Doreen Garner’s (*1986 in Philadelphia, lives in New York) sculpture and performance work engages the history of medical experimentation on Black women’s bodies in America. By refusing to relegate this history into a depoliticized record of the past, Garner emphasizes the problematic relationship of medicine and race that persists today. The exhibition at HALLE FÜR KUNST Steiermark represents the artist’s first institutional presentation in Europe.
Doreen Garner’s (*1986 in Philadelphia, lives in New York) sculpture and performance work engages the history of medical experimentation on Black women’s bodies in America. By refusing to relegate this history into a depoliticized record of the past, Garner emphasizes the problematic relationship of medicine and race that persists today. On view will be three works, one of which has never before been exhibited.
Made of silicone, fiberglass insulation, plastic, hair weave, crystals, and beads, among other materials, Garner’s figurative works resemble fragmented, even amputated body parts or human remains. The constructed forms of her sculptural works resemble breasts, organs, and heads that function like ulcers or blisters seemingly overgrown or cut open by hair: their precious fillings, made of pearls or gemstones, erupt to spill over the constructed surface of the piece. The site of these fragmented bodies alludes to the process of cutting open a body and suturing it back together, a representation of the dehumanization that Black bodies have experienced throughout history, specifically at the hands of James Marion Sims, an important person of reference in the works of the artist. Sims was an American physician who specialized in gynecological surgery. His most significant work was to develop a technique for the repair of vesicovaginal fistula, an abnormal or surgically made passage between the bladder and the vagina that was a catastrophic complication of childbirth during the 19th century. From 1845 to 1849, Sims performed gruesome experiments on enslaved and purposefully unanesthetized women until he developed a surgical technique to repair the fistula successfully. Red Rack of Those Ravaged and Unconsenting (2018), an essential piece of the presentation in Graz, was made in reflection of these specific dehumanizing procedures by Sims. The materials that Garner employs in the figurative element of the work, such as fiberglass insulation and expanding foam also refer to a discovery made in 1989 when the 154-year-old Medical College of Georgia was renovated. Beneath the basement of the school, almost 10,000 human bones and skulls bearing the marks of nineteenth-century anatomy tools were uncovered. An unprecedented influx of students into medical schools of the mid-1800s led to an exceptional need for cadavers. Thus, the Medical College of Georgia began to routinely abduct corpses from the Cedar Grove Cemetery, an African American cemetery, between 1835 and 1912. It was also later discovered that many schools in the North had performed similar grave robberies for the advancement of medicine. Author Harriet A. Washington describes the trouble that this brought for black people in her book Medical Apartheid: “For blacks, anatomical dissection meant even more: It was an extension of slavery into eternity, because it represented a profound level of white control over their bodies, illustrating that they were not free in death.” In her work Garner is committed to portraying an abjection of the Black body that speaks to the actual lived experience of Black people and is often omitted from art history.
The exhibition at HALLE FÜR KUNST Steiermark represents the artist’s first institutional presentation in Europe. Despite the focus on American history within the exhibition, the exploitation of the black body is not unique to America and will be discussed in light of the local context as part of the accompanying program.
Curated by Cathrin Mayer
studied at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia and at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
Garner’s work has been presented at MoMA PS1, New York; The National Museum of African American History, Washington; and Pioneer Works, New York, among others. Garner has held residencies and fellowships at Recess Art, New York; the International Studio and Curatorial Program, Socrates Sculpture Park, New York; Pioneer Works, New York and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Madison. She is a licensed tattoo artist.
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