Chicago-based artist and mother of two Michelle Hartney had a negative experience while laboring with her second child. She was told to labor on her back although she wanted to proceed on her side, and she felt unsettled after her delivery. That encounter, combined with the devastating statistics surrounding maternity care in the United States, inspired Hartney to create several exhibitions highlighting the way that women in America are treated during and after labor and delivery. As the centerpiece of 2015's Labor Day rally for Improving Births in Chicago, Hartney created 1,200 hospital gowns, each one signifying one of the women who died in childbirth in the U.S. in 2013. The performance piece, called Mother's Right, involved racks of gowns filling the public plaza in which the performance took place.
Drawing on data such as the fact that the maternal mortality rate in the United States is the highest among all developed nations — as well as the statistic that African-American women are four times more likely to die during childbirth in America than Caucasian women, Hartney set out to create a powerful and symbolic visual. Hartney and a team of local doulas, midwives, and volunteers hand sewed the gowns, which were silk screened to look like traditional hospital gowns and made from 1,560 yards of fabric and 2,000 yards of trim. On closer examination, however, the gowns are actually decorated with small drawings of the plants which are used to form the basis of laboring medications used on women throughout the years.
While the display of the gowns was powerful itself, Hartney took the exhibit a step further by making it interactive during the rally. Pairs of volunteers worked together to fold the gowns in the fashion that one might fold an American flag. Interestingly, the traditional flag folding ceremony involves 12 folds, the ninth of which symbolizes womanhood. Hartney’s gowns were cut to a size so that the folding ceremony stopped on the ninth fold. According to Hartney, the reason for this element of the performance was to create a parallel between the growing number of women who are diagnosed with PTSD after giving birth and the number of returning war veterans who experience PTSD.
Other mom-centric pieces from Hartney include MOM$, a commentary on the high costs of having a baby in the United States and which involves women submitting copies of their hospital bills, and Birth Words, which involved Hartney sewing the shocking and degrading comments directed at women while laboring.
Hartney’s work will be turned into a film, Mother’s Right, chronicling obstetric abuse, maternal mortality in the United States, and postpartum PTSD.
Second image via Youtube screen grab
All other images © David Hartney except the Birth Words piece (©Jim Prinz)