Neatly tucked away in the School of Arts is a curious art collection that becomes increasingly eerie as you circle the petite space that is the Peltz Gallery. Grainy images, distorted photo-shoots of masked women and foreboding papier-mâché models of uteri hang and taunt the viewer. This is the fascinating ‘Conceiving Histories’ exhibition, a collaboration between literary historian and Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality (BiGS) member, Dr. Isabel Davis and visual artist Anna Burel. Supported by the Peltz Gallery and Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities and part of the Being Human Festival, this exhibition creatively revisions a history of unpregnancy inspired by archival material.
‘How can something that doesn’t happen have a history?’
Composed of four sections, this exhibit explores the experience of waiting, desiring, unknowing and the disappointment around not conceiving. On the 22nd November, Dr. Davis led an insightful tour, detailing the thought process behind each of the case studies. We begin with Queen Mary I and her agonizing story of repeated false pregnancies. Burel blends photography and paint to create supernatural images of a Queen figure trapped in a foetal position. She attempts to convey that the obsession of filling the space of the womb leads to the woman becoming pregnant with herself. Plastered on the Queen’s belly is a nineteenth-century archival stamp, marking her as public property. Never a private matter, the royal bump (or no bump) is still scrutinized today to the point of humiliation for monarchs and famous women.
Moving on to the eighteenth century, there was a hilarious and poignant fashion of wearing pads to imitate pregnancy. Burel creates chic and slightly comical photographs of models wearing both bulging and flat pads. These images of a never-ending pregnancy emit tortured emotions of content, conflict and longing. The pad is an impossible notion today, but it did remind me of life-like baby dolls marketed for young girls. Mocked by the press and in a farcical play called The Pad, the pad also represents how women were (and still are) strangely encouraged and ridiculed for wanting the ideal body.
On the subject of female dishonesty, the third study brings to life a nightmarish proposal drafted by physician Robert Lyall in 1826. In the hopes of solving disputes of legitimacy, Lyall proposed an institution that experiments with unmarried women visited by ‘male midwives’. Thinking only of the good of the country, he bears no thought for the experience of his prisoners. Burel re-imagines the lives of these women through grainy photographs which bring their suffering into focus. Neatly folded in a cabinet are also dystopian uniforms, which throw Lyall’s concept into sharper and nauseating reality.
The most intriguing case is the frog pregnancy test, used at the Family Planning Association pregnancy diagnostic centre from 1949 to the early 1960s. In the case of doubt, a number of centres tested for pregnancy by injecting urine into frogs shipped from South Africa. If the frogs emitted eggs within a few hours, the result was positive. This odd human-animal relationship is presented in surreal photo-collages which paste together medical reports, shadowy frogs and distraught patients. The idea of a woman’s destiny being held in a slimy webbed hand seems to have more to do with fairy tale than modern technology. Indeed, the frog is presented as a sinisterly divine spirit hovering awkwardly around.
‘Conceiving Histories’ only begins to unearth the complexity of this hidden and untold story. It filled me with intrigue, amusement, but an overall sense of loss which echoed around the pictures of faceless women and hollow uteri that hang in silence.
‘Conceiving Histories’ runs until the 13th December 2017.For more information: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/conceivinghistories/
Pauline Suwanban is a first year PhD student in the department of English. Her research is on sexual violence as pleasurable and popular reading for women, especially Orientalist romances by female authors. She is currently an intern at the BIH and BISR, assisting with events, blogs and the graduate conference. She is also a subject editor at Dandelion Journal. @Paulinesuwanban