Sculptor and performance artist Doreen Lynette Garner is currently exhibiting at The New Museum in New York City. Her show REVOLTED presents a series of sculptures highlighting extreme and cruel medical experimentation on individuals of color. The artist is using her work to tell the history of the enduring effects of racial violence in the United States and exposes the torment of the transatlantic slave trade.
Curated by Vivian Crockett, Brazilian-American scholar and curator, the artist statement explains that the show was “inspired by a 1773 uprising onboard the slave ship New Britannia. “REVOLTED” is also a meditation on rebellion that considers various modes of resistance from the era of the slave trade to today. The exhibition’s immersive, blood-red interior is a sensorial evocation of “seeing red,” the overwhelming urge to revolt against harmful systems, and the fortitude required to do so.”
Themes of abuse of power, politics of redress and retribution, and ancestral revenge are examined and exposed in Garner’s work. Using materials such as silicone, foam, glass, beads, pearls, and synthetic hair, Garner creates pieces that mimic flesh, organs, and wounds – bearing the marks of smallpox, scarlet fever, syphilis, and the bubonic plague. Her mission in the creations is to present “a grotesque counternarrative to the myth of white racial purity that has been leveraged to uphold white supremacy.”
In the piece: Here Hangs the Skins of a Surgical Sadist! To be physically assaulted by those who identify as Black women, those who formerly identified as Black women, and those who were identified as Black women at birth, the artist confronts the inhumane practices of J. Marion Sims, an early-nineteenth-century physician who was once regarded as the “father of modern gynecology.” Yet many of Sim’s medical procedures included experimenting on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. Three of those women were Betsey Harris, Lucy Zimmerman, and Anarcha Wescott.
The sculpture The Feast of the Hogs was created to present the marks of smallpox, scarlet fever, syphilis, and the bubonic plague – the hog serving as a representation of the spilling of guts and the spread of disease that existed due to cross-contamination of livestock and stolen peoples during the transatlantic slave trade. A hand holding a knife is shown before the platform – suggesting the necessary survival tactics and resistance sought by those held captive.
Garner mimics Michelangelo‘s Genesis narrative in her mixed-media sculpture Take This and Remember Me. Showing us the support that existed amongst those who were enslaved. “Reframing the encounter between God and Adam into that of a young Black girl handing a weapon to an elder” the work lends itself to the New Britannia rebellion that involved a group of young, enslaved boys sneaking tools to the enslaved men in lower decks in hopes of emancipation.
Doreen Lynette Garner presents us with our past’s raw and monstrous narrative. There are no soft edges or easy punches, and Garner is making us see history as it should be presented – in full detail. She uses art to show the ugly reality of medical manipulation of enslaved individuals. Using art to record the history of medicine is not novel. The Wellcome Library is London’s most significant museum and library that explores science, health, medicine, and art.
Some of the work in the Wellcome collection includes: Johan Joseph Horemans’ Interior with a surgeon attending to a wound in a man’s side, 1722.
Also included in the Wellcome Collection, a birth scene by an unknown artist, 1800, and the famous painting, William Cheselden Giving an Anatomical Demonstration.
Thomas Eakin’s The Gross Clinic, located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is still considered one of the most influential American paintings. Eakins, in hopes of recording and honoring scientific breakthroughs, the artist observed the live procedures of Dr. Samuel Gross and later recorded them in his famous painting.
The differences that lie between these earlier works and Garner’s interpretations are between the simple recording of a medical procedure versus a narrative that makes us think, learn and question. Garner’s show REVOLT will be on view at The New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York through October 16, 2022.
Tamara White is a visual activist, artist, and founder of Bader + Simon Gallery, opening in 2024.