A week into 2020, and the US political discourse on reproductive rights is already at a crossroads. On 6 January, 39 GOP Senators signed an Amicus brief urging the supreme court to reconsider Roe v Wade, the 1973 supreme court case that secured the legal right to an abortion. This comes on the heels of a year in which Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed into law the Human Life Protection Act, stating that doctors who perform abortions can be sentenced to life in prison. On 15 May, the day the law was signed, Jasmine Wahi, co-founder and director of Newark-based arts nonprofit Project for Empty Space, texted artist, activist, and fellow SVA MFA instructor Marilyn Minter. “We have to do something,” she wrote. Within minutes, Minter responded that she was game.
Born from this exchange is the ambitious, multi-disciplinary Abortion Is Normal: An Emergency Art Show, a two-part exhibition co-curated by Wahi and Project for Empty Space co-founder Rebecca Pauline Jampol, in collaboration with Minter, Gina Nanni of Downtown for Democracy, artist Laurie Simmons, and art historian Sandy Tait. Essayist Lynne Tillman provided a launch statement and the project features marquee names like Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Hank Willis Thomas and Catherine Opie, along with emerging artists Shirin Neshat, Wangechi Mutu, Chloe Wise and dozens of others. The project is a continuation of a show which debuted at Project for Empty Space in 2019 featuring Dominique Duroseau, Yvette Molina, Viva Ruiz, and Christen Clifford, all of whom have pieces in the current exhibition.
The title may shock, but Abortion Is Normal is meant to create “an inclusive and empathetic entry point” into the conversation, dismantling the stigma surrounding abortion, and working as an urgent call to action. The exhibition includes participants of all races and genders; some of whom have had abortions, and others who are soon-to-be or current parents. “It was important for us to have an intersectional exhibition, that ranged not only in gender demographics,” said Wahi, “but, because we have people of all gender identities between the two spaces, addressing a variety of reproductive rights issues”.
The project is refreshingly grassroots. Most attendees at the opening last Thursday learned about Abortion Is Normal directly through participating artists or via social media. In the DIY spirit, zine-style foldouts were distributed rather than catalogs, and several luminaries contributed new works specifically created for the show, including Marilyn Minter’s CUNTROL, Jane Kaplowitz’s homage to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jon Kessler’s short video incorporating archival footage from abortion clinic bombings of the 1970s.
Proceeds from the show will be split between Planned Parenthood and Downtown for Democracy, a Pac launched in 2003 in response to the US invasion of Iraq. The latter is volunteer run and supports cultural and political shows, as well as other forms of activism including educational efforts and advertising in swing states, voter registration, and youth outreach.
Last year, the group launched the Protest Factory, a show and series of events at Jeffrey Deitch in New York meant to kickstart local activism which saw Cecily Brown and Kembra Pfahler leading sign-making classes, readings by Eileen Myles and Luc Sante, and a “T-shirt debut” featuring Richard Hell, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince, in collaboration with Supreme.
“There are those chipping away at reproductive rights and they never stop,” says Gina Nanni of Downtown for Democracy. “There is a generation that came up before Roe v Wade that will never forget, but a younger generation that takes certain rights for granted. We want all to be educated, that you can never let go of issues that are important, that being involved in the political process is the only way that we can maintain a society and law that reflects the will of the people.”
The show, which came together in a matter of weeks rather than months or years, reflects this immediacy. Wahi and Jampol continued to vet submissions up until launch. “People were really enthusiastic about making this happen, especially at the beginning of an election year,” explains Wahi. “So, we pulled all hands on deck, with volunteer help picking up work, and with consignment and loans. It was a huge team effort, but it’s something that I hope will change people’s minds about choice.” That several blue chip artists, whose work fetches in the tens of thousands on auction, were willing to donate is truly unique. “Living in these times, ‘no’ is not an option,” said artist Rob Pruitt, who donated a full-scale work. “So many have worked so hard, and for so long, to safeguard these rights that the thought of this work being undone would be a tragedy. I said yes without thinking twice.”
Driving outreach was the team of Minter and Simmons, both longtime activists who frequently collaborate on causes and events. “There’s very little time when we’re not working on something together, and rarely does a project that’s political come across my visions or hers that we don’t share,” said Simmons, who contributed a 1976 piece from her collection. Both Minter and Simmons remember life before Roe v Wade, which fueled their hands-on approach to the show. “We’re trying to protect our children and our younger female friends.” Simmons pointed out that the show is not a contribution to one candidate or campaign – it’s issue driven, and in support of autonomy and empowerment.
And it certainly is powerful. In Christen Clifford’s I Want Your Blood, the artist and her collaborators literally bleed for the cause, creating a menagerie of vials and bottles containing blood meant to act as a totem for the sacredness of the human body. “I found the process very satisfying,” said participant and writer Jillian McManemin, whose donated blood sits in an antique Avon bottle. “Like I was in on a naughty ancient ritual.”
The exhibition comes as part of a wave of art and social projects meant to normalize abortion, including Shout Your Abortion and Abortion Out Loud, and fits into the larger history of using art to power social change. There is a particularly strong thread to past downtown New York provocateurs like Keith Haring, Gordon Matta Clark, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who used their generous creative spirit to shape and change prevalent attitudes.
If you’re unable to attend the second installment of the exhibition, Keith Corso, chief development officer of PPNY, offers a few words on participation. “Vote!” he urges, “Get your friends out to vote. Make sure everyone votes. It’s going to be a very important year for all of us to stand up. Reproductive health rights are hanging in the balance!”