What lies beneath the pink veil
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and a special and unique exhibition is showing at the Humanities Department Gallery (Mayagüez Campus, University of Puerto Rico) in joint collaboration with the Breast Cancer Art Project. The latter is a project based on an online platform that now, with this exhibition, transcends into the physical realm, where women suffering from, survivors, and those not so fortunate can expose their experiences with breast cancer and the resulting art, sharing it with the wider public. What makes this exhibition unique is the possibility to know the artwork -and inherently their makers- in a more intimate and detailed way, shattering notions that breast cancer is anything remotely close to the color pink and the happy or mellow connotations this color implies. Started by a breast cancer survivor for others afflicted by the ailment, the platform includes all kinds of mediums and levels of knowledge. Mostly made up of Outsider Art, what they may lack in formal elements, they more than make up in emotional power. This exhibition is sure to sucker punch you in corners unknown of your soul and create a more humane picture towards the pink ribbon.
The exhibition is made up of different artists and mediums and it may appear at first glance as if the only aspect uniting the works is the fact that it was made by women afflicted by breast cancer. Yet, intricately shown, there is a process. Not from arrangement and it is definitely not made intentionally, but from the artwork and the artists themselves there is a story to be told. The linoleum work titled Diagnosis by the currently in-training artist Susan Olivera shows that first encounter with the reality of cancer. That formal confirmation through a tiny piece of paper that the subject holds, contains the power to shatter the world around you, as it is depicted by the fragmented background. A dark climate overcomes the doctor’s office, as we can tell from the black and white colors, and Olivera finds herself with the weight that holds news like this on her shoulders. What could possibly come next after knowing something like this? Hopefully not known from experience, but we can tell that there is an attempt to accept reality. Additionally, there is an exploration of the breasts, a body part so closely linked to the subjects’ femininity and one that finds itself in the possibility of being extirpated. A piece that touched me deeply speaking in a very simple visual manner is the mixed media titled Limited Edition by Amabel Mortimer. It is compounded of two elements. First, there is a black and white photo of Mortimer’s breasts painted purple -a nod to International Women’s Day, the day she made this work- and we know they are painted purple because the second component of this work is an impression of her chest onto white paper. A simple yet very effective method to explore and know, in more than one way, her chest. It is also a way to preserve the memory of her breasts, as Mortimer explains on the platform regarding the piece, because it was made due to the fact that she would have surgery done on them the next day and her chest would never be the same.
What seems to come next is dealing with the cancer in the form of the medical approach (appointments, chemotherapy, the horrible side effects, etc.) and all the physical and psychological tolls this has on the women. Even though I cannot speak from personal experience and I would definitely not try to impose my point of view over that of the survivor’s, as I respect it too much, this is simply what I perceive from the works shown at the exhibition. One piece, actually done after a therapy session, that I think speaks in very literal terms about how sometimes cancer patients put on a strong façade for others and themselves and the toll this takes, is the work untitled done by Adriana ESF. The work is a simple watercolor drawing that depicts a bottle with cracks and bandages attempting to cover them up, a tentacle –cancer’s tentacles, as is written in the work- attacking the bottle, and the contents on the bottle spilling through the cracks. The bottle means to depict the literal action of bottling emotions up -more specifically, as it is written all over, emotions of heartbreak, pain, trauma, failure, loss, fear, sadness, shame, betrayal and guilt- and how cancer attacked this safeguard and inevitably created the puddle of emotions made on the floor. It could try to show how Adriana tried to maintain herself strong through shoving her emotions into a bottle and keeping them there, but cancer inevitably made that bottle crack, ‘spilling’ them all over, creating the inescapable confrontation she must face. We see the complexity and the variety of emotions the patients feel, some resulting directly from cancer, others as a result of it affecting other aspects of the patient’s lives, as Adriana explains since she went through a difficult separation during her time in chemotherapy. A piece worth mentioning relating to this part of the experience is the series Barbies Losing It by Annie Dannison. The series is made up of photographs of Barbies altered to fit the author’s physical reality and arranged with different humorous approaches to the results of being affected by breast cancer. One that stands out for me is the photograph titled It’s not a free boob job: a very poignant way to respond to the insensible comment that some people make the mistake of saying, that the reconstruction in result of the extirpation of the breasts should be seen as a “free boob job”, as if it this was the result of a ‘good’ thing or actually ‘free’ -and not just monetarily speaking-. They may not mean any harm, but one definitely needs to measure what one says. Issue apart, I found this particular approach an unexpected one. It’s hard finding the fun or humor in cancer, but this series sure sheds a different light on a rather heavy subject and makes us think about all the ways people deal with rough times.
The devastating and ugly truth about cancer is the fact that there are only two possible outcomes. Nobody likes to speak or think about the other but reaching remission must surely feel like cheating death. There is no work that better encompasses this feeling of triumph like Sobreviví by Susan Olivera. Her first work done after reaching remission in 2012 and the first time picking up a brush after many years, this piece beautifully captures the sense of being liberated, the sense of power and joy surely felt after knowing you are -for the moment- free of cancer. The subject, which is Susan, descends from what seems to be a mountain with a dark background and specifically nineteen geometric figures, each one representing the sessions of chemotherapy she received. She comes into a lightly colored background, made up of orange, blue, and green organic figures which aim to represent the sense of calm and relief that she felt once she knew she had beaten cancer. The piece is unrelenting, using a clear visual language that perfectly communicates what she explains she felt.
The exhibition, while being made up of works from all kinds of different backgrounds and sent in from different places in the world, speaks a universal visual language shared by those affected by breast cancer. A similar experience that can be seen through different lenses, each patient adds their personal touch to make the insufferable bearable. A serious dose of empathy and reality makes one realize that pink may be the color which represents the breast cancer ribbon, but what lies underneath is anything but. All the things these women endure should be deserving of much more than just the veil of delicate or joyous the color pink circumscribes to this fight. This is a true phoenix like, life-altering transformation in the making.