Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy. At least nine others.
Nao Bustamante’s exhibition BLOOM, at Artpace in San Antonio, makes not knowing all of their names intolerable. Though J. Marion Sims, largely remembered for his contributions to gynecological medicine, performed his experimental operations on at least twelve un-anesthetized enslaved women, only three of their names exist in his records: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Over four years (1845-1849), some of the women endured as many as 30 operations that were so infamously brutal that Sims’ own staff absconded, leaving the enslaved women to comfort and restrain each other during these procedures. These experiments gave rise to the corrective surgery for vaginal fistulas and created the vaginal speculum that is still prominently used today.
Throughout BLOOM, allusions to this grisly history are unavoidable. Viewers enter Bustamante’s exhibition through rouge velvet curtains reminiscent of labia and step into a room with walls painted earthy pinks and reds. The earth tones, high ceilings, and the sound of dripping water may remind viewers of a cavern.
From the moment they enter, viewers are confronted with an antique gynecological exam chair dangling from metal chains from the room’s skylight. This installation’s title is an homage to the three enslaved women whose names Sims thought to record.
A series of gynecological illustrations runs along the right wall: speculums (some speculative and imagined) — their proper use is obscured by paintings of flowers and cacti.
At Vagnasium, a floral couch covered in plastic sheeting invites viewers to “lie down.” A screen above the couch (best viewed while lying on your back) projects Bustamante as she embodies, in front of a cavernous landscape, a scarily enthusiastic guide. Bustamante’s guide coaches the viewer through refining their Kegel exercises and, by pairing them with Lamaze breathing techniques, reach the vaginal imaginary. This performance is set to a suspenseful musical score.
Adjacent to Vagnasium, a set of found speculums with floral ceramic labels rest inside a vitrine. The sign above it reads, “Please try to relax” — the language and font above the speculums (as with the font behind the couch) are reminiscent of the sort of instructions women receive during a pelvic exam. The speculum display draws viewers toward a video installation where the googly-eyed Graves Speculum (also known as the duck-billed speculum) narrates the history of J. Marion Sims in a sinister, Donald Duck-like voice.
A tower of empty champagne glasses with lipstick marks on the rims sparkles in front of a projection of a leaking drainpipe with sludge stains beneath it, conjuring images of vaginal fistulas — the ailment Sims attempted to repair during the four years he unethically experimented on his enslaved patients.
Though the floral accents, velvet, and earthy pinks lend an air of coziness to this exhibition, there’s more than an undercurrent of horror running through it. Certainly, BLOOM is about the darkness of the past, but it also calls on us to consider how these horrors (and the particular trauma of realizing you do not have autonomy over your own body) exist in the present. For example, in the HeLa cells collected without permission from Henrietta Lacks’ cervix in 1951 that continue to be utilized in medical research today; in forced sterilizations; and in restrictive abortion policies — like the one going into effect in Texas on September 1 (the day this article is published).
For all the dread coursing through this exhibition, there is also hope. In the center of the room, a set of speculative speculums created by early visitors of the exhibition asks viewers to imagine alternatives. For myself, part of that imagining is (as Saidiya Hartman calls us to question in her essay, “Venus in Two Acts”) considering how beauty may be an antidote to dishonor. We can’t save Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy’s nine associates from the archive’s anonymity, but in weaving their stories into the yet “incomplete project of freedom,” as Bustamante’s BLOOM does, we breathe them into the present.
Through Sept. 6 at Artpace San Antonio.