Oct 31, 2021 – 1:14 a.m. m.
In an effort to show a new face in history, artist Michele Browder unveiled a new monument in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to “The Mothers of Gynecology.”
From the ground three female figures of five meters are erected made with scraps and metallic objects. The sculptures portray the vision of the American artist Michelle Browder on the appearance of Anarcha Betsey and Lucy, three of the eleven slaves on whom J. Marion Sims performed gynecological experiments during the 19th century in Alabama, which gave them the title of “ father of modern gynecology ”.
To know the history behind the monument that Browder called “The Mothers of Gynecology” you have to go back to 2014; However, the meaning of the work is found in challenging the title given to the doctor and recounting the forgotten sacrifice of the eleven women whose bodies were used in the name of medicine, without their consent and regardless of their pain.
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Michelle Browder is an artist from Montgomery, Alabama, who also runs a youth center and her own More than Tours company. Her activism inherited from her family led her to travel these paths and she says that since she learned about Anarcha’s story, Betsey and Lucy have been concerned about making their story visible.
“I learned about Sims when I went to college at 18 and was introduced to this painting by Robert Thom that shows these three women fearful of what was about to happen. Around them are three white men, doctors, one of them was J. Marion Sims, and basically you can read the horror and fear that these women were feeling. I saw this painting at art institute and the image stayed with me for 25 years, ”recalls Browder.
A statue honoring Sims was placed in 1939 in front of the Alabama State Capitol, where it still stands thanks to a state law that prohibits the removal of statues if they have been in place for more than forty years. Browder took his tours to visit the place and tell the other side of the story. On these trips, he constantly wondered “if this is the father of gynecology, where are the mothers?”
It was this that led her to the decision to erect a monument in honor of them. In recent years, the celebrated Sims legacy – the tools and procedures he invented – has been called into question. Not only his authorship has been called into question, but his methods as well: the eleven African-American women on whom he experimented did not consent to the procedures and did not use any type of anesthesia on them.
“Upon learning the story of these three enslaved young women, I was terrified. I thought about one day establishing my own monument to these women and telling their story to give more context. That’s how we got to this result, but it all happened 25 years later, ”says Browder. The figures of the three women carry a large number of symbols. From his traditional African hairstyles, to the symbols embedded in his chest, Browder and his colleague Deborah Shedrick thought of every detail and the messages they wanted to send through their tribute. Shedrick, for example, added to the initial sketch a hole in Anarcha’s belly that represents the fistula that Sims allegedly managed to heal after performing several unsuccessful surgeries on it.
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Browder took inspiration from different places, one of them was San Francisco. On one of her trips she was invited by a couple she knew and came across the statue of the female Buddha, Tara Mechani, by sculptor Dana Albany, with whom Browder was in contact for a year. “As soon as I saw her [la estatua], I thought: this is what Anarcha should look like! We created a team of artists from the Burning Man festival and many others who flew to San Francisco to help create Anarcha. We use discarded metal items, brass, metal, copper, bicycle chains. People started bringing objects they didn’t want and we found a way to use them ”.
The sculptures are made of metal collected and donated by visitors to Browder, who say that for this project he learned to weld and received materials from different places, such as the Capitol Recycle in Montgomery. This place “donated medical items that, to my surprise, are the scissors, forceps, specula, everything that was used on these women. A woman who took one of my tours brought us a bell that belonged to her husband’s mother, who used it to call her black maid, whose name was Ophie. We have that bell so that people can ring it in memory of it. There is a woman who made my journey and donated all of her mother’s jewels that are embedded in the piece ”.
“The Mothers of Gynecology” is the first phase of the More Up Campus project, which Browder has dreamed of all his life and which, at this moment, houses the monument, a gallery highlighting African-American women artists and a gift shop . This is part of his initiative “I am more than”, a project in three phases where Browder hopes to create in the second part “a center for traveling students. I want people to be able to stay here. We look forward to creating an intimate and immersive experience in this history of Alabama, the state’s Indian tribes, and also a journey to what we see today. The third phase is a resource center where people can have a totally immersive experience and talk with historical figures who are still alive, there will also be books and other documents for the public that wants to have this conversation. Now that the story of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey has gained so much relevance, we want to give space for the experts who have talked about them for ten to fifteen years to tell their story, ”said Browder.
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Michelle Browder’s “Mothers of Gynecology” monument was a collaborative project in which several people from different parts of the United States came together to create the figures of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. For the artist there was something very important during the process: her work and vision were maintained. The passage “Write a vision and make it clear” governed during the creation of his sculptures. “I had some amazing artists and makers from all over the country who brought other people and it was very helpful. When people come together with one thing in mind to correct past mistakes, it is amazing what can be done through art. That is the important thing. All I did was write the vision and, of course, I participated, but it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a community of creators to correct the mistakes of the past. “
With his monument, Browder wanted to create a space in which women could heal. He wanted his audience to see the other side of the coin by opening a discussion about reproductive rights. “I hope that what people take away from the monument is that. If you have a vision, follow it, and then we can all be free because of the truth that will come from it. “