A new mixed-media exhibit at the Rubenstein hopes to use art and storytelling to raise awareness of solutions to major women's health problems.
The Calla Campaign for Women’s Health was founded by Julia Agudogo, Pratt ‘17 and current first-year MD candidate at Duke Medical School.The campaign will open an exhibit Feb. 1 as a part of a larger movement that helps women explore themselves, find their voice and reduce shame in talking about their reproductive anatomy in order to improve health outcomes.
The current manager of the campaign, Libby Dotson, Trinity ‘18, came to the Calla Campaign after working on a different project in the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies. When she joined the project in January 2018, they were working on research regarding the use of a new technology called the Callascope, which allows people with female anatomy to explore their cervix and view their reproductive organs using their cell phones. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews as well as a home study asking women about their experiences using the device.
“We were blown away by the responses we got from that and how empowered women felt by being able to look at their own anatomy in privacy without the invasion of the male gaze or the gynecologist,” Dotson said.
The Rubenstein exhibit, entitled "(In)visible Organ," will include testimonials from these interviews, as well as sculptures, visual art and medical imagery.
The in-depth interviews also revealed a dislike of the speculum, the current device used in pelvic exams to lift and separate the vaginal walls so that gynecologists can see inside. The Callascope could potentially replace the speculum, as it also performs the function of allowing a view of the internal reproductive organs. The creation of this technology arose from a desire to improve accessibility to screenings for cervical cancer, a type of cancer that is easily cured if detected early yet currently still has a mortality rate of 52 percent worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. This statistic indicates a lack of access to early screening and detection. Thus, the long-term goal of the campaign is to bring the Callascope to women in rural areas in low- and middle-income countries so that they can send images to doctors, who can then recommend a course of action if they detect a problem.
“We’re not trying to disqualify that [the speculum has] saved a lot of lives, but that we’re trying to make things more accessible," Dotson said. "We’re trying to democratize health care."
Dotson said the goals for the exhibit start with cervical cancer awareness and also aims to help people “acknowledge the complexity of experiences that people with female anatomy have and for people to work through their discomfort talking about these topics.”
In interviewing participants in the home study, Dotson found their experiences with the Callascope were deeply personal. As she began speaking with artists commissioned for the exhibit, Dotson found that every person had their own unique and personal story about their experiences with reproductive health. To reflect this realization, the exhibit now includes both stories from the interviews and the personal experiences of the artists in the exhibition.
Sophomore Diane Lee, one of the artists involved with the exhibit, said that art centered around this topic can also be very easily misconstrued. Lee said that art collectors who have seen her paintings of female bodies ask about the reasons for eroticism in her paintings — but she denies the creation of eroticism; rather, the association of the female body with eroticism comes from the viewer.
Lee described a time when she was in high school in Korea and was told her work construed distributing “pornographic content” and could lead to a fine or jail time.
“My art teacher pulled me aside and apparently this is the case, you can’t have pubic hair, you can’t have certain things," she said. "There were regulations, just about female bodies. Not about mens’."
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Lee found the experience degrading. Even though she doesn’t intend to paint the female body for the entirety of her artistic career, Lee said she is doing so now because she is currently “in the safety of undergrad,” which allows her to paint the female body without repercussions. She was surprised to see how many people resonated with the expression behind her art. These types of misconstruals led the campaign to do away with artist statements in the exhibit, instead asking artists to prepare a creative writing piece that connects to and explains the emotions behind the piece.
“We wanted the women, and we also have trans artists as well, to actually tell people looking at the piece, ‘No, this was what was going on in my mind behind the piece. Don’t project your ideas, don’t tell me what this piece means to me,’” Dotson said.
The exhibit has also been influenced by Walter Mignolo’s “decolonial aestheSis,” which asks why Western art forms have come to dominate art and questions the validity of this perspective. Dotson said the point of “decolonial aestheSis” is to “shrink Western views of art down to size and allow the voices of others ... shrinking what we’ve been told art can and cannot be.”
This ties back to Lee’s experience with the differences in reception of male versus female reproductive anatomy. Lee and Dotson cite the example of the famous statue of David that is considered a masterpiece, yet a similar portrayal of a woman likely would not have the same response.
“The sentiment amongst women even regarding the Callascope is that they’re a little afraid,” Lee said. “They don’t want to see their cervix or vagina. We’re not proud of it."
In the next few years, as the Callascope moves through the necessary testing for a new medical device, the campaign hopes to continue the exhibit and travel with it, using the device as an empowerment tool. They aim to create a movement that will change the culture and stigma surrounding the discussion and visualization of female anatomy.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include the title of the Rubenstein exhibit.