Lessons from the Womb: Bodily Autonomy versus Society
Sheyda Azar, in her work Internal Intimacy, uses contrasting texture, connotation, and color to express the struggle between bodily autonomy and societal pressure for people with uteruses. This abstract depiction of a womb on cloth pulls viewers in, screaming, look at me. Begging to be viewed and raw in its presentation, Internal Intimacy has much to say about gender and sex in a world that would prefer silence.
When walking through the gallery where this work is displayed, the viewer is struck by its arrangement. Chains stretch cloth along four corners of a wall. The cloth is filled with a grayscale oil paint and pencil sketch of a path in the middle of a cave-like area . There are no wooden frames around this work, no neat boxes or clear glass cases. The strength of the chains and the tenderness of the cloth could suggest the entrapment of a bird in a cage. However, the juxtaposition of texture instead recalls the reclining position of labor. The person giving birth is locked in place by clamps around their ankles. They are stretched, too, and a womb is thus presented bare to the world. Strength and vulnerability are shown hand in hand.
Chains have a long history symbolizing oppression, captivity, and injustice in literature and visual art. Azar uses chains to represent forces that oppress women and people with uteruses. The patriarchy, one such force, is a societal structure that gives power to men at the exclusion of women-presenting people, transgender men, and gender non-conforming people. Acts of degradation against non-cisgender groups revolve heavily around genitalia. Currently, twenty-two bills are being considered in twenty-two United States state legislators to interrogate and view the genitals of transgender girls in sports. This gross violation of morality by largely white cisgender male legislatures is a show of power meant to intimidate and sew fear into non-cisgender-male youth, peacocking the strength of a male-power centered society.
Azar’s chains are unrelenting. As a symbol of oppressive forces, she utilizes them to display a masculine ideal of power through physical strength. They are ever-present and required to understand the context of the work. The chains symbolize the idea that the womb can be viewed, exposed, given a ‘voice’ in the way visual art gives a ‘voice’ to the silenced, but has and continues to be targeted by male-centric societies.
The chains, while an integral aspect of Internal Intimacy, are neither the focus nor the work. The world inflicts pain on all of us—it scars the toughest stone and dims the brightest jewel. However, pain works in tandem with growth. Cloth as a symbol represents healing, protection, and expression. Azar utilizes this canvas for the material’s ability to withstand the strength of the chains and the heaviness of the oil paint used. Cloth is used medicinally to stem bleeding and prevent infection. Clothing dually shields our body from the elements and presents character and individuality to the world in the form of fashion. In many societies, nursing, textile manufacturing, and keeping of the hearth have historically been women-dominated domains. The symbolism, endurance, and history of cloth in this piece represent femininity as a concept.
By choosing a material that does not rip when pulled by chains, femininity (diametric to masculinity) is shown to persevere despite strong opposition. By cloth being its representation, it is shown to have purpose and value, to be necessary. The chain pulls and pulls but cannot create a tear, instead the cloth holds together and bears more intensely its message of strength.
The viewer, having pondered the meaning of the chains and cloth, considers now the depiction of the womb itself. Perhaps surprised, they find themselves again and again picturing the interior of a cave. This is because of a large smattering of stalagmite and stalactite-like structures that surround the opening. Light cascades from outside through the opening and illuminates the darkened middle. A path cuts to the opening from the bottom center. There are two pairs of contrasting elements present here. The first is the imagery of the cave versus the path, the second is the color gradient of dark versus light.
Azar, using pencil and oil on canvas, created something of an optical illusion. From one perspective, a cave appears, yet from another, the interior tissues and folds of a uterus form. These structures that lend the illusion of a cave or the interior tissues of a uterus, surround the opening, and the further from the opening they appear the more pressing and engulfing they seem. Caves are perceived as mysterious and dangerous places. By likening her work to their imagery, Azar reflects both the unknown nature of female health and the patriarchal idea of hiding women’s bodies to ‘protect’ women. These concepts are interwoven—for millennia, men have scorned the study of female anatomy and bodily processes. Menstruation in some cultures is a mark of shame—a time for the person with the uterus to be placed away from prying eyes. In other cultures, bleeding is a mark of sin—reminder of a woman’s disgrace in the eyes of a higher power. When it comes to research studies, many prevalent disorders have simply not been examined in women, leading to a multitude of possible undiagnosed cases. In these ways, the imagery of the cave created through the curving lines is used to symbolize mystery or the lack of knowledge. Considering the subject meant to be represented by the lines is tissue and seen at first glance as jagged rock, the cave also symbolizes misinterpretation.
While this symbology is present as part of the surroundings, the clear focus is on the path that cuts up and towards the opening. Azar used this path to represent clarity and knowledge because paths guide in darkness and the unknown – combatting them. This represents the idea that from the womb itself will become a path away from oppression. Starkly different from the curved lines that create the illusion of the cave, the path is continuous and straight. The shading of the edges gives the path a slightly raised depth of space. It begins from the bottom edge of the work, where oppressive forces linger, and ends fading into the light at the top. Starting in the area representing oppression and transitioning from black to white demonstrates change. Change in the study of reproductive health to be more inclusive, change in the demystifying of female genitalia, and change in the empowerment of women to be able to be advocates for themselves and their bodies.
A final observation a viewer may make is the artist’s use of color gradient. Creeping along the edge of the work is darkness, particularly in the bottom and side edges. The entire work is in grayscale and the edge forms a dark outline around the uterus. However, light illuminates much of the canvas. Depicted as the shape of an inverted triangle, the light is given space and length. Azar uses the contrast between dark and light throughout each process listed prior to characterize the oppressive forces of society versus the reclaiming forces of women and people with uteruses .
Darkness encroaches at the edge of the work. This force is ever-present, a shackle. Darkness aims to hide and obscure the truth that is present. In these ways, this color is used to represent forces such as the patriarchy that are constant, creeping, and aim to disempower women and people with uteruses. The light, in contrast, spreads from the center. This force illuminates what would be dark places and combats the encroachment of darkness. In these ways, light represents the pursuit of knowledge, respect, and presence.
Sheyda Azar has created a masterwork of technique, criticism, and hope using three contrasting elements: chain versus cloth, cave versus path, and dark versus light. Her work, while abstract, has implications and meaning that stretch far beyond the time and place of its creation. Internal Intimacy lays bare what is considered taboo, questions the shackles of oppression, and asks the viewer to stop and consider its meaning.