Echoes of anatomical taboos

A few months ago I was lucky enough to attend the opening of Stuffed at the K6 Gallery, which included some of the Mütter pieces by Rosina Godwin, and to then be able to schedule them into The Art House where they will be until October 30th. I am also, in a double-dose of good fortune, working at the John Hansard Gallery, where the Time After Time exhibition includes three of the Familiars pieces by Hamad Butt.

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Being a good, thorough curator, I had read Rosina’s artistic statement which explains that

“nurturing materials, such as woollen blankets and knitting, are sculptured into taboo body parts”

Taboo body parts. We all have ‘parts’ of one sort or another. How can they be taboo? Well, of course they are when misogyny reigns and, according to the bigots and patriarchs, half the world’s population has bits-of-which-we-must-not-speak. As Rosina says, her work

“was created in response to the Trump presidency and the subsequent erosion of woman’s rights.  The work express my concerns over the subtle manipulation of women to conform to misogynist views and the general sexism within the population revealed by the campaign”

So, wombs = scary, vaginas = terrifying, and that’s without even touching on transphobia and the obsession with who has which set of genitals. But, what about Familiars? Initially, I didn’t make a link between the pieces – they are visually very different – but then I started reading Hamad’s exhibition book Familiars (inIVA/John Hansard, 1996) and looking into the concepts underlying the work in a bit more depth (beyond the wow-factor of the glasswork and fragility). The first image is this, taken from a late 15th/early 16th century work on alchemy and used on the invitations (I believe) during the original exhibition in the 1990s.

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Alchemical diagram taken from Hamad Butt’s Familiars (1996)

Pretty much the first thing I noticed was that the alchemical vessels are exceptionally phallic – and that the nozzles of alembics are entering them through what appear to be sphincters. Remember that Hamad was gay, and died of AIDS in 1994. This was a taboo topic, and although his work is often seen in terms of the ambitious crafting and scientific aspects, he was also interested in exploring pollution of the blood (racially, literally), visceral fears of the body, and Oedipal aspects. Not only is this echoed by Rosina’s work, but this final image from Familiars is uncanny. Over 20+ years later, there has been progress, but there are forces attempting to reverse this, and the need for art that makes powerful statements remains. Both do so.

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Untitled image from Hamad Butt’s Familiars (1996), from the section Subjection which covers areas such as the Oedipal, and the mistreatment of HIV+ children in the 1980s.

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