is so important and contributes so much to political change itself,” Chen told Hyperallergic.

“I think it’s important to note that art is not necessarily the same thing as activism or vice versa, but art plays a very important role because often activism work is a long game which can get really daunting at times, like this week,” she added. “I think the role of art is to support our hope and create a sense of possibility and resilience, especially in times like this when it feels like a lot of progress has been made. are rejected.”

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