In 1992, the British-Portugese artist Paula Rego told her biographer John McEwan that her motivation for painting was “to give terror a face,” saying that “she can’t help” but bear witness. Her series of pastels depicting illegal abortions, famously credited with swaying Portugal’s 1998 abortion referendum, were in the spotlight this year as the United States Supreme Court prepared to overturn Roe V. Wade. The artist died on June 8; less than three weeks later Americans lost their constitutional right to an abortion.
The suffering caused by forced pregnancies in this country will mostly unfold behind closed doors. It’s the artist’s job, Rego might have said, to give it a face to see and be seen. In America, that work exceeds a lifetime, as illustrated by a 50-year survey of the work of photographer and activist Donna Ferrato, now on view at New York’s Daniel Cooney Gallery.
Titled “Holy,” the show spans works made before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 to the present, tracking multiple generations of women who sought bodily autonomy, sometimes in vain. The settings shift between private, political, and public spheres, and the images feature subjects who are variably defeated and defiant. It’s familiar territory for Ferrato, who created the seminal “Living With the Enemy ” (1991), a disquieting chronicle of domestic violence that helped expose the issue as endemic in the country.
ARTnews spoke with Ferrato in an email interview about the show, which includes 40 never-before-seen collages featuring her own reflections.
How long was the show in the works?
Planning the show took time, as long as it takes to birth a baby. The impending Supreme Court decision was Daniel [Cooney]’s motivation. “Holy” is about the uprising of women against male authority. That’s the way I handmade Holy, the book. I’ve been expecting this for decades. Actually, after reading The Handmaid’s Tale and photographing its author, Margaret Atwood, in 1985, I understood the mind of the immoral Christian Right. The devious nature of the patriarchy moved like grease lightening to strip away women’s civil rights. Daniel mapped the show out in eight months. He wanted his gallery to be a thinking room for people to comprehend the many way in which women would die. The way the world would loose their most precious asset, the friendship of free spirited females.
As someone who has been actively documenting the fight for women’s rights for decades, what did it feel like to see Roe overturned?
It feels like I’ve been punched in the eye. Check it out, my metaphysical bolts of rage are growing.
What was it like to look back on 50 years of your work?
Reliving my past in negatives, prints, and scans felt like panning for gold. The ’80s and ’90s were tough but we survived the fear and sadness and became stronger. I was a freelance photographer, getting assignments from LIFE Magazine, following in the footsteps of my hero, the Cleveland-born Margaret Bourke-White. I was in love with the radical antiwar photographer, Philip Jones Griffiths; we were raising our delightful daughter, Fanny, in a loft in Hell’s Kitchen. Women were advancing, proving what they could do, make a living with or without a man. I traveled and lived in battered women’s shelters, went to conventions with polyamorous people, rode with the Hells Angels and with cops on 911 calls. I hung out with hedonists and anarchists. It was the best time to be documenting, It was emotional to be looking back fully aware of impending doom.
Can you talk about any image that might have particular significance to you, or to the message you were pursuing with this exhibition?
There are three photographs of women which show the divinity and generosity of a free woman’s soul.
Jasmine represents the first known human being whose remains were discovered in Africa. In the photograph on view, she allowed her body to be worshiped by couples loving and praising her body and soul. Minnie [depicts the woman] who saved her baby in utero by amputating her arm rather than having an abortion so she could have chemo treatments and survive bone cancer. Sacred Butterfly Dancer [portrays another who] unveiled her glorious full body to others because it was “good for her.”
Without the protection of women’s reproductive rights, without the right to enjoy sex with the ones they love, the human race will soon be out of steam. Without the ability to trust men, women will shut down. Forced sex for procreation will create unhappy people. The result of banning abortions and birth control and essential health care only gives absolute power to bad guys.
In “Holy,” scenes of pleasure and trauma are featured beside one another—the subjects are sometimes in command, other times not. Why do you think it’s important for the viewer to see this juxtaposition?
Thanks for seeing what makes this show a little different. Through this uncensored body of work, the viewer peeks into the unadulterated world of women and sees how important it is for women’s rights to be ratified into the Constitution once and forever till the end of time.
Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” I want to show what women and girls are up against, how women get stronger when they leave abusive relationships, when they stop taking orders from inferiors, when they resist social conditioning and help each other to survive the trauma of violence, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, etc. Best not to harm people by over pathologizing their trauma. How women learn to overcome their memories of trauma is the meaning of “Holy,” hence where love and pleasure abide.
What do you think is the purpose of the artist during times like this?
To be daring and take chances. To use our artist license to urge people to jump out of the box before it becomes a coffin. To not give a shit about what anybody says to you that hurts your sense of self.
“Holy” is on view now through July 29 at Daniel Cooney Gallery, New York.