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Speciwomen Image reborn: a review of Carmen Winant's "My Birth" at the MoMA

Sep. 24, 2018
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It was May, only a few days before graduation, when I decided to revisit the Museum of Modern Art. In our “Ideas of Photography” class, Joel Sternfeld discussed the long trajectory of photography and where it was headed, in relation to Being: Photography Now 2018. The Museum of Modern Art puts together important photography for its biennale, challenging and recontextualizing the history of photographic images. I had first seen the show in March, followed the pulsating blue circle on Google Maps till I arrived at the museum tucked between 5th and 6th Ave on E 53rd. 

On a spring afternoon, sunlight reflected off my black and red pinstripe trousers onto the larger-than-life window in the museum hall. Photo books were suspended by wires, almost airborne. A few names stuck out to me from this visit, but it was My Birth by Carmen Winant that made me return in May. The next morning, in my Propaganda class, I urged my classmates to go see Winant’s work. 

A conversation with late professor and visual artist Kanishka Raja comes to mind. The closing reception of his exhibition entitled Postwest 2a: Ornament and Translation (SW1) took place at Sarah Lawrence College’s Barbara Walters Gallery in October 2017. We spoke about fabric and feeling, about the multiplicity of being and vision in painting, of artisans in Calcutta and transcending time. I’m sure if we saw Winant’s My Birth, blue tape would be at the center of our conversation. 

The archive of found images of childbirth has surgical precision, and much like her inspiration, Our Bodies, Ourselves, a seminal work in women’s liberation compiled and published by activists and students of the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1969, Carmen does not shy away from pointing arrows to the clitoris, or from the visible stress of crowning. In a passing glance, this mosaic made me think of my mother. 

The Vitruvian Man of the post-digital, post hyper-stimulated world is a photograph, many photographs. I stood before the collage, hand-torn and taped to two walls facing each other, and heard women murmur “ooh.” From floor to ceiling, the room held ultrasound images of full gestation cycles, photographs of birth, postnatal care and breastfeeding.

Female bodies hold power, grief, and intergenerational trauma. The work of art in 2018 is felt, embodied. 

Winant’s piece is more than photography—it is an advanced study in material culture, addresses Foucault’s body politics and makes me think of a dusty photo album on my grandmother’s bookshelf. Only a daughter longing for her mother’s voice in New York would think of the smell of the kitchen caught in her dupatta.

On another floor of the MoMA, a clever piece asks you to hum any tune as you enter the space. Does it take an artist’s instruction card or Alexa’s voice for us to sing, smile, dance? Before exiting the museum, I thought of how long it took for Adrian Piper’s hair and toenail clippings to fill those honey jars. And I wrote “call Mama” in my planner. 

I had once overheard a guest critique Kanishka gave at SLC (sorry, the walls in Heimbold Visual Arts Center are thin!): “Why do people even photograph anymore?” In May, I saw Carmen Winant’s piece, a finger pointing to a bald baby just leaving its mother, and thought, “This is why, Kanishka!” To see light, to feel deeply, to remember in life and even after death.