WHO WILL WRITE THE HISTORY OF TEARS
Artists on Women’s Rightscuratorial team: Magda Lipska, Sebastian Cichocki, Łukasz Ronduda
About the exhibition
For over a century debate has raged over women’s reproductive rights. Differing visions of society and the state, the role of religion, and the limits of individual freedom clash. Who should have the deciding vote on this matter: the society, or women themselves? This issue can fundamentally divide people and provoke acts of aggression. The account of personal, individual experiences—and especially women’s perspective—is lost in the debate.
"Who Will Write the History of Tears" is an exhibition about the relations between the female body and repressive laws. The title is borrowed from a work by the American artist Barbara Kruger and underlines the arduous process of women’s pursuit of their rights. The works presented in the exhibition strive to break through the impasse that has prevailed in the debate over abortion, to transcend the crisis of verbal and visual language. The aim is to wrest the topic of abortion from the control of political clichés. The artists draw on real stories and include in their works the entire spectrum of visual and poetic allusions, images and symbols, conveying the complexity of the experience of pregnancy and abortion.
For years this concrete, human experience was taboo. Speaking of it was prohibited or frowned upon. The exhibition addresses this social denial and the existential nature of this experience. That is why we show the story of the fight for women’s reproductive rights—historical events demarcating the stages of this battle. We give voice to the participants, but also examine the theme of abortion through emotions that convey its existential and individual dimension. We can see all of this for example in the etchings by Paula Rego from 1999, Abortion Series. These scenes of suffering, abandonment and despair played a key role in the fight for reproductive rights in Portugal in 2007.
The battle for women’s rights is being waged all over the world, and is linked with transformations underway in contemporary societies. We present works relating experiences of women from Argentina, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United States, from countries that have become the site of mass protests and heated public debate. These debates have largely—but not immediately—led to recognition of women’s full reproductive rights.
The architecture of the exhibition was created by the German architect Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge. It alludes to the historic exhibition Womanhouse in 1972, regarded as one of the first shows of feminist art. A group of female students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) renovated a house in Los Angeles slated for demolition, and, under the eye of their professors Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, converted it into a surreal artistic installation, drenched in eroticism and humour, relating various spheres of women’s life. Meyer-Grohbrügge monumentalizes this domestic space, and the soft, textile architecture assumes the shape of a vagina, the “origin of the world.”
Archiwum Protestów Publicznych, Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, Anne Maree Barry, Anna Beata Bohdziewicz, Andrea Bowers, Cecily Brennan, Tony Cokes, Cecelia Condit, Elektra KB, Rachel Fallon, Viola Głowacka, Guerrilla Girls, Patricia Hurl, Teresa Jakubowska, Anna Janczyszyn-Jaros, Maja Kleczewska & Łukasz Chotkowski, Dominika Kowynia, Barbara Kruger, Ewa Kuryluk, Alice Maher, Ana Mendieta, Fina Miralles, Mia Mullarkey, Małgorzata Mycek, Joanna Piotrowska, Luiza Prado de O. Martins, Paula Rego, Mariela Scafati, Agata Słowak, Elena Tejada-Herrera, Teresa Tyszkiewicz, Weronika Wysocka
A-P-P (founded in 2015 in Poland)
Public Protest Archive, digital photography on paper, 2020/2021
Courtesy of the artists and Jednostka Gallery
The Archive of Public Protests* is a collective practising civic photography, close to the streets and the energies of social movements. A-P-P shows up for nearly every demonstration in Poland in defence of the rights of women and sexual and ethnic minorities. It also documents marches organised by nationalist and religious groups. Photos by the collective go viral in social media as a record of the everyday struggle and mobilisation of thousands of people in Poland.
The exhibition includes a selection of photos from the archive, taken since the autumn of 2020 to the autumn of 2021, when a new, uncompromising generation stepped to the fore, altering the existing language and aesthetic of protests. Crowds of protesting women and men supporting them hit the streets of Polish cities and towns. The reason for their mobilisation was the judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal holding that abortion due to irreversible harm to the foetus or illness threatening its life is unconstitutional. According to some estimates, these were the largest street protests in the history of Poland, and undoubtedly the largest civil unrest since 1989. These protests also included small towns, where demonstrations required lots of determination to confront family, friends, neighbours, the local police or the parish priest.
*A-P-P is made up of Michał Adamski, Marta Bogdańska, Karolina Gembara, Łukasz Głowala, Marcin Kruk, Agata Kubis, Michalina Kuczyńska, Adam Lach, Alicja Lesiak, Rafał Milach, Joanna Musiał, Chris Niedenthal, Wojtek Radwański, Bartek Sadowski, Karolina Sobel, Paweł Starzec, Grzegorz Wełnicki and Dawid Zieliński
Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment (founded in 2015 in Ireland)
The Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment is a collective founded by Cecily Brennan, Alice Maher, Eithne Jordan and Paula Meehan. The aim was to provide artistic support for the pro-choice campaign prior to the 2018 referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which equated the life of a pregnant woman with that of the foetus. The amendment had effectively blocked legislative changes, thus forcing hundreds of women every year to travel to abortion clinics in Britain.
The members of the campaign relied on refined artistic forms, a striking visual identity, and performative actions, drawing inspiration from religious processions and ceremonies. One of the members of the collective, Rachel Fallon, said: “I think visuals are really important to people and it does change how you see something. If it is not aggressive, it leaves an opening to talk rather than presenting something as a dogmatic fact. As a counterbalance to these at times horrific photos the anti-choice side like to show, we try to create a visual culture that is more hopeful”. The campaign’s flags, banners, aprons, pennants, posters and costumes are now part of the public collections of Irish museums, and the archive is lodged with the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, where it has been digitised and studied. The exhibition includes drawings with designs of banners from the NCAD archive, a film of one of the processions during the Liverpool Biennial, and a series of banners spelling out the word REPEAL, used in the campaign against the 8th amendment.
Anne Maree Barry (she/her, born in 1979, lives and works in Ireland)
Leisure with Dignity, 2017, video 23’29”
Courtesy of the artist
Anne Maree Barry is a visual artist and creator of films shown at art institutions and in cinemas. Barry draws on historical sources, experiments with the documentary format (asking whose story, and what way it is told, we regard as authentic), and takes inspiration from the psycho-geography and sociology of the city, often alluding to the past and the topography of her native Dublin.
Barry played an active part in the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, and her works are interpreted in the context of the history of emancipation and the fight for women’s rights in Ireland. The poetic film Otium cum dignitate (Latin for “leisure with dignity”) recounts the stories of three women: Kitty D. (a character alluding to James Joyce’s Ulysses), Madam May Oblong, and Lady Aldborough, from an area called Monto (from “Montgomery Street”), once upon a time the biggest red-light district in Europe, attracting soldiers and dignitaries from all over the country. In the 1920s, with its rising power, the Catholic Church managed to shut down Monto, depriving thousands of women of a livelihood and a roof over their heads. Meanwhile, there was a boom in the activity of asylums operated by religious orders, known as “Magdalene Laundries”, in which women regarded as “fallen” were interned and forced to perform slave labour in laundries. The Catholic Church continued to profit from this system until the 1990s. In 2013 the activity of the Magdalene Laundries was officially recognized by the Irish government as “the nation’s shame”.
Anna Beata Bohdziewicz (she/her, born 1950, lives and works in Warsaw)
Protests against new abortion restrictions, 1993, photography on paper
Courtesy of the artist
Anna Beata Bohdziewicz is a photographer, columnist, and art curator. Active in the medium of photography since the 1970s, her work explores the everyday and the quotidian in search of universal meanings and symbols. Bohdziewicz was involved in the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, taking part in a series of church-hosted exhibitions. It was then that she developed her Photodiary, in which she depicted everyday life in the Polish People’s Republic, particularly how the private life of the individual intersected with broader history. Bohdziewicz’s Photodiary has frequently been compared to Zofia Rydet’s Sociological Record.
In 1993 the artist documented the public clashes between supporters and opponents of a bill that would impose restrictions on abortion rights. Bohdziewicz’s photos depict both sides of the conflict: Catholic circles and members of the feminist movement. The images document the moment in which the struggle for women’s reproductive rights first emerged into the public debate in Poland’s burgeoning democracy after 1989.
Andrea Bowers (she/her, born in 1965, lives and works in Los Angeles, United States)
Letters to an Army of Three, 2005, video 55’38”
Edition of 5. Editor Fil RütingCourtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles
Andrea Bowers is an American artist engaged in social issues such as protection of the rights of women, workers and migrants, and increasing awareness of climate change. She creates drawings, videos and installations. She regularly cooperates with activists, whom she invites to take an active part in her exhibitions and in direct confrontation with the art world.
Letters to an Army of Three recalls three women from the San Francisco Bay Area – Pat Maginnis, Lana Phelan and Rowena Gurner, known as the “Army of Three” – who in 1964–1973 fought for women’s rights, including legal abortion. For years the group received letters from people seeking foreign doctors to perform a safe abortion. In Bowers’s film, actors of various ages read out these letters, breaking the silence about what could not be talked about, or was considered improper to mention. Carefully arranged bouquets of flowers, resembling Dutch still lifes, gradually fade as each actor appears, linking the flower with the character. These slow sequences underline the vital tension in the work between speech and silence.
Tony Cokes (he/his, born in 1956, lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, United States)
Evil.48 (fn.kno.its.alls), 2012, video 5’32”
Courtesy of Tony Cokes; Greene Naftali, New York; Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles; and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Tony Cokes is an American conceptual artist and professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. In his works, he has abandoned representational depictions in favour of text, drawn from journalistic sources, presented on monochromatic screens. Cokes’s films address current social and political issues and representations of race in pop culture.
The work Evil.48 (fn.kno.it.alls) is an assemblage of textual commentaries and pop music, typical of Cokes’s aesthetics. It was created in 2012 in response to the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s proposal to reform the American health insurance system (known as “Obamacare”). These changes would impact women more than others. It was proposed that all forms of contraception (including IUDs and the “morning-after” pill) would be covered by health insurance paid for by the employer. About 50 American employers claiming Christian worldviews challenged the law before the US Supreme Court, alleging that funding insurance covering contraceptives would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In 2014 the Supreme Court held that family businesses or closely held corporations do not have to offer policies covering contraceptives if their owners have religious objections to such coverage. Then the obligation to finance contraceptive coverage passes directly to the insurance company
Cecelia Condit (she/her, born in 1947, lives and works in the United States)
We Were Hardly More Than Children, 2019, video 8’23”
Courtesy of the artist and VDB
Cecelia Condit is a video artist. Since the early 1980s she has created works in which the heroines’ lives swing between beauty and the grotesque, innocence and cruelty, youth and fragility. Her films subversively raise themes of the traditional social role of women, myths, psychology, sexuality and violence. Condit’s “feminist fairy tales” focus on friendships, age, and the natural world. She is a professor emerita in the Department of Film, Video, Animation & New Genres at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she was the director of the graduate programme in film for 30 years.
The story of an illegal abortion by Lena (Flora Coker) and the indifference of the healthcare system when it was necessary to save her life is told years later in a film by her friend (Cecelia Condit). As the narrator explains, “In 1969 were told that if you could afford it, you flew to London. Otherwise, there was a third floor in Mexico and a basement in Brooklyn”. Lena’s pregnancy did not bode well. It was unlikely that the child could be born healthy and survive outside of Lena’s body. The girl found a doctor who gave her a pill to induce an abortion. When they managed to get her to a hospital, the doctors there humiliated her. She was 15 minutes away from dying. Lena’s roommate is haunted by questions: “What if I hadn’t been there that night? What if I hadn’t woken up to take my bleeding friend to the hospital?”. Condit evokes the feelings of loneliness, sadness and anger experienced by her friends, and the story of their sisterly love and solidarity. The story of Lena is in reality the experience of the painter Diane Messinger, whose paintings are included in the film. Her works express the anger and pain associated with those events, which she had driven from her memory.
Elektra KB (they/them, she/her, lives and works in United States)
Regain Freedom, Confiscate Power (Warsaw), 2021, textiles, felt, thread, acrylic
Regain Freedom, Confiscate Power (Red), 2021, felt, thread
Women’s Protection Unit I, 2021, felt, thread
Not Under Your Dominion, I am Autonomous System, 2015, thread, textiles, acrylic
My Body, Not Up For Debate, 2021, felt, thread, textiles
Free Domain, Survival With No Apology, 2021, felt, thread, textiles
Courtesy of Elektra KB
Elektra KB are an American artist of Colombian and Ukrainian origin, an activist for reproductive rights and the rights of sexual minorities and the disabled. Elektra KB’s works lead a double life: some of their banners are shown at museums as works of art but also carried in demonstrations, e.g. during the anti-government protests in Colombia in the spring of 2021.
A new work by Elektra KB is shown at the exhibition. The large tapestry employs several motifs characteristic of the artist’s work: female warriors (from the imaginary Theocratic Republic of Gaja), the symbol of the Red Cross, masks, and insignia of global feminist protests. The work serves as a point of contact for various narrati-ves at the exhibition, linked with the spirit of global female solidarity. The motif of a lightning bolt used by the artist alludes to the women’s strikes in Poland. The lightning bolt present in the spaces of Polish cities, on flags, stickers, graffiti, masks and shirts, was designed by Ola Jasionowska, who also created the visual identity for the exhibition Who Will Write the History of Tears.
Rachel Fallon (she/her, born in 1971, lives and works in Wicklow, Ireland)
Aprons of Power, 2018, linen, silk, felt, fabric paint, cord
Courtesy of the artist and The Arts Council
Apron of Solidarity, 2021, linen, silk, felt, fabric paint, cord
Courtesy of the artist
Rachel Fallon is a visual artist addressing themes of maternity, safety in the domestic realm, and relations between the female body and politics and religion. She uses materials and working methods associated with household chores, such as embroidery and weaving. Fallon is a member of several feminist artistic collectives.
The exhibition includes “aprons of power” used by Fallon during the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. One of them was used in a photographic diptych alluding to Irish women’s travels to British abortion clinics. The right to leave the country for this purpose was guaranteed by the 13th amendment to the Irish Constitution, approved in a 1992 referendum. The following words are embroidered on the inside of the apron: “To Ensure Hope Is Our Role”. According to Fallon, “These photos were taken on a Sunday morning in Bray, with my back to the Irish Sea, the same sea so many women would have had to cross to maintain their bodily auto-nomy”. The photos of Fallon were taken just before the referendum of 25 May 2018, which resulted in liberalisation of the right to abortion in Ireland. For this exhibition, Rachel Fallon made a new apron in a gesture of solidarity with Polish women fighting for the right to decide about their own bodies. The piece features a slogan commonly used in Polish street protests, “For our freedom and yours”, paraphrasing a popular phrase (attributed to Joachim Lelewel) emblazoned on banners during the November Uprising.
Viola Głowacka (she/her, born in 1985, lives and works in Warsaw, Poland)
Husarette, 2021, tempera on canvas
Courtesy of the artist and Piktogram Gallery
Viola Głowacka is a Polish painter who works mainly in tempera, and also creates drawings and video. In her works she often takes up issues of women’s situations, portraying them in domestic spaces but also in bars or on the street. Her characteristic elongated female figures with an anaemic appearance look like they have been crushed by the struggle with reality.
Husarka is part of a larger series devoted to women knights. Unlike the artist’s earlier paintings, executed mainly in muted, blurred tones, this series emanates strength and lively colour. It was created in response to the National Women’s Strike with the aim of providing support and “rousing to battle” the women (and men) hitting the streets in defence of reproductive rights. On 8 March 2021 the artist took to the street with her painting, carrying it in the demonstration like a sign. The other parts of the series relate the fight on the streets of Warsaw (the famed “Battle of Empik”), and portray female knights enjoying a richly deserved rest after winning a skirmish, with a drink in hand, in a new and better reality.
Guerrilla Girls (founded in 1985 in New York, United States)
Guerrilla Girls Demand a Return to Traditional Values on Abortion, 1992/2021, digital print on paper
Copyright © Guerrilla Girls, courtesy guerrillagirls.com
Guerrilla Girls is an American feminist artistic group. The members appear anonymously in gorilla masks, often using the names of well-known dead women artists as artistic pseudonyms. Their artistic activity manifests in the form of happenings and art actions, but often also in posters, books or stickers. Guerrilla Girls’ actions are used to unmask sexism and racial prejudice in the field of art, and to demystify the images of women in politics and popular culture.
The work presented here takes the form of a fictional social campaign aimed at restoring “traditional values on abortion”. The members of the collective argue, following Carl N. Flanders, author of Abortion (Library in a Book), published in 1991, that before 1869 even the Catholic Church allowed abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy. The aim of the work is to point out that views on the permissibility of terminating pregnancies have evolved over the centuries, and the attitude toward reproductive rights is an expression of social consensus rather than a law imposed from on high.
Patricia Hurl (she/her, born in 1943, lives and works in Ireland)
Jingle Bells, 1986, oil on canvas
Study for The Kerry Babies Trial, 1984, mixed media on paper
Courtesy of the Irish Museum of Modern Art
Patricia Hurl is a visual artist creating works addressing such themes as loneliness, loss, pain, frustration and aging. She uses many media in her art: painting, drawing, performance, installations, and various types of collaborative practices. Hurl is also active in human rights movements. She has recently formed an artistic duo with Therry Rudin.
Hurl’s paintings from the 1980s allude to the infringement of women’s rights in Ireland in connection with the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution from 1983, radically banning abortion. The artist specifically addresses the infamous Kerry Babies case, where a dead infant was found on the beach and an innocent woman who had lost her child was charged with killing it. Significant to this work is the autobiographical context of the artist’s own miscarriage, after which she decided to paint these pictures. In her strongly expressionist paintings, Hurl underlines the image of a heartless system destroying women.
Teresa Jakubowska (she/her, born in 1930, lives and works in Poland)
Maternity Interrupted, 1962, linocut on paper
Private collection, Warsaw
Teresa Jakubowska is a visual artist and a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń (1953). She began her artistic career during the post-Stalinist thaw. It was then, during the wave of rethinking social realism, that she decided to operate through black presentations critically commenting on the realities of the Polish People’s Republic. To this day, the artist executes studio graphics using the linocut and woodcut techniques. She often drenches her works with autobiographical aspects, as in Childbirth (1958), Anaesthesia (1960) and Divorce (1961). These works are often identified as a sort of intimate journal of the artist, with a feminist message.
The linocut Interrupted Maternity is one of the few works by Polish artists addressing abortion. This work, part of Jakubowska’s intimate journal, is also a broader portrait of the difficult experience of women during the communist era in Poland. It serves as a kind of sequel to Childbirth, in which the artist depicted herself giving birth to a child in a communist-era hospital as objectifying and traumatic. Similarly, Interrupted Maternity depicts the solitude of a woman who must undergo the entire process of the abortion alone, struggling with the insensitivity of the social and medical system. Men, potential perpetrators, are visible at the top, in a cropped frame. The woman’s drama plays out, as it were, under the floor on which they tread; they are above it. They escape from the woman, clad in smocks, grotesque figures of obstetricians, clutching foetal shapes in buckets. The work is a criticism of a system proclaiming the equal rights of women but treating them like objects.
Anna Janczyszyn-Jaros (she/her, born in 1967, lives and works in Cracow, Poland)
Into the City, 1993, video 22’00”
Collection of the Małopolska Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation
Anna Janczyszyn-Jaros is a visual artist and a painting graduate of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts (1991). In her work she combines numerous media: performance, photography, installations, and interactive objects. Her works from the 1990s fall within the stream of critical art.
The documentation of the performance To the City is regarded as the most emblematic work by Janczyszyn-Jaros. Created at the time of adoption of the law limiting the right to abortion in 1993, it comments on the change in the status of women in Polish public space. In the performance, the artist crawls along the streets of Kraków. The reactions of onlookers are vital to this film record (with Alicja Żebrowska behind the camera) – displaying the whole spectrum of emotions, from indifference to aggression. As pointed out by Ewa Tatar, the artist crawls along the streets while complying with the traffic regulations – clinging to the right side, crawling across the street on the green light, and so on. But despite attempts to bring her back to “the vertical”, she stubbornly returns to her horizontal position. The ending of the film is both symbolic and grotesque, as a woman with a baby carriage flees to avoid confronting the artist.
Maja Kleczewska (she/her, born in 1973, lives and works in Warsaw, Poland)
Euripides’ Bacchae, directed by Maja Kleczewska, written by Łukasz Chotkowski
Read-in at the Polish Parliament, performed by Aleksandra Bożek, Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theater, 2018
Maja Kleczewska is a theatre director. She and dramaturge Łukasz Chotkowski have worked together several times to set classical texts into the context of contemporary political and social debates, adapting such works as Euripides’ Phaedra, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Chekhov’s Platonov, Shakespeare’s Tempest, and The Rats by Gerhard Hauptmann.
The Bacchae (2018), based on Euripides, at Warsaw’s Teatr Powszechny, identifies the historic sources of the oppressive social order in the patriarchy and restriction of women’s rights, particularly in the sphere of reproductive rights. In one scene from the play, a monologue by Karolina Adamczyk as the baccha (maenad) Ino, a robot controlled from outside of Poland gives the actress abortion pills. In the runup to the show, there was a one-woman happening before the Polish parliament, in which Aleksandra Bożek (baccha Autonoe) read texts on women’s right to decide about their own body, including the speech on the right to abortion delivered by Simone Veil in the French parliament on 24 November 1974, a manifesto by feminist activists from Argentina, and commentary by Rebecca Gomperts (founder of Women on Waves) on the tightening of the abortion law in Poland. As Kleczewska and Chotkowski commented: “Women’s anger can change the existing order. It can lead to a new revolution, to the creation of a new idea”.
Dominika Kowynia (she/her, born in 1978, lives and works in Katowice, Poland)
Suction, 2021, oil on canvas
Courtesy of the artist. Tomasz Pasiek Collection
Dominika Kowynia is a visual artist specialising in figurative oil painting. In her works she combines realistic depictions with expressive smears of paint. Colour allows her to manipulate light and is responsible for the strong emotional charge of her paintings. Kowynia’s works are inspired by ecology, feminism, and everyday life. They often include allusions to literature, particularly the works of such writers as Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf.
The painting Suction (2021) arose in response to the women’s protests in 2020. The artist worked on it for a long time, nearly a year, before she deemed it complete. In the first phase of the process she painted a figure with her head down, attempting to extract something from the clenched jaws lying on the ground. This image conveyed the state of Kowynia and many other women who could not reconcile themselves to the increasing harshness of the law in Poland, stripping them of a sense of dignity and control over their own bodies. After some time the artist painted in an image of a white figure. This neutral figure, full of gentleness and focus, guards access to her own body, and compositionally balances the struggle of the figure with her head hanging down. It symbolizes the unity and strength with which women took to the streets of many cities and towns across Poland.
Barbara Kruger (she/her, born in 1945, lives and works in New York and Los Angeles, United States)
Who Will Write the History of Tears?, 1987, bromide silver photography, silkscreen text on paper
Courtesy of the artist and ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe
Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1991, original poster, offset print on paper
Design of the poster Untitled (Your body is a battleground), translated into Polish from English by Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1991, offset print on paper
Barbara Kruger is an American conceptual artist. In her works she often uses black-and-white photographs on which she superimposes suggestive titles in white and red text in the fonts Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed. The phrases in her works often contain personal pronouns and possessives such as “you,” “yours,” “I,” “we,” and “them,” and allude to cultural constructions of power, identity, consumerism and sexuality.
Your Body Is a Battleground is Kruger’s best-known work in Poland. It appeared for the first time on the streets of Polish cities in 1991 thanks to cooperation between the artist and Milada Ślizińska, a curator at that time at Zamek Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. This occurred at the time the Polish parliament was debating a tightening of the abortion law, which was ultimately adopted in 1993, allowing abortion in only three cases: when the life or health of the woman was endangered, when there were irreversible foetal defects, and when the pregnancy was the result of a crime. Kruger’s work was created several years earlier, for the famous March for Women’s Lives in Washington on 9 April 1989, a protest in which American women sought to uphold the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade legalising abortion. Who Will Write the History of Tears?, the work from which the title of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is drawn, was created in 1987 and employs a similarly strident aesthetic. Kruger recently showed a new version of this work at the exhibition Abortion Is Normal at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, the income from which was earmarked to support Planned Parenthood, an American organisation protecting reproductive rights.
Ewa Kuryluk (she/her, born in 1946, lives and works in Paris, France)
Abortion, Live and Televised, white ink drawing on paper, 1974
Our Pavonine World, 1967, etching on paper
Courtesy of the artist
Ewa Kuryluk is an art historian, painter, illustrator, essayist and writer. She began her artistic path in art groups of the 1970s like “Cream” and “For Improvement”, with ambitions to revive figurative painting. Kuryluk distanced herself from avant-garde trends, feeling the strongest sympathy with hyperrealism, to which she devoted a book. From the start, her works were marked by a strong autobiographical strain, a belief that art should be “a unique reflection of individual fate”. Her works depict relationships, emotions, and a biological fascination with life and sexuality.
In Abortion on TV Kuryluk presents a couple, a man and a woman who have just had sex. He lies relaxed, lazily dangling his feet, with a bird and a cat nearby. She crouches tensely on the edge of the bed, staring at a television programme on abortion. The television set becomes the screen of her imagination. In the artist’s view, the work captures the fundamental inequality in sexual relations between men and women, where the woman bears the respon-sibility of potential unwanted consequences. Our Pavonine World was created when Kuryluk was studying at the academy of fine arts, and metaphorically depicts the life of the artist and her women friends from the same period. As the artist describes the work, “It was a turbulent time for romantic relationships, forming them and breaking them off. A time closely connected in the life of young women with pregnancy, miscarriage and abortion”.
Alice Maher (she/her, born in 1956, lives and works in Mayo and Dublin, Ireland)
The History of Tears, 2013, silk handkerchief. Printed by Glasgow School of Art, Centre for Advanced Textiles. Sewn by Fashion Hothouse, Dublin. Edition of 200
Ombre V, 1997, charcoal on paper
Courtesy of the Irish Museum of Modern Art
Alice Maher is a visual artist, addressing such themes as memory, transformation, and the flow of time. Her works – sculptures, installations, drawings, graphics and films—allude to classical myths and fairy tales, read in a contemporary social context, such as Cassandra, Mnemosyne, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel. The artist often uses impermanent, fragile materials, such as berries, rose petals, or snail shells.
Maher was one of the main founders of the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland. Two earlier works by the artist are presented at the exhibition, characteristic of her interest in dreams, myths and idiosyncrasy. The History of Tears (2013) is a handkerchief embroidered with the figure of a woman sunk in despair, literally “crying her eyes out”. The other work, Ombre V, is an equally surreal depiction of a woman’s very long hair. Hair figures in Maher’s works as a measure of the flow of time. Changes may occur in society slowly, but they are inevitable.
Ana Mendieta (she/her, born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, died in 1985 in New York, USA)
Untitled (Blood Sign #2 / Body tracks), 1974, 8 mm film transferred to video, 1’20”
Courtesy of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Ana Mendieta was an American artist of Cuban origin. Her oeuvre is regarded as groundbreaking among artists of the 20th century. She was involved mainly in painting, performance, installations and land art. Her works combine feminist sensitivity with primal rituals and an interest in processes of nature. She died at age 36, just as her creative powers were blossoming. She fell from the window of her 34th-floor apartment in New York. Her husband, Carl Andre, a purist--minimalist sculptor, was tried and acquitted of her murder. In Body Tracks, Mendieta continued the series Body Works/Silueta (1973–1977). It consists of attempts to imprint the outline of her body in the most primordial image of the human, once upon a time in close correlation with nature. But while the previous series was dominated by harmony and an attempt at a new, ritual inclusion of the artist into the element order, in Body Tracks Mendieta alludes to primordial, bloody, sacrificial mysteries. The artist imprints her hands, dipped in blood mixed with paint, onto a white surface and sweeps them downward, leaving behind her a trace of her falling body. By activating elements of primordial ritual, Mendieta not only deconstructs the modernist (typically masculine) painterly gesture, but first and foremost actualises her deep feminist belief in the universal, patriarchal “sacrifice of women”, their rights and subjectivity, carried out for ages and down to the present day.
Fina Miralles (she/her, born in 1959, lives and works in Sabadell, Spain)
Emmascarats, 1976/2021, Inkjet print on paper
Courtesy of the artist and MACBA. Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona
Fina Miralles is a visual artist whose works from the 1970s combined performance and conceptualism with ecological and feminist thought. Distinct characteristics of her work included its critique of patriarchy, and drawing from nature as a source of power and imagination. Miralles withdrew from artistic activity in 1983.
The series of photographs Emmascarat (Catalan for “masked”) from 1976 recalls the oppressive living conditions for women under the Franco regime. Spain was then in the grip of a ruthless cult of the family, and the authorities, hand in hand with the Catholic Church, limited women’s civil rights, rendering them wholly dependent on their fathers, brothers or husbands (a woman could not decide on her own to work or travel). The law at that time reverted to the 19th century, relying partially on the Napoleonic Code. For example, there was no penalty for a man who killed his own wife to “punish” her for adultery, divorces were expensive and available only with the consent of church officials, and abortion was entirely banned. Miralles took these photographs shortly after the death of Franco, registering the dark emotions from the time of the dictatorship.
Małgorzata Mycek (they/them, he/his, she/her, born in 1993, lives and works in Poznań, Polska)
You will never walk alone, 2021, oil on canvas
Self Care, 2021, oil on canvas
Courtesy of the artist
Małgorzata Mycek is a painter and performance artist. She grew up in the countryside, in a small village in the Bieszczady mountains in the 1990s, which she frequently explores in her work. Her projects convey an interest in vernacular culture and engagement in current political affairs. For her, art is a form of therapy, enabling the processing of trauma and the struggle with a difficult reality.
The two paintings by Mycek, Self-Care and You’ll Never Walk Alone, were created as a response to the protests sparked by the Constitutional Tribunal’s judgment of 22 October 2020 banning abortion in the case of irreversible foetal defects. The first work, alluding to the classical format of the still life, presents a “home kit” for conducting a pharmacological abortion. The second set, depicting a porcelain angel on a napkin, familiar in many Polish homes, calls to mind a key slogan of the women’s protests: “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, borrowed from the song by the British group Gerry & The Pacemakers. Both works express female solidarity and attempt to provide emotional support for protesting women.
Joanna Piotrowska (she/her, born in 1985, lives and works in London, England)
Untitled (Self-defense), 2014, silver-gelatin print on paper
Courtesy of the artist. Collection of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art
Untitled, 2014, silver-gelatin print on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Southard Reid
Untitled, 2014, 16 mm video
Courtesy of the artist and Southard Reid
Joanna Piotrowska is a visual artist. In her minimalist photographic and film works based on gestures, Piotrowska examines inter-personal relations, and maps and demystifies tensions between the individual and society.
The works presented here were inspired by self-defence guides for women. The protagonists of the pictures and the film are girls aged 11–17 recreating poses from self-defence manuals. The inspiration for creation of this work was a book by the American psychologist and feminist Carol Gilligan Joining the Resistance, in which the author describes how maturing girls learn self-discipline and conform to societal norms, unconsciously assimilating to a model of femininity imposed on them by a patriarchal culture. The girls’ bodies, unnaturally crumpled, do not give an impression of agency, but seem to bend under the pressure of an unseen force acting from outside the frame. This black-and-white photograph depicting a woman’s hand gouging a man’s eyes was donated by the artist in 2020 to a charity auction organized by Magdalena Komornicka, in cooperation with the Friends of Zachęta Foundation and the Dawid Radziszewski Gallery. Proceeds from the sale of the piece went to supporting the work of the Feminoteka Foundation.
Luiza Prado de O. Martins (she/her, born in 1985, lives and works in Berlin, Germany)
A Spectre of Non-Presence, 2019, sculpture
As Flames Engulfed the River, 2018, video essay 17’00”
Courtesy of the artist
Luiza Prado de O. Martins is a Brazilian artist, author and researcher. In her art and research she addresses issues of reproductive rights, fertility, colonialism, race and gender. In her creative work she often stresses connections between destruction of the environment, colonial history, and biopolitical control over racialised bodies.
As Flames Engulfed the River, a film essay and part of the larger work A Topography of Excesses, tells of natural birth-control practices followed by the native population of Brazil. The film begins with a reference to ayoowiri, a plant growing in tropical zones of both Americas. During the European occupation, an infusion from this plant was often used as a contraceptive, and in stronger doses as an abortifacient, by indigenous peoples as a strategy of resistance against colonial dictatorship. The sculpture A Spectre of Non Presence (2019) is an attempt to enclose in an object a performance also alluding to herbal methods of contraception. It comprises a dress used in the performance, a skirt that belonged to the artist’s mother, and a blouse that belonged to her grandmother. Other materials contained in the work, from decorative beads to seeds used for contraception, also allude to the entanglements between the stories of the women, their life and varying approaches to fertility and birth control.
Paula Figueiroa Rego (she/her, born 1935 in Lisbon, lives and works in London, England)
Untitled 1, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, HC
Untitled 2, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, HC
Untitled 3, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, AP
Untitled 4, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, HC
Untitled 5, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, copy 2
Untitled 6, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, HC
Untitled 7, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, HC
Untitled 8, 1999, etching on paper. Edition of 17, HC
Courtesy Paula Rego and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Paula Rego
Paula Figueiroa Rego is a Portuguese painter and illustrator. Rego grew up under the António de Oliveira Salazar regime, in a staunchly anti-fascist household. She attended St. Julian’s Catholic school in Carcavelos, and later studied art at the Slade School of Art in London. Rego was drawn to surrealism in her earlier years, but veered towards abstraction in the 1970s. In the 1990s she began creating critically acclaimed realistic, figurative pieces (mainly pastels) inspired by historical artists such as Diego Velázquez.
One of the main themes Paula Rego addresses in her art are women’s rights. The artist is a firm supporter of the freedom to make choices about one’s own body, and uses (classical, illustrative, and accessible) art to convey personal dramas and the patriarchal oppression that underpins tradition. The series Swallows the Poisoned Apple (1995), for instance, alludes to the fairy tale of Snow White, depicting a middle-aged woman sliding off a couch, in agony after eating a poisoned apple.
The lithographs presented at this exhibition belong to Rego’s Abortion Series. They were created in the aftermath of the 1998 abortion rights referendum in Portugal, which failed to produce the expected legal outcome, prompting the artist to lend her support to the pro-choice movement through a series of harrowing pictures. According to the Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates, Rego’s pastels and lithographs contributed to the success of the subsequent referendum held in 2007. Commenting on her work, the artist observed that “It highlights the fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to. It’s very wrong to criminalize women on top of everything else. Making abortions illegal is forcing women to the backstreet solution”. the work as a whole a dimension of metaphor: a metaphor of the primordial, indestructible power lurking in women – a power that despite adversity, persistently strives toward total eruption.
Mariela Scafati (she/her, born in 1973, lives and works in Buenos Aires, Argentina)
The Mobilization, 2020, installation: acrylic on canvas and hinges
Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Isla Flotante
Mariela Scafati is a visual artist and LGBT activist. She studied graphic design, but her principal medium is abstract painting. Scafati’s works are installations arranged in space, suspended from the ceiling, arrayed on floors and windowsills, bound in string. Scafati is the cofounder of the Argentinian movement Cromoactivismo, which draws from colour theory and the history of modernism, testing the strength of various hues during street protests and blockades (they use the Pantone palette as a “battleground of colour”).
The installation Mobilization was created for the Berlin Biennale in 2020, during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scafati’s abstract paintings were arranged into geometric human profiles of square and rectangular “heads”, “torsos” and “limbs”. Each of them represents a specific activist friend of Scafati’s, to which the artist assigns an appropriate colour reflecting her temperament, and the module also reflects the woman’s height. She created the work in response to the mobilisation of women’s movements around the world in 2020, during the tough times of the pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings. In Argentina a law was adopted by parliament in the last days of the year legalising abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy, after decades of intense work and struggle by women’s organisation (the law went into force on 24 January 2021). Initially the installation comprised marching and dancing figures. Their placement now on the floor alludes to the time of hibernation during the pandemic, and also a rest before a new march. When it comes to women’s rights, no victory is won once for all time.
Agata Słowak (she/her, born in 1994, lives and works in Warsaw, Poland)
Self-portrait with a balloon, 2019, oil on canvas
Courtesy of the artist and Fundacji Galerii Foksal
Detail of The Feminist – The Modern-day Witch, 2019, installation
Courtesy of the Artist and the Foksal Gallery Foundation
Easter painting, oil on canvas, 2019
Courtesy of the artist and Weronika Szwarc-Bronikowska
Agata Słowak is a visual artist and graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, she is a painter and creator of spatial objects and textiles. In her works alluding to the tradition of European painting, she explores autobiographical aspects, and issues from cultural anthropology and feminism. She ponders the role of the woman in society, her sexuality, causes for exclusion, and the history of madness. A recurring motif in her work is the role of ritual and magic as alternative forms for conveying knowledge and forming a community of women.
The work presented here is a fragment from Słowak’s diploma work I Am Beautiful, I Am a Great Artist, which she defended in 2019, accompanied by several new paintings. At the centre is an old gynaecological chair, on which rests a “woman” tailored by the artist. A foetus, also made of fabric, emerges from her. All around, Słowak has expressively strewn the remnants of “dolls,” which through their nudity, poses, and tousled hair bring to mind witches. The installation alludes to the Black Protest, in which women fought for the right to decide about their own bodies. According to the artist, it is a bow to feminists whom the patriarchal discourse tries to marginalise, like so many medieval witches. The installation is arranged on a foundation of hay, and the whole stirs associations with primitive conditions, which may suggest dangerous places where illegal abortions have been performed, or evoke the world of devils and witches.
Elena Tejada-Herrera (she/her, born in 1969, lives and works in Lima, Peru)
The Girls Train To Fight, 2019, video 15’44”
Courtesy of the artist
Elena Tejada-Herrera is a visual artist and feminist activist. Her work relies on cooperation with various groups of people, from street sellers, cabaret dancers, and staff of the public library, to anonymous people whom Tejada-Herrera engages in long conversations about women’s rights after dialling random digits in a telephone booth. The artist defines her own field of work as “the aesthetics of the politics of empowerment”.
The video installation The Girls Train To Fight is a paean to the strength of women, the community of interests, and alliances between feminist and LGBTQ+ movements. It is an ecstatic and chaotic vision of sisterhood (combining elements of street, folk and club culture) accompanied by traditional songs, techno music, and “The Internationale”. Tejada-Herrera also used home recordings made during the lockdown in 2020 in Lima, featuring non-binary persons practising various techniques of self-defence. A unicorn, an elderly mermaid, and lesbian vampires will create the community of the future. You’ll never walk alone.
Teresa Tyszkiewicz (she/her, born in 1953 in Ciechanów, Poland, died in 2020 in Paris, France)
Burden, 2009, photograph on paper
Courtesy of Zdzisław Sosnowski
Teresa Tyszkiewicz was a visual artist. She began her career in the Polish avant-garde circles of the 1970s. From the start, Tyszkiewicz rejected the conceptual and intellectual hallmarks of avant-garde art typical for that time, focussing in her works on a more corporeal and sensual exploration of the purely material dimension of reality. In the early 1980s the artist gradually shifted from a focus on experimental film to performative creation of paintings, called “pin paintings”, the dominant components of which were materiality and organicity.
The work Burden is based on a performative act typical of the artist, consisting of confronting her body with various materials. This time the point of departure was a desire to depict the complicated feelings connected with becoming pregnant. The masked artist nearly merges with a form whose shape resembles the abdomen of a pregnant woman, alternately hugging it and trying to repel it. The ambivalence is contained in the title of the work, alluding on one hand to the weight and the psychological and emotional crisis associated with pregnancy. On the other hand, the Polish title connotes one of the words for “pregnant”, evoking positive associa-tions in the culture linked with maternity. The artist conquers this ambivalence by creating an ambiguous and disturbing work. The form of Tyszkiewicz’s pregnant “belly” is studded with pins, a characteristic element of her work, generating an impression of pain. The colour gold, with a well-known sacred symbolism in the history of art, is also present in the work.
Weronika Wysocka (she/her, born in 1994, lives and works in Warsaw, Poland)
Finest Dust, 2019, video 2’19’’
Courtesy of the artist
Weronika Wysocka is a visual artist and a graduate of Mirosław Bałka’s Studio of Spatial Activities at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. She also studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. In her work she combines numerous media: video, installations, performance, and new digital media. She raises issues of the impact of technology on people and nature, problems of overproduction, psychological and emotional crises, and feminism.
The Finest Dust serves as a kind of homage by the young artist to her predecessors, feminists fighting for women’s rights in Poland for the last 30 years. The protagonist of the work is the radical activist and writer Katarzyna Bratkowska. Wysocka creates her portrait through a series of closeups, gradually shifting from an apologetic image of her face to the raw materiality of a female body pulsing with energy and internal power. The poetic text appearing in the image was written in cooperation with Bratkowska, describing primordial phenomena of nature. It tells of an element sprinkled with ash and seemingly overcome by caked lava, which at all times threatens imminent eruption. This text superimposed on the portrait of an icon of the feminist movement, on an image of the dampness of her skin, the rhythm of her pulse, imparts to the work as a whole a dimension of metaphor: a metaphor of the primordial, indestructible power lurking in women – a power that despite adversity, persistently strives toward total eruption.
America’s Abortion Wars
On 22 January 1973 the United States Supreme Court handed down its historic judgment in Roe v. Wade. In a seven-to-two vote, the judges – all men – recognized that American women have a right to terminate their pregnancies in the first trimester. In the second trimester, the states can restrict this right, and in the third trimester they can prohibit abortion. The ruling was a victory for the pro-choice side, but it did not end the battle for reproductive rights in America.
Termination of pregnancy, up until “quickening,” when the woman could feel the foetus move – was legal in the US until the late 19th century. It was doctors who launched the campaign to criminalize abortion, mainly to eliminate competition from midwives. After the adoption of state bans, doctors gained a monopoly on performing abortions: they were the ones who decided whether a pregnancy threatened the patient’s life, and it was only in that case that the pregnancy could be legally terminated. Meanwhile, the US Congress limited access to birth control. The Comstock Act of 1873 prohibited distribution of contraceptives.
In the 20th century, reproductive rights made their way to the banners of the feminist movement. In 1916 Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in New York. Planned Parenthood was founded five years later. In 1957 Sanger’s dream came to fruition when the Pill reached pharmacies – the first contracep-tive offering women control over their own fertility. And in 1965 and 1972, the US Supreme Court struck down the ban on distribution of contraceptives, first for married couples and then for the unmarried.
In the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminism began to demand legalization of abortion. Meanwhile, abortion self-help blossomed: in Chicago the women from the Jane Collective carried out the procedure themselves, and in San Francisco the Army of Three put those in need in contact with doctors abroad.
The decision in Roe v. Wade sparked a conservative backlash. In the 1980s and 1990s abortion clinics became the subject of attacks, from pickets to bombings. Doctors died at the hands of anti-abortion fanatics. But the legislative offensive proved more effective: conservative states limited access to abortion by imposing prohibitive standards on clinics and introducing time limits for the procedure. Today the stance on abortion is a marker of party affiliation, and presidential candidates routinely promise that they will appoint justices to the Supreme Court holding the appropriate views. Today conservatives hold a six-to-three majority on the Supreme Court, and a case has landed on the docket that may result in overturning Roe v. Wade.
The Irish Case
Up until 2018, Ireland’s abortion law was among among the most restrictive in the world. The Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 completely criminalized abortion, making it punishable by life imprisonment. Reproductive rights were radically curtailed throughout most of the twentieth century: birth control was available exclusively to married couples and required a prescription. Meanwhile, women who were sex workers or were considered “fallen” were imprisoned and forced into hard labor in the so-called Magdalene Laundries, asylums run by Catholic nuns. It wasn’t until 1995 that divorce was legalized in Ireland.
The Eighth Amendment, adopted in 1983, enshrined the life of the embryo as equal to the life of the pregnant woman. This addition to the Irish Constitution was intended to tighten the legal restrictions on abortion in the case of life-threatening pregnancies. Efforts to repeal the Eighth Amendment failed on two separate occasions: once in 1992, and then a decade later in 2002. Neither proposal recognized the threat of suicide as legal grounds for abortion.
Public opinion in Ireland was repeatedly shocked by heartbreaking reports of rape victims and underage girls seeking medical care in abortion clinics abroad. The media covered a number of tragic stories of women, including the X Case, the C Case, Miss D, and the case of the Kerry Babies in the 1980s, in which a woman whose child had died shortly after birth was charged with the murder of another infant that was found dead on a beach. In 2001, Women on Waves’ seaborne abortion clinic dropped anchor off the Irish coast, and its crew held rallies and workshops on a number of issues, including getting access to abortion pills. The 2012 death of the Indian citizen Savita Halappanavar provoked unprecedented outrage. Halappanavar was refused an abortion following an incomplete miscarriage. After expelling the dead fetus, she developed sepsis and soon died. Her story galvanized the Irish pro-choice movement. In 2018 another referendum was held to legislate for abortion rights. Ireland’s streets became the site of heated debate waged through mass media, billboards, and door-to-door campaigns. Members of the visual arts world took a stand through the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, and were soon joined by film, theater, and literary circles. The campaign was remarkable for its use of highly sophisticated protest and publicity methods, which included demonstration marches accompanied by music and woven banners, and “Days of Testimony” during which women shared their abortion experiences. The referendum resulted in the repeal of the Eighth Amendment (by a margin of 67% to 33%, with 39 out of 40 constituencies voting to repeal), paving the way for the loosening of abortion restrictions and the legalization of abortion in Ireland.
The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion (2005–2021)
Martha Inés Rosenberg
The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion (CNDALSG) is a political movement launched in May 2005, as a result of the 18th National Women’s Meeting in Rosario, Argentina. The meeting took place in 2003, in the wake of a profound economic and political crisis accompanied by a massive popular mobilization. Women demanded the right to abortions and reproductive health services, arguing that the freedom to decide about one’s own pregnancy was a fundamental human right. The campaign’s three-part motto, “Sex education to decide. Contraception to avoid abortion. Legal abortion so we don’t die” was the backbone around which the movement developed over the years. The goal was to unify different groups advocating for abortion rights dispersed across the country into a single national campaign, with the goal of passing a national law that would address issues of public health, equality and social justice. People identifying as heterosexual men and women joined forces with the LGBTQ+ movement to demand the right to decide about their own lives and bodies, in defiance of the patriarchal canons.
The campaign’s first bill was presented in 2007, and another seven times over the next twelve years, with cross-party support from various members of parliament. On May 28, 2019, the campaign submitted a new bill, and one year later President Alberto Fernández announced in his opening speech to the Congress the submission of a voluntary abortion bill, a few days before the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions. The pandemic delayed the vote on the bill, while the demand for legal abortion increased and access to contraception grew increasingly difficult. The campaign adopted a new slogan: “Legal Abortion Now!”. To emphasize the urgency of the bill, virtual actions took place, accompa-nied by graffiti, street performances and media interventions. Undeterred by attacks from anti-abortion activists, the campaign persisted until the president submitted his own bill on November 17, 2020. The law was similar to the one proposed by CNDALSG, but with some differences, including the right to conscientious objection, and the penalization of abortions conducted after the 14th week of pregnancy. National Law 27610 was finally passed by the Senate on January 14, 2021. The green scarf spread throughout the country as a symbol of the new awareness o women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. Built on the foundation of lasting social labor, the campaign celebrates the abortion law as its political achievement, garnering national and international recognition for extending gender equality, democracy and human rights. The securing of abortion rights and reproductive justice marks the creation of new coalitions, challenges, and an inter-generational legacy for young people.
Pain and Fear
Etching. Cruel. Hence the first association: Goya, Los desastres…, Los disparates…. But it is neither The Disasters of War nor the human Follies. It is the eternal female experience of pain inseparably coupled with fear. We see an illegal “removal of the foetus.” No clinic, no gynaecologist’s office gleaming with whiteness and chrome, no sterile medical instruments. There is no doctor. There are no assisting “angel-makers”. This is not even an abortion underground offering a primitive D&C. It is just a crumpled sack, a chair, a bucket, a chamber pot. And loneliness.
In this borderline life situation, a woman is entirely on her own. She is neither beautiful nor young. She is stocky, heavy. She straddles swollen, ungainly legs. A grimace distorts the lines of her face. The woman tries to bear down, to provoke the abortion, and again twists in pain. Like a mother giving birth, she is stricken by contractions of the womb, but she cannot cry out. With all her force she must muffle her cry, in fear that she will be discovered. After all, what is happening is illegal. And there’s blood everywhere. Blood soaks into the bed, blood drips on the floor. Blood clots along with the dispelled foetus fill the ready bucket. When it’s all over she will still have to clean up, remove the traces. So no one knows.
We don’t know why the woman is terminating the pregnancy. In a disgusting room somewhere, desperately alone, she wrestles with her fate. Why did she decide to bear the pain, the despair, the risk, the humiliation? Forced by whom? Out of fear of disgrace, condemnation, rejection? Out of fear of single motherhood? Out of concern for a life full of cruelty?
Who will say she alone is to blame?
The language of abortion protests in recent years
Four years separated Black Monday 2016 from the protests following the judgment of Julia Przyłębska’s Constitutional Tribunal. That’s a lot of time when you’re a teenager. In the autumn of 2020 groups of that year’s high school graduates danced the polonaise in front of the Law & Justice (PiS) headquarters. Did they know about the “Wall of Anger”, the demonstrations held there four years earlier? They were children then.
Rain fell in Warsaw on 3 October 2016. It is the rain we have to thank for the splendid photo of the Women’s Strike: a “sea of umbrellas” around Sigmund’s Column. The symbols of that wave of protests also include black (national mourning for women’s rights) and the coat-hanger (a symbol of illegal abortion). Many banners alluded to the patriotic imaginarium: the Solidarity logo linked with an umbrella, the poster Invisible Women of Solidarity by Sanja Iveković (a twist on the election poster from 1989 featuring Gary Cooper), and the anchor from the Warsaw Uprising recast in a feminist mould (Polka walcząca [“Polish woman fighting”] – instead of Polska walcząca [“Poland fighting”]). Anger and disappointment at their own country predominated: “Cursed Wombs” (instead of “cursed soldiers”), “No Woman No Kraj [country]”, “Poland Is a Woman”. The slogans expressed outrage and despair, often in the first person: “I Think, I Feel, I Decide”, “My womb is not a chapel”, “I Won’t Give Birth to a Dead Child”, “The Limit of Contempt”. It was an upsurge of women who felt betrayed by their own collective. One slogan quoted the title of the 1930 book by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, Hell for Women.
In the autumn of 2020 the social media generation took to the streets, deploying the idiom of memes. The word WYPIERDALAĆ – “fuck off” – became the central slogan of the protests, replacing “Solidarity” in another take on the poster from 1989. The emblem of eight stars prevailed. Lightning bolts, an element of the strike’s iconography from the start, now became omnipresent. They were painted on faces, masks, and signs. They were visible in windows, on walls and fences. This was no longer anger, but unbridled fury. One slogan read “This Is War”. There were fewer placards, banners and posters. They were replaced by recycled cardboard boxes – a symbol of the spontaneity of this revolt, and also a signal that the generation of climate change was protesting. In the competition for the best antics, creativity counted. Politer forms of the main slogans: “You know what, you know who”, “Kindly fuck off”, “The cat can stay” (a reference to the pet of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński). Lots of the body, without euphemisms: “Will I fuck you, Jarek [Kaczyński], in the ass?”, “Citizens of the capital, we will now hear from the womb”, “My pussy is mine”. Echoes of schoolyard taunts about “your mother”: “PiS keeps Nutella in the fridge”, “Kaja Godek [anti-abortion activist] eats soup with a fork”, “PiS cheats on pregnancy tests”. References to games and TV shows: “Want to control someone else’s life? Play Sims,” “This isn’t the world Tony Stark died for.” Current politics and media supporting the regime were ridiculed: “Jarek, where do you buy hands that can be glued to the table?” There were attacks on the Catholic Church: “Stick to the Body of Christ”, “Let us pray for the right to abortion”. And finally, cardboard boxes about cardboard boxes: “Stop already, I’m running out of cardboard boxes” and “I took the cat’s cardboard box”.
In the course of four years, the protests moved from umbrellas to lightning bolts, from pathos to twisted humour, from allusions to patriotic tradition to raw anger.
Curatorial TeamMagda Lipska, Sebastian Cichocki, Łukasz Ronduda
Project managementAleksandra Nasiorowska, Maria Nowakowska, Szymon Żydek
Exhibition architectureJohanna Meyer-Grohbruegge
Key visualOla Jasionowska
TextsSebastian Cichocki, Magda Lipska, Agnieszka Graff-Osser, Maria Poprzęcka, Łukasz Ronduda, Martha Rosenberg, Katarzyna Wężyk
TranslationArthur Barys, Zuzanna Błahuszewska, Klementyna Dec, Anna Dzierzgowska, Justyna Gardzińska, Chris Smith
Managing editorKacha Szaniawska
CommunicationMarta Bartkowska, Józefina Bartyzel, Aleksandra Długołęcka, Anna Szałas, Aleksandra Urbańska, Iga Winczakiewicz
Public program coodrinatorPaweł Nowożycki
Film Programe CuratorGabriela Sitek
Educational programMarta Przybył, Marta Maliszewska,Katarzyna Benda i grupa Ponton, Jakub Depczyński, Bogna Stefańska, Petra Skarupsky, Bernard Wnuk, Cezary Wierzbicki, Dominika Jagiełło, kolektyw Blyzkist
Accessible MuseumMarta Przasnek
Conservation and restorationJoanna Dziewanowska-Stefańczyk, Michał Kożurno
RealizationJakub Antosz, Marek Franczak, Szymon Ignatowicz, Aleksander Kalinowski, Robert Kania, Paweł Ostromecki, Przemysław Pryciak, Paweł Sobczak, Piotr Sokół, Marcin Szubiak, Tomasz Wołkow
Graphic design of the exhibitionMonika Golisz - ALE DOBRZE STUDIO