The mention of period art provokes mixed reactions, all usually followed by an awkward pause and a necessary confirmation that we are indeed referring to menstruation art rather than a period in art history. One may question whether it is simply talk of periods in the public sphere or the idea of using menstrual blood as an artistic medium that arouses shock, nervous laughter and, in some cases, outright disgust. Perhaps one of the last remaining taboos in our culture, a global assortment of artists and activists have been working to reclaim and invert the shame associated with menstruation since second wave feminism began over fifty years ago. However, media representation has not been as fast to respond, seeing as the general public still remains shielded from the bloody reality of periods through the aid of a clinical blue substance (that looks more like toilet bleach) in feminine hygiene advertising, of which artist Ingrid Berthon-Moine claims is “not so female friendly after all”. This is just one area where periods are denied a public appearance, even when they’re the star of their own show.
In 1972, Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom exhibited one of the first period art installations, a collection of used sanitary pads amidst a pristine, effeminately decorated bathroom. She explored the relationship between hygiene, space and menstruation, voicing a social commentary on the fact that periods must be hidden away from public spaces at all costs, to the point where the bathroom has become an almost gendered sphere. Such is the case with many tribal and orthodox religions such as Dogon people of Mali, where women who practice the traditional Dogon religion are banished from society to spend five days a month around the time they have their period in a “menstrual hut”, where they are not permitted to interact with men, touch food or anything sacred. Fast forward forty years and period art has become a tool to force menstruation into the public space of the gallery whether it’s welcomed or not. The movement, “Menstrala”, coined by artist Vanessa Tiegs, confronts us with blood beyond the bathroom in all the places it’s typically not supposed to be. Between artists who spend the entirety of their five day period bleeding on canvases and artists who use their blood as body paint, period art can be quietly brilliant without being as overt. Berthon Moine’s 2009 installation Red is the Colour (pictured) transforms period shame into glamour as she brings us literally face to face with the medium by putting period blood in perhaps one of the most subversive of locations: the mouth.
“A woman’s period is a passport which signals the most intimate individual journey towards feminine maturity.”
“Red is The Colour is a series of 12 portraits of women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick,” Moine explains. “These represent the 12 months of the year and act as a calendar. The composition is uniform and carefully follows the guidelines of ID photographs for passports but blown up to human size. A woman’s period is a passport which signals the most intimate individual journey towards feminine maturity. The photographs are taken at the subject’s eye level and they directly gaze at the viewer, allowing the viewer an intimate study of each portrait and at the same time, feeling the gaze of the other portraits. Putting the images on two rows reinforces the power these women have on the viewer and pose the question, ‘Whose turn is it to be embarrassed now?’”
Similarly, Filipino artist and actress nominated for a feminist porn award, May Ling Su, dismantles the preconception of periods as being unhygienic and something that must be concealed from certain spaces by bridging the gap between menstruation and sexuality in her 2010 piece On My Period. Reclaiming the traditionally period-free space of the beach while fiercely posing for a camera, she embraces her stance as a seductress using her blood to make tribal-esque patterns and designs on her naked body. Su claims to have had a positive relationship with her periods since she began menstruating, noting it was something she even looked forward to. When asked what she would say to someone who would consider period art “gross”, she retorts, “Gross? You didn’t think so when you were a fetus. What do you think you were swimming in while you were in the womb?”
Although many critics cite period art as a gimmick or purely for shock value, they appear to be missing the point — it is precisely the idea that menstrual blood is conceived as shocking in the first place that prompts these women to do what they are doing. The invisibility of menstrual blood in both historic and contemporary visual cultures borders on the absurd if we consider the saturation of blood we are subjected to through the violence in mainstream Hollywood action films, gaming and avant-garde cinema alike. Or if we are to group menstruation in with other “gross” forms of biological waste, as so many insist on doing, how about considering the double standard created via the cultural acceptability of semen through the exposure of millions of daily visitors to porn sites that glorify the male waste product of reproduction?
However, the absence of periods in the public sphere hasn’t always been the case if we look beyond the West. Whilst researching the origins of make-up, Moine found out that ancient Australian tribes such as the Dieri venerated female blood by applying it to the lips to signal the onset of menstruation, thus making the period the first form of lipstick. As Moine notes of Red is the Colour, “Each woman is identified with the name of a lipstick commonly found at beauty counters. It creates an ironic link with the beauty industry and underlines that the semiotics used in naming lipsticks may, inadvertently be related to menstruation. By creating an intimacy that is frightening and that we would rather not share, the images challenge our fears and exploit our unconscious and perverse fascination for the abject.”
The conceptual diversity of period art also spans across the sociopolitical with artists such as South African queer activist Zanele Muholi using her blood to make beautifully intricate, symmetrical designs in her 2011 collection Isiilumo Siyaluma (Period Pains) which she used as social commentary to describe the atrocities faced by the queer community in her country.
“I continue to bleed each time I read about rampant curative rapes in my ‘democratic’ South Africa. I bleed every time queer bodies are violated and refused citizenship due to gender expression and sexual orientation within the African continent […] I bleed because our human rights are ripped.” The cornerstone of Muholi’s work is a political catalyst that translates emotional pain into art through menstruation. If one of the marks of any great work of art is to generate a dialogue about convention, then Menstrala certainly fits the bill.
Illustration by Aisling Reina, Red is the Color image courtesy of Berthon Moine.