In an unfailingly mischievous manner, Sarah Maple uses narrative artwork to challenge traditional notions of religion, identity and the societal role of women. Her artwork never fails to shock; her latest piece Menstruate With Pride is no exception. Surrounded by a horrified and disgusted crowd, Maple stands centre stage, a proud woman menstruating in public. It’s an interesting and bold statement; clearly Maple is an incendiary feminist. But the painting also airs a deep societal secret that menstruation is – and must remain – taboo.
What better way to understand the meaning behind Maple’s artwork than to ask the artist herself? “Initially I didn’t want to make work about menstruation because I thought it was a bit of a cliché. But as I was looking more into the idea of women and shame, I felt like I couldn’t avoid it!” Maple laughs. “I think there’s a phenomenal burden of shame on women from word go. When I started my period I was absolutely horrified, I felt it was humiliating. I didn’t tell my mother for 3 years, I felt I was letting her down. I think this may have been a cultural thing,” she says.
Interestingly, Maple considers her culture to be partly responsible for her shameful feelings — she’s the daughter of an Iranian mother and a Kentish father. Some cultures and religions, including Orthodox Judaism, Christianity and Islam, isolate menstruating women by excluding them from prayer, physical intimacy and even household chores. Maple’s artwork transgresses these taboos by exposing and mocking them, almost satirically. “I like laughing at things for being taboo; this is what I wanted to do in the painting. I wanted to create a drama about it, like in the classic religious paintings, hence the triptych format of a religious altar. Everyone is looking so outraged and shocked and you end up laughing at them, laughing at their outrage,” says Maple.
Rules are attached to menstruating women according to Simone de Beauvoir, feminist and author of The Second Sex
, because they are viewed as impure, repulsive and dangerous, particularly to men. She explains that men repress women’s sexuality because they fear and are in awe of women’s monthly bleeding, a biological power gifted only to women to enable them to produce the next generation.
But while some taboos may be defined and enforced by men, Maple believes others are enforced by women. She explains that “some of the harshest critics are women, hence the painting has equal men to women. Women seem to have accepted an image of themselves as being monthly rotten. Sometimes people cannot see what is right in front of them. The hard thing about being a feminist and outspoken is the absolute hatred you get from people, like it’s the worst thing in the world. One girl said how ‘selfish’ it was of me to go on about feminism when there were so many other problems in the world like rape. Rape is not a feminist issue?!”
Sarah Maple, Fighting Fire With Fire Nr. 2
Western societies often claim they do not hold archaic notions of menstrual taboos. However, each culture deals with and represents vital liquids in some way. Taboos are implicit in western societies as women go to extraordinary lengths to hide their monthly cycle. Women may avoid sexual intercourse, swimming, holidays or any other activity for fear of leaking their ‘secret’. Women, the media and the advertising industry repeat these taboos by pushing an image that women need feminine hygieneproducts to purify their dirty bodies.
With taboos surrounding menstruation, it is hoped that premenarchal and postmenarcheal girls do not suffer the same negative feelings that Maple experienced as a teen towards the biological inevitability of menstruation. However, an anthology of women’s first period stories collected by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff for her book ( My Little Red Book
) illustrates that many girls know nothing about periods until their first one arrives, and then they believe they are dying. Maple has included girls in her painting for this very reason. In fact she has received interesting reactions from girls to the painting: “A few young girls said ‘eww gross’. They’re so funny!”
Maple’s creative artwork sets about transgressing gender-based taboos by portraying them in an empowering way. Rather than feeling a sense of shame with their first drop of blood, women should feel proud to have entered a new state of womanliness. “I actually felt really womanly when I grew my arm pit hair for the Lollypop
piece”, a proud Maple remarked.
Some women have used their power to menstruate as a means of menstrual activism or even menstrual anarchy. For instance, 30 inmates at the all-women Armagh Prison
in Northern Ireland in 1980-1981 held a ‘Dirty Protest’ to assert their right to fair treatment. They protested by not washing for over a year and by smearing their menstrual blood on prison walls. Their pain was objectified in menstrual blood. For a long time their protest was ignored by the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland as it was regarded as highly polluting. However, the protest was successful in that it did improve prison life for women and it had a broader impact in bringing to light gender inequalities in the Catholic Church and in Ireland.
Sarah Maple, You
Menstruate With Pride may draw upon menstrual taboos but it also sends out a broader message, that our society is filled with gender-based taboos that are preventing women from breaking through the glass ceiling. Maple explains that “the blood in the painting is not just meant literally, it is representative of all aspects of things we should be ashamed of as women – hair, our size, our makeup-less faces, even daring to claim our space in the world, daring to be equals. This whole preening ourselves business is like keeping us in our place, like we should stay childlike, never grow up, never take on the world. We live in fear that if we do not part with our money to beautify ourselves, we will be less than human”.
Sarah Maple’s next exhibition will take place in May alongside Gavin Turk and Marc Quinn in Hong Kong