blog : : bleeding in ireland

☽ february 2019 ☽

this blog post is all about menstrual art + comes from Ellen O'Sullivan! Ellen walks us through the history of menstrual art arguing that what sets it "apart from most other art movements in history is the fact that it appears to be almost entirely populated by women. In a world where men have always been the primary creators, this is nothing short of revolutionary." Read on to learn more!

“If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby” [1]

Germaine Greer’s immortal words are mirrored in this 2009 work of Ingrid Berthon-Moine, entitled Red is the Colour. The piece depicts twelve women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick, staring defiantly out at the viewer. The artist took her inspiration from tribal cultures such as the Dieri and other Aboriginal peoples, who celebrate the coming of their periods by using the blood as a cosmetic item. Each of the photographs is titled with a different colour of red commonly found at beauty counters.

Artists using their menstrual blood as a subject and a medium has been a prevalent idea in feminist art circles since the early 1970’s. As it’s popularity grew in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, this type of art became known as Menstrala art (coined from Vanessa Tiegs’ project of 88 paintings produced in the year 2000) . However, the development of the movement has never been documented properly, and because of it’s somewhat taboo associations, it is often dismissed by the art world as gimmicky and attention seeking. Menstrala art has also come under fire for being a somewhat exclusionary movement, centering around the artistic expression of predominantly young, white, middle-class, cisgender women.

Menstrual art arose from the intersection of second wave feminist activism and post-modern art. In 1971, Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” stimulated a great deal activity in feminist scholarship, [2] and in particular gave feminist art colossal momentum.[3] Women artists in the 60’s and 70’s took to experimenting with new ideas, processes and materials to distance themselves from the traditional view of the art world, one which was very much a “boy’s club”. Throughout history, women had all too often been the eroticised subject of an art piece, but were dismissed as artists in their own right. With the coming of second wave feminism, the female artists reclaimed her body as her own.

By utilizing the fear and disgust of menstruation that is widely held, art can become a visual weapon against societal norms, oppression, and discrimination. Inspiration for the creation of Menstrala art has largely been found in the oppression of women, denial of reproductive rights, violence and hate crimes, and a yearning to eradicate the shame and taboo that has surrounded menstruation for millennia. As well as being particularly politically charged, menstrual art pushes the traditional boundaries of what is acceptable in the art world in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most interesting is the way in which it exposes underlying biases in the supposedly objective paradigms used to critique art. Subsequently, menstrual art is excluded from the art historical discourse in general because of that very problem: it's too hard to critique. Art critic Brian Sherwin discusses these difficulties in an enlightening article on the topic. He states that any form of criticism against Menstrala art is often construed as sexism, and this gives the entire movement an air of unapproachability. This is absolutely true,[4] but perhaps instead of ignoring menstrual art completely, we should search for new, and more inclusive ways to critique art?

Something that sets Menstrala apart from most other art movements in history is the fact that it appears to be almost entirely populated by women. In a world where men have always been the primary creators, this is nothing short of revolutionary. This subversion of gender roles extends to the audience, where menstrual art has challenged the idea of the male gaze, giving the female nude a new place in art history. In menstrual art the presence of blood disrupts this view and female body is given agency and power: she is raw and organic, and most importantly, she exists outside of pleasure.

Although artists use menstrual blood to demand the visibility of social issues and condition of women, some proponents of menstrual art use it a display of the essential feminine, the absolute womanhood, the blood that unites all females. This view was in particular taken up and promoted by Vanessa Tiegs. This is inherently essentialist, and excludes folk in the trans and non-binary communities, especially those who menstruate and do not identify as women. It also implies that woman has to bleed in order to be accepted as woman. Menstrala art is seen in some circles to be the epitome of “White Feminism”, and to some extent that is true. Yes, it focuses on the artists creative expression and freedom to utilise their bodies in controversial ways, but in the end, what is menstrual art concretely achieving? It has done nothing to relieve the plight of homeless menstruators for instance, who often having to choose between using their money to buy food, or buying a box of tampons or pads. It does nothing to promote the horror of suffering through periods in abject poverty, often having to miss school because students are can’t afford sanitary products. It has not given a voice to incarcerated menstruators who are woefully under provided each month in prisons all over the world,[5] and it has continued to ignore the voices and places of people of color in menstrual activism as a whole. It has focused only on the artistic expression of the [6] select few who can afford it by their class, race, and position in society, and this abstraction leaves the vast majority of menstruators overlooked and the urgent issues surrounding menstruation unchanged. Artists can be seen as only using the shock factor of the subject as easy leverage into the contemporary art world, which is known for its love of controversy.

Although the issues outlined above are still very much prevalent in the menstrual art world, the movement cannot be dismissed as entirely useless and unhelpful. In recent years, menstrual art has helped raise awareness of issues surrounding menstruation, and although it might not actively improve people's lives, it has helped to open up the discourse surrounding menstruation. By presenting menstruation in such a public way, menstrala art might encourage people to question their intolerance towards the female body, and helps break down the taboo that menstruation should be private and discrete.


[1]http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00497878.2011.538001#aHR0cDovL3d3dy50YW5kZm9 ubGluZS5jb20vZG9pL3BkZi8xMC4xMDgwLzAwNDk3ODc4LjIwMTEuNTM4MDAxP25lZWRBY2Nlc3 M9dHJ1ZUBAQDA accessed 09/02/2017
[2]http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/No-Great-Women-Artists.html accessed 13/03/2017
[3]http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/feminist/ accessed 13/03/2017
[4]https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/how-one-man-ran-the-worlds-only-museum-of-menstruation-fromhis-basement-511 accessed 24/03/2017
[5]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/12/prisons-menstrual-pads-humiliate-women-violate-rights
[6]https://www.shethinx.com/blogs/thinx-piece/creating-space-for-black-women-to-be-period-proud