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“Charlotte, you’ve never looked at yourself with a hand mirror?” The ladies are at one of their nondescript daytime diner spots and Miranda is teasing Charlotte about her clinically depressed vagina, which Charlotte has apparently never really seen.
“Oh my god! Honey, I insist you go home right now and take a look. Or better yet, take my compact and make a quick trip to the ladies’ room,” says Samantha. Embodying a sentient Ladies’ Home Journal, as usual, Charlotte proclaims that she doesn’t want to look because she thinks it’s ugly.
For its glaring inability to age with grace—reruns give way to questionable epithets on race and queerness—Sex and the City reveled in making its captive audience confront prudishness by having them sit through casual conversations about depressed vaginas and lazy ovaries. Whatever 1970s feminist trailblazing had been undone by the aspirational power-suit movement of the 1980s had evolved into a modernized vision of feminism that catered to a sometimes scandalized, often titillated bevy of premium cable subscribers.
Still, in 2021, while a progressive, sex-positive, gender-fluid feminist ethos abounds, it’s clear that we still haven’t reconciled with the fraught history of a repressive culture and the gynecological injustices that led the many Charlottes of the world to become disenfranchised from their vaginas (injustices ranging from the common alienating pap smear to more historical maltreatments, like the 19th-century forced experimentation on enslaved women’s reproductive systems). Los Angeles-based artist Nao Bustamante has admitted to even skipping her annual visit with the gynecologist at times to avoid the discomfort of the experience.1 But after a revelatory pelvic exam in 2011, Bustamante decided to act, positioning herself at the helm of what she hopes will be the most significant redesign of the vaginal speculum since 1943.
This project, BLOOM, rooted in both research and object-making, is the latest installment of Bustamante’s enduring interrogation of the patriarchy and its deleterious effects. Over time, women and femmes have been made to dissociate from their bodies in order to function in a violently patriarchal culture. Autonomy begins to feel increasingly impossible in a world where abortions are almost as difficult to obtain as justice from a rapist and male gynecologists conducting research can have free rein to exploit vulnerable women’s bodies without consent. BLOOM excavates this violent history and proves that gynecological reinvention as a mode of art-making remains as relevant to today’s lived reality as it was for body-conscious feminists of the 1960s and ’70s.
Bustamante’s speculum design draws from the delicate mechanics of an opening flower, which incidentally brings to mind the blooms of Georgia O’Keeffe (who, for the record, didn’t exactly like her paintings being reduced to genitalia).2 In a recent exhibition at Artpace San Antonio (also titled BLOOM), Bustamante showed her drawings of the redesigned speculum alongside mixed-media works, droll videos that inject unexpected humor into otherwise gruesome lessons about the history of women’s healthcare, and ceramic sculptures of new speculum models made by participants in a public workshop led by the artist earlier this year.
Bustamante’s speculum design, which was conveyed through a series of drawings in the exhibition, consists of “several flexible, curved petals in a thin condom-like sheath,” that allow the examiner to “adjust the opening in graduated and reasonable degrees.”3 It also includes modesty panels that begin folded in, but “bloom” open to activate lubrication for the speculum, while also draping over the patient’s exposed body when pulled apart. The delicacy of the redesign, which looks at first glance a bit like an ultra-sophisticated tampon, is a welcome change from the clanky metal travesty that we’ve come to despise.
The BLOOM speculum is a far more thoughtful tool than the bent pewter gravy spoon J. Marion Sims (the so-called “Father of Modern Gynecology”) used to experiment on enslaved Black women sans anesthesia in the 1800s4—he believed women of color couldn’t feel pain. Bustamante’s inquiry started with her inability to shake thinking about the medical industry’s lack of care when it comes to women’s discomfort, but it veered into a more fantastical realm, blending imagination with material and space. In doing this work, she joins a legacy of women artists who have pushed the boundaries of feminist aesthetics to attack a medical system (and general culture) that dares to make their body parts taboo, or worse, claim authority over them.
Throughout the last few decades, many artists have centered their work around women’s bodies. Immediately familiar vulvic works are Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974–79) or Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), in which she endeavored to “physicalize the invisible, marginalized, and deeply suppressed history of the vulva….”5 Another pair of feminist artists who examined themselves from a more specifically gynecological perspective are Hannah Wilke and Louise Fishman. (While it would be reductive to say that the latter is a Charlotte and the former a Samantha, Wilke was on the bold end of the self-examination spectrum, while Fishman took a more subtle approach.) Wilke is considered the first feminist artist to use vulvar imagery in her artwork, paving the way for Chicago’s yonic plates.6 She leaned into mediums like drawing, assemblage, photography, and performance to express her sexuality, but it was her sculptural work that was most culturally provocative. Starting in the early 1960s, Wilke made sculptures blatantly evocative of the vulva—she used folded clay, latex, erasers, chewed bubble gum, and laundry lint to conjure the delicate folds of women’s genitalia. Pieces like Agreeable Object (1972)—made of latex and snaps—and Sweet Sixteen (1977)—consisting of 16 pink ceramic pieces—confronted her audience with something private, made public.
Fishman was not quite as confrontational in her paintings, but she did contribute to a raised consciousness around female rage with the abstractions in her Angry Women series (1973), and to a general legitimization of female emotion as a valid topic for art-making. However, it was during a lesser documented transition into sculptural work that Fishman explored the more physical manifestations of womanhood. These untitled, wall-hanging constructions from 1971 weren’t obvious references to the body like Wilke’s sculptures, but she arranged the canvas strips, strings, and frayed threads into assemblages that alluded to skin, hair, and other tactile bodily imagery in such a way that it would require the direct experience of womanhood in order to understand these abstract interpretations of vulvas, birthing canals, and menstruation.
In 1973, art critic Sarah Whitworth, likely the only writer to have ever published a response to Fishman’s wall hangings,7 described this series as a tamer entry point for women to get in touch with their bodies than what Wilke was offering. She wrote in Amazon Quarterly, an arts and culture journal by and for lesbians, “If the mirror of physical self-examination was too forbidding, Louise was offering a bridge. At least these works could be cupped in one’s hands without fear of social redress.”8 Whitworth describes how the work elicited a direct physical response in her despite its abstract nature, and found its clandestine provocation a welcome contrast to the in-your-face feminist art of the 1970s.
On the flipside were feminists like Carol Downer, who just one year later, purchased a plastic speculum and performed a self-examination using a hand mirror. She was so empowered by the experience of taking back her body that she urged other women to join her in literal self-examination of their own cervixes. She even went so far as to suggest they use the speculums to self-diagnose their yeast infections and treat them by inserting yogurt into their vaginas. While this notion was certainly liberating, she was later arrested for practicing medicine without a license.9 Even if the yogurt prescription was a bad call, feminist scholars gave Downer credit for bringing attention to the flawed idea that only gynecologists (many of whom are men) could wield speculums, in turn, claiming exclusive right over women’s bodies. But it wasn’t always this way.
Babies were traditionally delivered by midwives, who more often than not were Black women and working-class immigrants. Medicine was among the domestic duties of women, but the early 20th century saw them being driven out of the field of healthcare, and the responsibility of caring for pregnant women was taken over by men. The experiential training of healing practices was replaced with eight years of expensive medical school and, as a result, a new class of professionals with little or no on-the-ground experience in childbirth took over. Elder, rural, and working-class midwives who didn’t have access to exorbitantly priced professional schooling were ousted from their birthing practices due to new educational regulations.10
It was men who decided women should give birth on their backs, with their feet in stirrups (rather than ergonomically on all fours, as was commonly practiced by midwives) and it was men who decided that a cold metal duckbill would be used during gynecological exams. The fate of women’s bodies has long been in the hands of the patriarchy—the presentation of BLOOM in San Antonio coincided with the recent Texas abortion ruling.11 Bustamante’s BLOOM speculum contributes to a long line of feminist artwork taking on a different form of citizen agency, but it also grapples with the potential for other projects like it during a moment when the circumstances surrounding women’s healthcare are becoming more precarious. Before the year’s end, BLOOM will move from a speculative art project to a 3-D printed prototype, and Bustamante has pending partnerships with patent drawers and material scientists to develop an actual working prototype as soon as 2022.
BLOOM picks up where Bustamante’s previous body of work left off, expanding on her inclinations toward safeguarding women, yet excitingly pulling her inquiries into real world applications. The fact that feminist artists are still mining autonomy over their vaginas nearly 50 years after Roe v. Wade points to the overwhelming terror that the medical and political establishments still inflict on women’s bodies today. Within this context, Bustamante’s research, artworks, and eventual prototype show that women’s healthcare has not caught up to our modern civilization, and an inquiry into women’s autonomy over their bodies is more timely than ever.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 26.