The Social Realities of the Irish Uterus
MA Exhibition Tina Whelan
James Barry MTU Exhibition Centre
Cork Bishopstown Campus 19th April 2021 -30th May
This MA by Research focuses on the impact of Catholic ethics on Irish obstetrics, and particularly on the peculiarly Irish practice of symphysiotomy for women of small stature who were suspected of having inadequate pelvic capacity to allow foetal passage in vaginal birth.
A symphysiotomy is a procedure that cuts the symphysis pubis joint to unhinge and widen the pelvis in childbirth. From the 1940s to the 1980s, symphysiotomy was performed on at least 1,500 pregnant/labouring women in Ireland, either without the women having given consent or with them having only given it unknowingly.
It was the giving of such power as religious authority by an enabling Irish state that allowed the unregulated practice of symphysiotomies to be hidden in plain sight for over forty years. Since its revelation in the public domain in 1999 it has neither been properly accounted for medically, nor yet resolved within the justice system. The State has succeeded in bringing about impunity for itself and the perpetrators by suppressing its symphysiotomised women’s testimonies and silencing their injuries.
The essence of the art works in The Social Realities of the Irish Uterus lies in their materiality, and in the physical conditions and properties of that materiality.
In the floor work entitled Psyche-scape, I use turf, the earth’s ultimate felt, to express a site of struggle where dense injury and trauma persists. The qualities of our boglands educe an acidic, anaerobic landscape where it is difficult if not impossible to breathe or find space. In this culture a status-quo is ensured where reparations cannot be sought or met, women are cornered and corralled without succour. – Cut turf is stewed in a lime whitewash of utmost alkalinity, to disinfect and mask the stench from violations imposed and her pleasures robbed, whilst ushering in her demise.
The wall pieces emanate from Psyche-scape to manifest in tactile, visual renderings the bodily harm, pain and hurt caused by these clerical and clinical abuses.
This exhibition evokes and disrupts our psychic cultural landscape, wherein the gaping wound and what sores ooze from it are plastered over to seal homogenous national time. This prescribed narrative provides ‘a mirror in which a fragmented, fractious, injured community sees itself as beautiful, coherent, happy.’ *
However, my work aims to make real, intimate and tender the actuality that these brutal medical procedures fundamentally still press on the Irish psyche; it may help us to know, in a felt sense, these difficult truths about our history that hurts.
This encounter provokes the social realities of the Irish uterus where no anamnesis or healing can occur, nor balm be found, until this wound is recognised and grieved for.
* as quoted by Mairead Enright in No, I won’t go back, 2018
IMAGE AND MATERIAL LIST
1 – Psyche-Scape
Turf on ply, whitewash, rusted iron, bones, paper, bitumen and pigments. 320 x 220cm.
2 – Her Seven Deadlies
Cast paper hairband, silk, blackthorns and primroses. 27 x 27cm.
3 – Her Shanty Fixed
Size 4 woman’s foot cast in beeswax with barnacles. 21 x 8 x 6cm.
4 – One for each of her Senses
Cast silk handkerchiefs, female pubic hair, iodine and felted medical wadding; with rope, keys, scissors, medical and cartographic implements. Installation: 310 x 180; handkerchiefs each 27 x 27cm.
5 – A Chara, Let’s Sway his Pillar to the Chora
Beeswax church candle and female hair. 90 x 12cm.
6 – 3.5 Required for the Anatomical Civilising Mission
Cast tissue paper female pelvis with iron threads. 23 x 15cm.