The scale of the photographs in Joan Fitzsimmons’s The Healing Arts — extreme close-ups blown up to beyond poster size — is disorienting. We’re used to seeing large images of land masses and cloud formations. Instead, we’re looking at bruises rising under skin, long cuts stitched shut, rendered in the sharpest detail.
It’s hard for the photographs not to be about pain. But as the title suggests, it’s not about pain alone. It’s about the long, slow road to recovering from it.
That sense of history, the fragility of progress, and the need to continue to work to move forward permeate “Our Bodies Ourselves,” the latest exhibit at the Ely Center for Contemporary Art, running now through April 10.
“It’s Women’s History Month, and I was thinking about the different versions of feminism,” said Debbie Hesse, vice president of the Board of Directors for the Ely Center, referring to the four waves of feminism that began with Sojourner Truth and continued with the suffragettes, Gloria Steinem and her generation of activists, and the #MeToo movement. “If we could look back and look forward” at the same time, she thought, “we could embrace the whole movement.”
To that end, Hesse reached out to Our Bodies Ourselves, the organization that grew out of the 1971 watershed publication of the book of the same name, making sure that the book continues to be published in multiple languages and that the activism it advocates continues.
The organization contributed copies of the covers of the book to the exhibit. Two of its members will also participate in a kick-off event this Sunday (March 10), the first of solid run of events centered on the exhibit: Judy Norsigian and Joan Ditzion of Our Bodies, Ourselves will join a panel with author Rachel Kauder Nalebuff; naturopathic physician, blogger, and educator Ginger Nash; Freedom Cups Co-Founder Vanessa Paranjothy; and Associate Professor of African American Studies at Yale University, Dr. Crystal Feimster to discuss the legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and where the movement goes from here.
The events are in some sense built into the exhibit. The following Sunday, March 17, features a workshop on making zines — a handmade miniature magazine — and sure enough, in the same gallery as the covers of Our Bodies, Ourselves and related publications is a rack of zines already made by students of Mindi Englart, an author and teacher at Co-op High.
“It’s Women’s History Month,” Englart said, and too many of her students didn’t know who third-wave feminist Gloria Steinem is. At the same time, she realized, the fight for women’s rights still felt as fundamental as ever.
“We focus on civil rights and transgender rights, gay rights,” she said, “but women’s rights — it’s the water we swim in,” whether it’s the issue of the pay gap between men and women or the continuing plague of domestic violence. “The #MeToo movement is huge,” she said — and some of her students didn’t know about it either. Hence the zines to raise awareness, and to foment an understanding of how to get involved.
At the same time, “it’s hard for us to grok what it’s like to be a young person,” Englart said, especially in the ways that technology has shaped the social world and the way activism is done. “There are more extroverts online and introverts in the world,” she added. As the next generation, the fourth-wave feminists, join the fray, the intergenerational conversation becomes crucial for all involved, in order to better approach some fundamental questions.
“Where are we? Where are we going?”
Those are exactly the kinds of conversations that Nadine Nelson of Global Local Gourmet hopes to start at Kitchen Wellness Wednesdays, the first of which will be held on March 20.
“To me the kitchen is the most sacred part of the home,” Nelson said, and for that reason she will be building an “ever-evolving” mini-kitchen in the gallery space of the Ely Center.
The discussions will center on everything from relationships to aging and beauty to mothering and motherhood — with food to match, be it tea and chocolate or Korean birthing soup, intended for new mothers to be able to better nourish their infant. And there’s room simply for people to get to know each other. “Not everyone wants to have a deep conversation,” she said, and “I want all different types of people to come.”
The welcoming, interactive vibe of the flurry of activity is mirrored in the art itself, as many pieces reach out to the viewer to engage with them.
Nicole Gugliotti’s awe/agency features a series of earpieces mounted to the wall. Put your ear close enough, and recorded voices whisper to you. Each voice is that of a woman talking about having and abortion — and how, for reasons as individual as the woman speaking, they feel that it was the right decision for them. Barbara Bryn Klare’s Where Were You Harassed? takes over the first floor bathroom with pieces of paper each detailing a place where someone reported being harassed (examples: at band camp at 14, at a governor’s mansion, on a massage table) and will invite visitors to the exhibit to add their own.
In the same spirit, Dani Sigler’s funny and pointed Not My Boss’s Business spells out its retort in tampons and empty packets of birth control pills. In the staircase between the first and second floors hang portraits alongside that of a stern-looking John Slade Ely. They’re of a woman naked from the waist up, wearing a belt of bullets, women in various stances of power. “We’re creating a portrait gallery that he,” Hesse said, motioning to the portrait of Ely, “might turn over in his grave to see.”
In another part of the gallery, Sigler, whom Hesse said identified as a fourth-wave feminist, put a new spin on a familiar protest expression. “They tried to bury us,” the plate reads, expecting that we know the rest (“they did not know we were seeds”), maybe even without looking at the title. The spin, in the end, is to put it on a pie plate — as if to imply that the movement shouldn’t necessarily just survive and regrow. To truly succeed, maybe it could also feed, ourselves and those around us.
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” runs at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art, 51 Trumbull St., through April 10. Admission is free. Visit the Ely Center’s website for hours and information about ongoing events.