‘Deeply Rooted’—Pursuing Reproductive Justice Through Art

By | Dec 08, 2023
Arts, Cover Story, Latest
Amulets by Charlie Schön

Twenty-one women artists have created art from earth, cloth and clay. They have done so to spotlight reproductive justice, bringing their passion, faith and culture to a new multimedia art exhibition titled “Deeply Rooted: Faith in Reproductive Justice,” on view at Brandeis University’s Kniznick Gallery until February 1, 2024.

These artists have elevated so-called women’s work such as embroidery and sewing, and transformed those cliches into powerful artistic statements. They have created garments and paintings with images of uteruses and added symbols commonly thought of as feminine to both men and women’s clothing. In their works, embroidered messages serve as deceptively quiet calls to action and religious imagery is altered and employed to protest draconian laws that control women’s bodies. Their collective art is a powerful rejoinder to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last spring.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, home to the Kniznick Gallery, says that “’Deeply Rooted’ came out of an attentiveness to Jewish perspectives on reproductive rights [prioritizing a mother’s life] and the relevance they have for commenting on what has been happening in the courts and legislatures.”

The exhibition illustrates what the show’s curator Caron Tabb calls artivism—a portmanteau of the words artist and activism. Tabb takes an artivistic and multidisciplinary approach to her art, which organically incorporates social justice values in raw materials similar to those found on her childhood farm in Israel—materials such as wood and wire and plaster. Her passion is rooted in Jewish ritual and values as well as in the injustices of apartheid South Africa, where she was born. Tabb and her family immigrated to Israel when she was eight years old, and the influence of her life on a farm is evident in her distinct wielding of tools such as saws and wire cutters.

In addition to curating the show, Tabb had contributed a piece from her series titled “I Am My Sister’s Keeper”—works based on feminist and socially liberal commentary on Exodus 21:22: “When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning.” Tabb’s installation, I Am My Sister’s Keeper 2, is a reimagined Torah cover that, flaunting convention, is crafted in the shape of a woman’s bust. The backbone of the Torah cover is inscribed with “I Am My Sister’s Keeper” in Hebrew and English. Bearing in mind that a Torah cover is a highly decorated piece of textile honoring the scroll’s contents, the scroll itself contains just the single verse from Exodus scribed on goat parchment, as in a traditional Torah.

My Sister's Keeper 2 by Caron Tabb, part of the Deeply Rooted exhibition.

My Sister’s Keeper 2, by Caron Tabb

Indigenous artist Nayana LaFond’s installation, Truth, approaches sisterhood from a place of trauma. When Tabb asked her to contribute to “Deeply Rooted,” LaFond says, “my brain went straight to the murders of Indigenous women, the third leading cause of death in my community.” Using 20 bags of topsoil, each weighing 40 pounds, LaFond arranged the dirt in a rectangular planting bed surrounded by red silk. In Indigenous tradition, red is the only color spirits can see, thus inviting murdered women to partake in the installation.

LaFond then lay in the dirt, imprinting her body in order to conjure women’s bodily autonomy. She added footprints, filling them with red paint to stand in for bloody violence. She added plaques made of epoxy resin that function as headstones to convey the facts and statistics in documents that address reproductive justice. One plaque excerpts a 2016 letter from the United Nations to the United States warning about the repeal of Roe v. Wade. The other is part of an article Harvard University published in 2022 finding that murder was the leading cause of death among pregnant women in the United States. LaFond explains: “I wanted to use dirt because of how important it is to be close to the earth in my culture. And when we talk about [murdered] women being found, it’s often in the ground. The high statistics of sexual assault that Indigenous women experience make it so important to be able to be proactive if the assault results in a pregnancy. In my community, bodily autonomy [regarding an unplanned pregnancy] is there for women, it’s not even a question.”

Charlie Dov Schön employs red as a spiritual color in the Jewish protection amulets she makes. She says she never knew a time before Roe v. Wade, and it was inevitable that the impact of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision would find its way into her art. Schön’s recent amulets are on display in “Deeply Rooted.”

“A red triangle symbolizes fertility,” she says, “which I incorporate in my amulets.” Schön has also made wrist amulets reminiscent of tefillin. “I’ve integrated prayer into these amulets and made them to resemble a pill box, evoking birth control.” She adds that her identity as a Jewish woman is ever-present in her artistic explorations. “My pieces are memory keepers and documentarians baring my body, my rituals and my mind. I feel a lot of gratitude to have grown up with Roe.”

Bodily autonomy also figures prominently in Azita Moradkhani’s artistic vision. Moradkhani grew up Muslim in Iran in the late 1990s and remembers how women were punished in public, many times brutally, for not wearing a hijab. She moved to Boston in 2012 to pursue an MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and became fascinated with American culture. She was particularly entranced by the message that the retail chain Victoria’s Secret telegraphed to women. “I thought about the power of censorship in Iran. Yet I felt intimidated by Victoria’s Secret models and their bodies.”

She began making casts of her body in 2016 out of clay she extracted from paper pulp. “Through this process of casting my nude body,” she explains, “I wanted to stand out from what my culture was attached to and how I was raised with ideas about the body in public.” Moradkhani’s contribution to the exhibition is a cast of her body titled Corset. The work features intricate lacework that suggests a shadowy fetus floating around the waist. “There are so many shadows of control and power by mostly men in the United States making laws that directly impact women’s lives and health,” she says. “I’m shocked that in this great country if a woman, for any reason, doesn’t want a child, she can’t have a legal abortion in many states.”

Words matter to textile and embroidery artist Diana Weymar. Starting by embroidering President Trump’s 2018 tweet “I am a very stable genius,” Weymar continued to embroider his tweets, resulting in what turned out to be a global grassroots campaign called The Tiny Pricks Project. “I like communicating through this medium. It’s calming, nostalgic and unique,” she says. In the “Deeply Rooted” show, Weymar is exhibiting three pieces that include quotes from Lizz Winstead, the founder and creative force behind the abortion rights organization Abortion Access Front, who describes herself as a comedian, producer, activist, a “s–t-stirrer” and an abortion evangelist. She also incorporates quotes from the writer Molly Jong-Fast, who has said, “It turns out you don’t just get used to losing bodily autonomy.”

Mingling feminine charms and military symbols in her series “Dismantling the Patriarchy,” Winnie van der Rijn repurposed one of her military father’s civilian shirts to fit a woman’s form. She calls the piece My Body Is Not Your Battleground and dedicates it to her daughter, who she says must stand her ground in a post-Roe v. Wade world. The shirt also sports a small evil eye in the back for protection. “There have been all kinds of secret messages women have passed down through the centuries with their embroidery. It’s empowering to know I can take down the patriarchy with a needle and thread.”

After the Dobbs decision, van der Rijn turned her attention to making “uterine armor” for a series called “Battle Ready.” In her piece Enemies at the Gate/My Body Is a Sovereign Nation she transforms old-fashioned bloomers she found in a French thrift store by attaching a “uterus” she made with metal and street sweeper bristles. “The uterus is removable to symbolize my hysterectomy,” she says.

Cora Ramirez-Vazquez is a Mexican-American psychotherapist and art therapist who focuses on providing mental health services to the Latinx community in greater Los Angeles. Her paintings frequently address the roles women must negotiate in Mexican and Latinx culture. Her piece La Cruz Que Cargamos – The Cross We Carry, is a tribute to her mother, who frequently referred to women’s struggles as “the cross women bear.” The piece consists of a uterus Ramirez-Vazquez painted on a 3-by-2-foot medieval cross. “Abortions were never discussed as an option in my Catholic Mexican community,” she says. “They were considered sinful. But just as the cross is very sacred, so is our right to choose. That’s how the uterus found its place on my cross.”

'The Cross I Bear' by Cora Ramirez-Vasquez

The Cross I Bear by Cora Ramirez-Vasquez

Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Director Fishbayn Joffe sees “Deeply Rooted” as a vivid example of “women of different faiths and communities coming together in a rich, collaborative experience.” The language of art bridges faith and activism in the show, which invites viewers to share vital and intimate truths with this diverse assembly of women artists—a passionate group deploying their art to advocate fiercely for a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.

Judy Bolton-Fasman is the author of ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets, from Mandel Vilar Press. Her essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and in essay anthologies and literary magazines. She has won five Rockower Awards from the American Jewish Press Association and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. 

Top image: Amulets by Charlie Schön 

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