Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 27, 2020
Judy Chicago: The Birth Project from New Mexico Collections
Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico, June 2–November 10, 2019
Judy Chicago: The Birth Project from New Mexico Collections, installation view, Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM, 2019 (photograph by the author)

The Harwood Museum of Art of the University of New Mexico is the second oldest museum in the state, as reflected by its architecture. The entrance feels ecclesiastical, as you wind your way along the adobe walls and open the massive wooden blue doors, then you suddenly find yourself in a crowded gift shop, followed by a narrow corridor gallery. In 2019, Judy Chicago’s serigraphs lined those walls, with highly stylized images of a woman/earth mother giving birth to the cosmos. She is shown frontally, her legs splayed, her vagina stretched into an open wound with radiating lines flowing out and around her body. Her head is thrown backward in a jaw-clenching grimace of pain. This was the introduction to Chicago’s The Birth Project, begun in the 1980s shortly after the completion of her pioneering work, The Dinner Party, now in the Brooklyn Museum.

While The Dinner Party is a single installation in the elegant form of a triangular table setting, The Birth Project is multifaceted and composed of images of birth, all based on Chicago’s drawings and rendered by other women in a variety of needlework media ranging from quilting, smocking, and embroidery to crochet and needlepoint. Chicago recruited a phalanx of over 150 female needleworkers living in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand to contribute to The Birth Project. As she states in her book documenting this process (The Birth Project [Doubleday & Company, 1985], 20), “it is possible that a large work force will emerge, which will enable me to create hundreds of images to be executed and shown all over the country.” The exhibit at the Harwood included twenty-seven of these artworks, all from public or private collections in New Mexico.

It was a bit jarring to move past the subtle landscapes and portraits of the Taos School and enter the main gallery of The Birth Project to face the heroic large-scale artwork Birth: Filet Crochet by Dolly Kaminski, which portrays a woman in the throes of delivery with waves of anguish and power flowing out of a vagina that splits her body in half. As shown in the installation photo, the viewer was at eye level with her open crotch. It made me think of the work’s contrast with the nudes of Joan Semmel, who paints a woman’s body from the vantage of her face looking down across her figure, a reversal of the conventional male gaze. Some of the initial stitchers were uncomfortable with Chicago’s drawings, seeing them as pornographic “beaver” shots, to her dismay. These birth figures, however, are the opposite; they are warriors, valiantly undergoing suffering to deliver new life. Many of the needleworkers were also mothers and came to feel that the imagery honored a hidden aspect of their lived experience. It is the view Chicago experienced when she witnessed her first birth: “Looking at that dripping, engorged cunt with the lifeless umbilical cord hanging out afterwards, was really something—a view of the vagina I’ve certainly never seen before. . . . All the while, ‘maternity’ surrounded the upper part of Karin’s body and suffused her, the baby and Michael in a kind of unearthly glow” (28).

The baby is notably absent in most of The Birth Project’s imagery, although there are multiple depictions of the developing fetus. Most of these are inspired by creation stories from non-Western cultures, although Chicago is imprecise in documenting this appropriation. Myth Quilt 2 visualizes an African creation story (the tribe is not named). Mother-creator Nana-Daho gives birth to primordial twins who mate during a series of eclipses and create the rest of the world (139). This quilt is made with appliqué, embroidery, and quilting done expertly by Sally Babson. Each square contains various stages of a dividing egg and the emerging shapes of the twins. For Chicago, the sewn lines of quilting translate the lines of drawing, and appliqué, a method of piecing shapes together with fabric, evokes the cut-outs of Henri Matisse (136). Given the lineage of appliqué, the opposite is actually the case. This is one of the tensions in The Birth Project: Chicago is trained in the male-centered academic tradition of painting and drawing, and the needleworkers are trained in a textile tradition of fabric, thread, and cloth, often by their mothers or grandmothers, with its own ethos of collaboration, craft, and discipline. This tension is most notable in the way the artworks are displayed. Birth: Filet Crochet hangs horizontally from a pole and floats, the way tapestries are usually displayed. This gives it the undulating quality it needs and magnifies the power of the stitched waves as light plays through the tiny open spaces in the crochet. The other works, some quilted, others embroidered or smocked, are all stretched and framed as if they were canvases, so some aspects of the fluidity of sewing are lost in an effort to elevate the art of needlework to so-called fine art.

Western art is suffused with images of the Virgin Mary, clothed in robes like a queen and often cradling a naked Baby Jesus on her lap. Both his nudity and her clothing symbolize innocence. This is also art about birth, but the birth of the child, not the experience of birthing. That act has been depicted in other cultures, however. A famous example is the beautiful sculpture carved in aplite of the Aztec goddess Tlazotéotl housed in the collections at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. Tlazotéotl is squatting, so she exudes a sense of agency absent in a recumbent figure. Her mouth is stretched in an expression of torment and strength similar to that of Chicago’s women, but the emerging baby is equally present and fills her vagina. There is no tear or void; his hands rest lightly against the opening. He is the corn god Centeotl, and his full face looks sweetly at us as he enters the world. The Aztec imagery encompasses both the ordeal of birth and the life that emerges, bridging the two extremes between the Virgin Mary and Chicago’s mothers.

In some works included in the show, the woman’s face disappears altogether. Birth Power, featuring needlework by Sandie Abel, depicts a seated figure with her lowered head indicated solely as a curved oval between her descending breasts. Her hands cup the opening of a vagina larger than her head, and lines of blood, like a luxuriant mane of hair, flow out from that opening in shades of yellow and red embroidery to the base of the artwork. The dark figure is outlined with these two colors reminiscent of glowing embers. Chicago’s drawing, with elaborate columns of handwritten notes for each detail of the embroidery, is installed adjacent to the finished piece.

Chicago was interested in the role women needleworkers had played in medieval workshops making tapestries and sewing garments for the clergy. Their contributions remain anonymous. She adopted the same master/apprentice model for her projects, unlike many feminist collaborative art projects from the 1980s, in which women artists worked collectively on an idea from multiple points of view. Her workshop model could be fraught; as Chicago writes, “it’s instructive to see the products of my own hand and be able to compare these to the work being produced cooperatively. There is definitely something missing in a lot of the cooperative work—visual skill and acuity, I think” (135). Making a faithful translation from the drawing to needlecraft is a laborious and delicate process. Sewing transforms the drawings and adds a sculptural and tactile dimension to the images. Chicago worked actively with the needleworkers to make these renderings successful replications of her designs. She has been diligent, however, in documenting and crediting the work that these women have contributed, and this exhibition is no exception. Photos of the craft workers, excerpts from their journals, and statements about their experiences flanked every sewn work in the show.

There was an elaborate timeline of the history of birthing in a side corridor; the study brought in more cultural diversity than was present among the needleworkers and included scholarship about the role of African American midwives and ideas from Native American cultures about appropriate childbirth practices. A table in the center of the gallery displayed some of the needlework samples that Chicago required before selecting a participant, underlining the discipline and complexity of the project.

In the exhibition’s press release from the Harwood Museum, art writer and activist Lucy R. Lippard notes, “Judy has lived in the state for decades . . . yet this work will be new to most of the audience and to young feminists.” Scholars at Williams College recently conducted a survey of the collections of eighteen major museums in the United States and concluded that 85.4 percent of the artwork in these collections was made by white artists; 87.4 percent was made by men. Visiting the artworks in The Birth Project emphasizes why this statistic matters. Women of diverse cultures have a different lived experience than men. Women’s art makes that experience visible. Looking at it may not be easy.

Sabra Moore
Independent Artist, Author, and Former Editor for Heresies