By Jarica Walsh

“Universal Jewels” image courtesy of the artist.

There is a giant inflated uterus floating in the gallery of Individual Artists of Oklahoma (IAO), and it is impossible to ignore. Universal Jewels is a part of Nicole Emmons-Willis’ Lady Parts exhibition and was born out of the frustration she encountered when she sought medical treatment for uterine fibroids and was unceremoniously pressured to accept hysterectomy as the only solution.

“At the time, I cried,” she said, “but once I got over the emotional response, I was angry. I had read about many different ways to remove fibroids, and I could not believe that this doctor was prescribing hysterectomy as a cure-all for such a common issue.” It has been said that two-thirds of the 600,000 hysterectomies performed each year may be unnecessary.

Universal Jewels is addressing “what it means to stand to lose a part of yourself that you thought would always be there.” Oversize and inflated works like this draw from Claes Oldenburg’s depictions of everyday objects, making the viewer take note of things from daily life that often go unseen. Internal organs are the epitome of forgotten items of everyday life—taken for granted unless they fail.

The inflatable sculpture brings the object to life and the scale creates an overwhelming presence in the room. The air flowing into the giant uterus breathes life into the work. It becomes something that is not so easily discarded or removed, the way a medical professional might treat actual uteri.

"Surgery" detail. Image courtesy of the artist and IAO.
“Surgery” detail. Image courtesy of the artist and IAO.

Surgery, a wall-hanging sculpture, is a 3D operating room scene turned on its side. The opened-up patient is at eye level. The audience is invited into the procedure, and a woman’s right to privacy is invaded. In place of the patient’s body, we find a pink fabric-lined box with a framed medical drawing of uterine fibroids. The clinical drawing reduces the patient to a diagnosis, disregarding her humanity.

Almost any woman who has encountered a problem with their reproductive system can speak to both the oppressive loneliness of the condition, but also the unexpected outpouring of personal experiences from women in our circle once we open up about the condition. Some women avoid discussing these issues, but Emmons-Willis confronts it head on. She shares about her condition, and makes space for viewers to break through the barriers of silence and shame to leave a personal response on the interactive wall, Cat Got Your Tongue?

Just three days before Lady Parts opened, Oklahoma legislators passed bills out of committee that attacked women’s rights to make their own medical choices, once again demonstrating a lack of trust in women’s capability to make their own decisions for their bodies. These events add context to the exhibition, encompassing all reproductive rights and women’s ability to choose. The giant glowing uterus hovers, a throbbing monument to the many wrongs against women and their healthcare.

The exhibition runs through April 15 and Emmons-Willis is hosting an animation workshop at IAO on April 15 from 1 – 4 pm.