On May 11th I had the honor of attending the Resilient Sisterhood‘s event entitled “A Celebration to Remember Our Foremothers in Gynecology.” This may sound like a strange event to have even the most tenuous connection with art… but stick with me.
First of all, let’s start with what the Resilient Sisterhood Project is. In a nutshell, they are a Boston-area group dedicated to reproductive equality. Click the links to learn more about them and about the concept of reproductive equality via at New York Times article that explains how the US is full of inequality in the health system: particularly for black women.
The event I attended was filled with amazing music and eloquent speakers all addressing the topic of the history of medicine and the hidden contributions of women. The focus was particularly on Dr. J. Marion Sims, who experimented on black women as he perfected certain gynecological techniques (such as repairing a fistula) and inventing the speculum. I also learned that he is the physician with the most statues honoring him in the United States, yet is also known to have practiced medicine under horribly cruel medical conditions in an completely unethical manner, with only questionable consent from his patients, as he experimented on slaves.
Sims also kept quite good records. He, however, only names three of the female slaves in his writings. As such, these three women, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy, are used a proxy to represent all the women who underwent experimentation at his hand. To properly honor all three of these women, the Resilient Sisterhood Project commissioned three paintings by Jules Arthur. The unveiling of these works was the culmination of the event on May 11th.
These are beautiful works and deserve to be seen and honored, both for their workmanship and for the story that they help tell. While I could never do as good a job as Jules Arthur describing his own work, I am delighted to attempt to analyze aspects of of these paintings in my own particular way, bringing my personal perspective.
Supporters and patrons of the Resilient Sisterhood Project ended up commissioning three works altogether once they had seen the amazing strength of the first piece (pictured above). This piece is reminiscent of much of Arthur’s work, as can be seen on his website. His pieces tend to feature shoulder-up portraits, done in a circular frame. This style is often called a “tondo” in the art history community, a derivative of the the Italian word for round, “rotondo.”
The details in this work of art really help to bring it alive and give it the depth of meaning that Arthur sought. The piece is made on a solid plank of wood with metal corners. The tondo has a functional yet decorative metal frame with rivets. Lace, or a worn wallpaper, embellishes the top of the piece, masking the distressed wooden planks. The blue in the wallpaper echoes the same color found in the kerchief adorning the head of one of the women in the portraits, and the scalloped edge of the lace worn by another seems to echo the lace wallpaper background as well. These details, functional yet with a graceful flair, beautiful yet slightly worn, echo the beauty of the women, and bring into relief the cruelty of the story that told in the box at the bottom.
The bottom of the first piece shows a portrait of Dr. Sims, samples of the original Sims Speculum and other gynecological tools, and the “The History of Medicine,” by Robert Thom, painted circa 1952 which purports to show the slave Anarcha. This sort of “box” that could exist in a cabinet of curiosities serves to ground Arthur’s painting in reality, reminding the viewer of the reasons for which the portrait above was painted. The sharp edges of the square box, and of the items painted to look pinned inside give it a haphazard look. This is purposeful as it parallels the questionable manner in which Sims completed his medical experiments. The medical instruments add to the unpalatable reality of it all.
The second piece to be unveiled is pictured below. In the dying light of dusk we see two female slaves looking after a third, with Sims standing in the shadows. The dynamic placement of the three main figures creates a religious nature to the work, where one could argue the the purple and red-clothed woman takes the role of a Jesus figure attempting a healing. The triangular nature with an ill woman on her left and the woman in blue on her right also suggests either the Holy Trinity or perhaps even a modified Pieta.
Taking the Pieta concept further, if we compare Arthur’s work above with Agnolo Bronzino’s Renaissance work below, one can see many similarities in color and form. One might note that both main figures are draped in purple, and there is a triangular placement of the three, as well as the fact that dark shadows lurk in the background in both, intimating the presence of evil nearby. All these aspects suggest the classical nature of Arthur’s second work in this series.
Despite the classical nature of the second piece, it’s also important to recognize it as innovative as well. Sims’s slaves, in this painting were also acting as his midwives and nurses. And, in that sense, they were given more agency to heal and “change history” than the Virgin Mary or a disciple could after Jesus’s crucifixion. These strong women in Arthur’s work nursed each other through moments of extreme suffering wrought by their creator, over and over again. For example, Anarcha underwent at least 30 (!) surgeries at the hand of Sims before her fistula was repaired, all without the benefit of any type of anesthesia. (1)
With such medical experiments frequently visited upon them, it’s no surprise that the 21st century brought a desire from many to remove his statue from Central Park, where it had stood for 124 years, as depicted in the third image.
The three named women are shown looking down as the statue is removed, women and men of all races and from all time periods contribute to its destruction. This piece represents the culmination of many years of hard work to bring the truth of Sims’ story to light.
Hopefully with the continued work of the Resilient Sisterhood Project and so many other groups dedicated to the reproductive rights of women of color, this story will continue to be known. We cannot turn back the clock: women do benefit from what was learned by the horrific non-consensual medical experiments. However, what we can do is sing the praises of the brave women who underwent these procedures – over and over again – rather than lionizing the perpetrator.
Thank you RSP and Jules Arthur for helping to make this story more widely understood.