The womb as artefact and artwork

The discovery of a votive uterus in a museum prompts an enquiry about the organ as a potential site of lost female subjectivity.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : May 16, 2022

While cradling my two-month-old to sleep one recent spring afternoon, my gaze chanced upon a sentence from a typewritten excerpt from an epistolary exchange between Henry Miller and Anais Nin, one among many referential documents I have pinned to a dupatta on one of the walls of my writing-room-cum-nursery. The postscript follows Miller’s declaration of his desire for Nin and it blew my mind when I first came upon it, almost 15 years ago, and then again within the context of my altered identity as a new mother—“You ought to be over your period now and riding the waves again. With woman the psychological moment is often the biological moment.”

Is its sentiment inherently male chauvinist? If yes, could a statement like that be metabolised into feminist truth? Could it attest to forms of female embodiment or even feminist discursive traditions? One could argue that Miller was empathising with Nin, yet in suggesting that Nin’s emotional temperament—her state of mind—was the consequence of her state of body because she is woman, he was asserting a sexist belief, that women are creatures of their body, hormonally regulated, while men are presumably not. It’s perhaps less misogynist than calling her hysterical. Having personally journeyed through nine months of pregnancy, having felt the emotional weight of accompanying hormones, I can attest to the power of the psychological-biological connection. In fact, it is a bond that had been severed for me that I was able to reinstitute through therapy. I am in awe, for instance, that my milk can ‘let-down’ at the mere thought of my child, by solely picturing him in my mind’s eye. As I gently placed him in his crib I wondered about the serendipitous nature of my re-acquaintance with this postscript in the light of my ongoing research towards the thesis I had formulated pre-pregnancy as part of my residency at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen—In the Name of the Mother. I am investigating the fluent interaction between the psychological and biological in relation to the maternal body as well as embodiment-based, maternally perpetuated lineages and cultures. My motivation for doing so includes wanting to propose an intellectual counter to ‘seminal’, phallogocentric discourse while attempting to recover, reinstitute and cannonise lost and marginalised female subjectivity.

Detail, A Gebärmutterkröte on display at the Tirol Panorama in Innsbruck | STIRworld
A Gebärmutterkröte, a votive wax, turtle-shaped uterus, on display at the Tirol Panorama in Innsbruck Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello
Detail, A Gebärmutterkröte on display at the Tirol Panorama in Innsbruck | STIRworld
Detail, A Gebärmutterkröte, a votive wax, turtle-shaped uterus, on display at the Tirol Panorama in Innsbruck Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

I have wondered, therefore, whether the uterus could be considered a site of matrilineal artistic legacy, which is perhaps why I felt freshly struck by Miller’s postscript. It is reflective of a ubiquitous historical bias that was instrumentalised to trap women within the domestic so they would be left out of public discourse, and to disregard or devalue any form of personal expression made by them, denouncing or belittling it as craft, not art. The existence of the uterus has been felt by many who are assigned female at birth like a sentence, an organ that marks, from birth, their biological destiny as mother-to-eventually-be, preferably to a male offspring who can be trusted with perpetuating the patriarchy. What, then, is the artistic worth of what was passed down from mother to daughter—the taboo child? The word seminal, used non-judiciously across disciplines to connote heft, translates to ‘of or relating to semen’, thus validating the male organ as the primordial source of intellect. Can the feminist labour of reimagining the provenance of human thought recentre the uterus as a vessel of female subjectivity?

In a wunderkammer at the Tirol Panorama in Innsbruck, I came upon a red, turtle-shaped wax object whose bizarreness was accentuated by its accompanying caption in German. “Gebärmutterkrote,” it read, which translates, literally, to ‘Uterus or Womb-toad’. “Weihegeschenk für die Hilfe bei Geburt und Frauenleiden. Guss nach einem alten Model aus der 400 Jahre alten Lebzelterei Cafe Hipp in Pfaffenhofen a.d.Ilm.” (Votive for help with birth and female disorders, modelled after an old model from the 400-year-old Lebkuchen-making Cafe Hipp in Pfaffenhofen (in Bavaria)). In the same cabinet was suspended a wooden object with spikes protruding from its core. It was called a Stachelkugel, a needle ball. Both of these votive objects were personifications of the uterus; while the Kröte existed usually in wax form and was offered by women in the Alpine region as an offering to either request for a child, or as thanksgiving for a successful birth, the Stachelkugel was a visual manifestation of the painful contractions of delivery. These votive objects were extremely common and could be found at wayside shrines, until they were fetishised by collectors who began to seize upon them as prized artefacts, forcing them to go out of circulation to the point that not a single woman I have spoken to from the region above the age of 60 has any memory of having seen them. The mid-wife I was assigned post-partum said she was aware of the Stachelkugel as she had seen an image of it at the mid-wife training institute, but had no idea about the Kröte.

The vitrine at the Tiroler Volksunstmuseum focussed on pregnancy-related objects and votives|Rosalyn D’Mello | STIRworld
The vitrine at the Tiroler Volksunstmuseum focussed on pregnancy-related objects and votives Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

Karl Berger, the director of the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum, from where the Gebärmutterkrote I saw had been taken on loan, was forthcoming about my enquiries into the object. He directed me to an essay in German by Elisabeth Timm on the subject in the publication, Anthropologie und Ästhetik, Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven, and took me to the third floor to draw my attention to a display cabinet that was exclusively dedicated to pregnancy-related objects and literature. Here, I saw three more turtles, two wax, one metal, and another Stachelkugel and books that had home remedies for pregnancy-related maladies. I was allowed to touch the objects with gloved hands. I marvelled at the knowledge that a custom I grew up believing was so uniquely Indian Catholic—anatomical wax votives, like an ear, if one suffered from hearing issues, or a leg or a hand if one had limbic disorders—existed in the Alpine region. Moreover, it excited me to think of the uterus as a reptilian animal, and to see the detailing on the wax sculpture, particularly the oblique lines that seem to suggest a vulva. Though anatomical votive offerings in the Etruscan-Italic region can be traced back to the seventh century BCE onward, and was apparently most popular in the Hellenistic period (3rd-1st centuries BCE), according to a caption description I read on the Harvard Museums website, those were literal representations of the uterus. Examining them is also a delight, it serves as a reminder of the organ’s elasticity, its capacity to incubate, to host both foetus and placenta, to hold within its expanse futurity. One is reminded that irrespective of one’s sex, all humans who have ever been born have inhabited a uterus. In a contemporary moment, when widespread right-wing fanaticism continues to rob women of agency by denying them access to safe abortions or supportive health care to enable reproductive labour, what does it mean to shroud the uterus in feminist lining, examine it for the politicised organ it has been under patriarchy?

Detail, A Stachelkugel, a spiked wooden object signifying the uterus, on display at the Tirol Panorama in Innsbruck | STIRworld
Detail, A Stachelkugel, a spiked wooden object signifying the uterus, on display at the Tirol Panorama in Innsbruck Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello
Detail, Gebärmutterkröten, votive wax, turtle-shaped uteri, on display at the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum | STIRworld
Detail, Gebärmutterkröten, votive wax, turtle-shaped uteri, on display at the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

Ironically, while I was grateful to the museum for hosting the Gebärmutterkröte on display, I was also painfully aware that its museumification was responsible for its vernacular disappearance. I thought about the last time I saw the uterus on display within a visual artistic context. It was in 2018, during a studio visit with Yardena Kurulkar in Mumbai. Her installation So it Goes is a gridded display of 383 shrouded uteri, each one placed in glass beakers. She had told me that the work’s origin could be traced back to a casual diary entry she discovered years later made by her mother who had noted down the day Kurulkar’s period had begun. Kurulkar decided to do the math so she could arrive at an approximate calculation of how many menstrual cycles her body had experienced until then. Using 3D printing, she made porcelain replicas of her uterus and wrapped each one in thin porcelain sheets, which means the uterus is visible through suggestion, never overtly. My memory of my encounter with the work remains nestled within my own body. It’s difficult to summon it verbally. I felt enthralled by how she had made manifest the uterus in this shrouded form, revealing an oft-concealed fragility that is also innate to an otherwise resilient organ. It felt like a form of self-care. I thought about the many hours she must have spent casting the porcelain uterus, possibly to perfection, only for them to be covered, and it seemed as if she had made a secret out of its actual appearance by making it invisible to us. No two shrouded uteri were similar. The art installation suggests a uniqueness, reminding us that no two periods are alike, and that there is a dynamism and an eccentricity to the act of menstruation, that the shedding of the uterine lining was also a way of keeping and inhabiting time. I also wondered if the formal range was a metaphor for lost female subjectivity—all the songs by women that were sung but never recorded; all the art that was made by housewives that was deemed too frivolous to be documented; the crafts that were written off as too reproducible, not precious enough to be valued. If, for persons conditioned as women, the psychological moment has been the biological moment, can the womb be theorised as a receptacle for lost female subjectivity?

<em>So it goes</em>, 2018, Porcelain, Glass and Metal, Yardena Kurulkar |So it Goes|Yardena Kurulkar | STIRworld
So it goes, 2018, Porcelain, Glass and Metal, Yardena Kurulkar Image: Yardena Kurlkar; Courtesy of the Artist and Chemould Prescott Road

It was moving to see how Kurulkar had, using her mother’s diary entry as a prompt, mapped out her own uterus and engaged with it both playfully and reverentially, making it tangible, offering it a shelf life and, through her artistic practice, endowing it with an alternative futurity while engaging with matrilineal subjectivity and legacy. I had encountered auto-theoretical engagements with the uterus before only in literature. Kurulkar’s installation marked for me the first time I had seen a contemporary artist visualise the uterus so tenderly. It felt validating of a bodily process that is otherwise so tangled in shame and riddled with talk of impurity or pollution. What did it mean for women like Kurulkar to choose to be child-free; for housewives and spinsters and mystics past, present, and future to sustain other forms of birthing besides motherhood; and for people like me who try to pursue mothering while trying to either retain and enhance their subjectivity and not allow their selfhood to be dissolved by the demands of care-giving?

Detail, <em>So it goes</em>, 2018, Porcelain, Glass and Metal, Yardena Kurulkar |So it Goes|Yardena Kurulkar | STIRworld
Detail, So it goes, 2018, Porcelain, Glass and Metal, Yardena Kurulkar Image: Yardena Kurlkar; Courtesy of The Artist and Chemould Prescott Road
Wax votives on sale outside the Bom Jesu church in Old Goa, 2019 | STIRworld
Wax votives on sale outside the Bom Jesu church in Old Goa, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

I wonder if Nin did an eye roll when she read Miller’s postscript. In her response, she is clearly not amused. While he wants her, she wants, instead, ‘material liberty’. “I want to stand on my own feet, because you can’t,” she writes, disregarding him as weak. “As soon as I leave, you are helpless. You can’t defend even the space you write in, work in,” she chastises. Though Miller is regarded as one of the great American writers of the 20th century, it is Nin’s legacy that endures when one considers her contribution to the exploration of female subjectivity. Her diaries reveal her investigation into her selfhood, her joys, sorrows, desires, wants, needs, lusts. She placed herself in the centre with all her messy emotions and embraced the narrative agency engendered in the female ‘I’. One of her most moving entries eventually manifests as a short story titled “Birth”, in which she recounts having to push out from her uterus her six-month-old still-born child. The story is in fact a monologue to her already dead offspring. While the doctors and nurses urge her to push with all her strength she pushed, instead, “with anger, with despair, with frenzy, with the feeling that I would die pushing, as one exhales the last breath, that I would push out everything inside of me; and my soul with all the blood around it, and my sinews with my heart inside of them would choke, and my body itself would open and smoke would rise, and I would feel the ultimate incision of death.”

06 mins watch <em>So it goes</em> - Yardena Kurulkar | STIRworld
So it goes - Yardena Kurulkar Video: Courtesy of Yardena Kurulkar

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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