The frame shifts on a chilling history in “Call and Response: A Narrative of Reverence to Our Foremothers in Gynecology” at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. Focus moves from a once-celebrated white man, J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology,” toward the enslaved Black women he conducted experimental surgeries on without anesthesia.
Sims developed techniques for treating fistulas, tears between the vagina and the bladder or rectum caused by difficult childbirth, in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1840s. He operated on one woman, Anarcha, at least 30 times, according to his autobiography.
“Call and Response” is a sober, violent, and morally complicated exhibition that spotlights medical racism. (Other examples include the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted on Black men for 40 years in the 20th century and the harvesting of cells from Henrietta Lacks, in 1951, without her consent.) The show is presented in partnership with the Resilient Sisterhood Project, a nonprofit working to educate women of African descent about reproductive health through webinars, art projects, and more.
Curator Dell Hamilton assembles artworks made in response to Sims’s experiments and documents of the Central Park statue. Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey — three women he named who went under his knife — appear in Michelle Browder’s sculpture “Mothers of Gynecology,” a maquette for a public monument in Montgomery. They stand proud, adorned like African queens; one has a gaping hole in the shape of Africa where her womb would be.
The Resilient Sisterhood Project commissioned painter Jules Arthur to flesh out the story. His “Field of Exploitation” depicts a floating Black woman, suckling two white babies over field laborers. Black infants circle her like cherubim. The painting recalls Raphael’s angelic “The Sistine Madonna,” but here the loving, compassionate mother figure is enslaved.
King Cobra (documented as Doreen Lynette Garner), made Sims the subject of a bloody surgery in “Purge,” a 2017 performance, operating on a replica of the Central Park statue. The video, with a team of Black women wielding scalpels, is a gory comeuppance.
Many white men monumentalized as heroes gained renown at a terrible expense to other people. When it comes to Sims, “Call and Response” provides a shred of reparative justice.
CALL AND RESPONSE: A Narrative of Reverence to Our Foremothers in Gynecology
At Neil L. & Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, 104 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, through Oct. 31. 617-495-8508, https://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/call-and-response
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.