Bleeding portraits: Menstrual Artistic Inclinations and a means to pursue the artform

“Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms” said Arthur Conan Doyle. However, Art with blood is liable to take subversive forms!

By Bhaskaran Krishnamurthy, with inputs from Bharti Kannan

Take a look at the images clicked by a pioneering artist using menstrual blood as a medium of art, Jen Lewis. If not for our inhibitions, the images evoke a sense of awe and admiration, though some may perceive it as macabre. Jen Lewis produces this image by dumping, drizzling, and dripping menstrual blood into a clean toilet bowl or other vessels and shoots the trajectories of blood.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Have a look at the figure on the left below. The discs may appear convex if you assume the light to be coming from the left. However, if you try hard, this may flip and the discs will appear concave with the assumption that light comes from right. Now try this on the figure on the right. A tip: don’t waste a lot of time, because try hard as you may you will find out that the image doesn’t flip unless you turn the page 180 degrees.

Some of us may be familiar with this. It’s a famous illusion used to illustrate the inherent assumptions involved in our perception. We as humans have lived under natural lighting since time immemorial. Our inherent assumption is that light comes from above; this has been hardwired into our system that we cannot overcome while perceiving things. Some of these assumptions and reductions of our brain seem natural and make evolutionary sense (in this case, things have changed with artificial lighting). Similarly, through years of patriarchal reinforcement, menstrual blood has been perceived as a body waste, not to be brought into our daily lives. This has become so heavily conditioned into our system that any attempts to bring into our daily lives is dealt with shock or revolt. We need to overcome this shortsightedness and what better way to do it than through militant artistic activism.

What does the above images from Jen Lewis’s work help us perceive? Some of my observations are as follows:

Feminist representations of menstrual blood in art form could address and subvert the existing attitudes towards menstrual bleeding. How?

a. The creative forms of menstrual blood on paper, canvas, photographs or video innately challenge the predominant narrative of menstruation as a ‘catastrophic disintegration(Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory) explained in the texts of most medical, health/science physiology educative books as ‘shedding’, ‘dying’, ‘losing’, ‘expelling’ process.

b. Metaphors of ‘dirty’, ‘decaying’, ‘untouchable’, ‘unchaste’, ‘impure’ are all subverted in the diametrically opposite process of ‘deterioration’ (analogous to menstrual bleeding) i.e. production

c. That both these descriptions of menstruation, as dirty and non dirty, deterioration and production, still require alternative approaches to encapsulate and envision experiences of menstruator’s, and currently, and potentially, only art may have the insight, liberty and freedom to describe them in a manner no descriptive methods of fitting interpretation to facts/narratives may have. In some sense, it transcends the ineffable realm, like most invigorating pieces of art do.

d. Many of the artists performing or undertaking menstrual blood art, are also menstruator’s experimenting with their menstrual discharge. This adds on to the layer that subverts those bleeding as less capable, productive, or creative, simply by their contribution to an art economy.

e. The reduction of bleeders to sexed bodies is subtly challenged in such portrayals, simply by vivid and imaginative visuals.

f. It helps, non-menstruators like myself, visualize menstrual blood, a mythical entity by itself, considering the blue ink visual representations we’ve been fed with all the years as a result of sanitary product and marketing revolution

g. It could potentially address the myth around connecting menstrual blood with excrement like urine and feces, even though two have their own pioneers of experimental artists.

A brief history of period art

Painting with blood might have been a phenomenon for a long time. However, there is limited documentation of the same. Painting with menstrual blood though is much more recent. This is indeed a very brief documentation of art involving menstrual blood. Some pioneering efforts by few artists are summarised here: (http://slutever.com/history-of-period-art/)

1) 1971 — “Red Flag,” Judy Chicago — a photolithograph of a woman’s hand taking a bloodied tampon out of her vagina.

2) 1971 — “Menstruation Wait,” Leslie Labowitz-Starus — In the piece, Labowitz-Starus, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, sat on the floor and waited for her menstruation to begin. While waiting, she talked about how she felt with the audience.

3) 1972 — “Menstruation Bathroom,” Judy Chicago — an installation showing a sterile bathroom with used and unused feminine hygiene products especially a garbage can full of sanitary pads painted with red color.

4) 1972 — “Blood Work Diary,” Carolee Schneemann — an exhibit of tissue papers containing dried blood mixed with egg yolk for preservation

5) 1973 — “What a Woman Made,” Mako Idemitsu — a video that “begins with a fuzzy image gradually coming into focus, revealing a tampon gracefully leaching a trail of menstrual blood into a pristine toilet bowl.”

6) 1996 — “Menstrual Hut,” Charon Luebbers — a 6-by-6-by-5 foot pyramid was created to represent the alienation and loneliness a menstruator can feel while on their period.

7) 2000 — “Menstrala,” Vanessa Tiegs –a collection of 88 paintings with menstrual blood

8) 2010 — “The Period Piece”, Lani Beloso — a series of paintings using mixed media

9) 2011 — “Ummeli,” Zanele Muholi, representing ovulation with a 5 yr long collection process of blood on cloth and arranging a display with apples

10) 2015 — “Beauty in Blood,” Jen Lewis as mentioned above

11) 2013 — “Cloths,” Carina Úbeda, an art exhibition of blood collected over 5 yrs on cloth

12) 2015 — “period.” photo series, Rupi Kaur, a series that went viral, even faced removal of content by major social media platforms for triggering/explicit content before it was re-published

The above is not an exhaustive list, yet it mentions the more popular pieces of work. Using menstrual blood as a medium could provide provocative incitement to the art itself in the contemporary world. Nonetheless, like any art form, most of these pieces speak for themselves not only as a subversive discourse to existent status quo surrounding menstruation, furthering the need for criticism for such art forms to be directed away from the medium itself.

GUIDELINES FOR ASPIRING ARTISTS TO PLAY WITH MENSTRUAL BLOOD

Period art is by definition something unique and personal and articles by artists who have explored this rave about their first experience with blood as a medium and their joy of experimenting with it. So the key would be to experiment and find a personal touch with one’s blood/blood sourced from someone else. Some artists claim the experience helps them understand the nature, quantum, consistency of flow of their own period, others claim it to be cathartic considering the menstrual cramps many face.

However, as a way of suggestion, one can follow the following tips discussed by various artists who have spent a lot of time towards this:

Medium:

Since our focus is period art, blood will remain the main ingredient. The advantage of using menstrual blood over normal blood is the presence of anticoagulants which prevent menstrual blood from clotting. However, this depends from menstruating person to person and menstrual discharge per se is a combination of blood (occasionally clotted or otherwise), unfertilized egg and endometrial tissue. A few artists have experimented with mixing blood with water, acrylic mediums or oils. This is hugely based on preference of the artists and what they feel comfortable with. However, some mention that mixing the blood directly with clear acrylic medium or varnish helps preserve the color, otherwise the blood darkens to form rusty brown color ( as does happen when blood is exposed to air even on a sanitary pad used for absorptive purposes)

With that brushed upon, we will now focus on the use of menstrual blood in paintings.

1. Collection:

Not advertising here, but many artists find it convenient to collect their menstrual blood in menstrual cups. Few artists have used menstrual blood and tampons to create art. But collection by cup offers more flexibility to store the blood for longer periods and use it at one’s own convenience.

2. Storage:

While some artists prefer to apply the medium immediately or within a few days, there have been many who have attempted to store it. Jars are the favorites among all, but it depends on individual amounts and scope of painting envisioned. Some artists store the fluid in jars in fridges, while others store in open jars in their washrooms.

In forums discussing menstrual blood art, a few artists mention the use of lavender essential oil for preservation. Lavender oils or other natural essential oils contain natural alcohol and also have good anti-bacterial properties. They recommend starting with some lavender oil in the jar before pouring the collected blood in, since blood starts to oxidize right away. The osmotic sense of lavender fragrance would be a good guideline to use, as there is not a scientific measure. Once preserved in lavender oil, some say that blood could potentially stay for years. But to be on the safe side, one could add a few drops of lavender after a long interval (6–12 months). Other alternatives include white alcohol, cypress essential oil and a bit of olive oil.

Period blood doesn’t smell, as smell generated by interaction with air/bacteria when absorbed on pads/tampons/cloth/any exposure to air method. However, if one stores with essential oils, one can assure oneself and others around that there won’t be any smell.

Some experimenters also mention evaporation during storage, so storing in a cool dry place must be preferable

3. Canvas:

Most artists use canvas for their paintings, but some comment that blood gets darker on canvas than on watercolor paper. This may be because of rapid oxidation, which could be avoided if stored with essential oils or if the canvas is sprayed with clear varnish on both sides. Another reason could be that iron in blood probably stains a canvas more easily considering it is a ‘sized’ or ‘primed’ canvas, and no such treatment is generally rendered to water color paper.

4. Application:

If mixed with other mediums such as water, acrylic, or oil painting, respective brushes and corresponding care applies. If one looks for drop or splatter effect, droppers and other mediums are helpful.

5. Preservation:

Blood oxidizes fast and develops brown color as it dries. So if applied directly, application of resin and spray of fixing agent is preferred if one wishes to retain the bright red color. Since blood is light fast, some even suggest the use of a UV filtering varnish. Sometimes the drying process or temperature the blood is stored at or at what point the resin was applied caused changes in the blood color, from red to a dark maroon. A word of warning though: although fixing agents come highly recommended for acrylic medium, they are warned against in the case of thick coats of water color.

That there could be hitherto unknowns ways of treating and utilizing menstrual blood for artistic expressions is a reality. Despite this, contemporary days have seen the coming up of many a bleeding portraits including the one painted by a Portland Artist of Donald Trump with menstrual blood, or a yogi wearing white pants while performing yoga and bleeding, or an artist’s expression of an unborn fetus using 9 months of period blood she collated, or even simply, the sprouting up of pads stained with blood as a mark of challenging patriarchal narratives across various campuses across the world. Whatever the expression, simply Paint the town Red indeed!

An amateur artist of great talent and a skilled scientist, Bhaskaran describes himself as “Lazy do nothing born on labourers day, an antimaterialist with a masters in material science, a keen mind with a penchant for vagueness, an engineer’s sense for beauty and an artist’s appreciation for science and logic; a romantic without a lover and a complacent without a cause” 😀