In a new project, “Beauty in Blood,” Denver-based artist Jen Lewis explores the aesthetics of the cellular structure of blood–specifically, her own menstrual blood. “Beauty in Blood” consists of a series of magnified photographs of drops of Lewis’s period blood, and the images are striking.
Lewis got the idea in 2012, after she switched from using tampons to using a menstrual cup. “The cup is a much more ‘hands-on’ approach to menstruation management, so my relationship with my body began changing immediately following the first use,” she told The Huffington Post. “One day, when I had some blood on my fingers after emptying my cup, I started to wonder about why society framed up menstruation as something disgusting.” At the time, she was working as an administrative assistant in the Infectious Disease department at the University of Michigan; she drew inspiration from the surprisingly artistic medical images she saw every day.
Lewis teamed up with her husband, Rob Lewis, who operated the camera while she arranged her blood. She would empty the contents of her menstrual cup into a receptacle–initially, she used an empty toilet bowl; later, she deposited her blood into a fish tank filled with either salt or fresh water. “Every pour looked different,” she told HuffPost.
“I hope ‘Beauty in Blood’ communicates that menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of or fear.”
Lewis’s use of period blood may seem subversive, but she’s not the first artist to incorporate menstrual materials into her work. Here are four memorable others to know:
Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom,” 1972
More than 40 years ago, feminist sculptor Judy Chicago created “Menstruation Bathroom,” as part of her larger exhibit “Womanhouse.” Menstruation Bathroom consisted of an otherwise clean and starkly white bathroom splattered with blood and empty but for a trashcan full of used tampons and a shelf of (double-wrapped) new ones. Chicago said the exhibit — one of the first blatant depictions of the period in Western art — was meant to evoke the shame our culture attaches to the natural process of menstruation.
Charon Luebbers, “Menstrual Hut” 1996
In many traditional societies, women are subject to social restrictions and even physical isolation during their period; though women in Western society aren’t sent to live in huts for the duration of their period, menstruation is still a source of limitations and inconvenience. Florida-based artist Charon Luebbers played with that idea in “Menstrual Hut,” her 1996 installation in a contemporary art museum in Sarasota. The piece consisted of a 6-by-6-by-5-foot booth, decorated with prints she made by pressing her face into her menstrual blood.
Ingrid Berthon-Moine, “Red is the Colour” 2009
British artist Ingrid Berthon-Moine photographed 12 women wearing no makeup save for a swipe of menstrual blood on their lips. The portraits “represent the 12 months of the year and act as a calendar,” Berthon-Moine said. She wanted to remind viewers that the taboo on menstruation is not universal: among certain aboriginal Australian tribes like the Dieri, menstrual blood has traditionally been used as a cosmetic or lipstick.
Lani Beloso’s “The Period Piece,” 2010
Hawaii-based artist Lani Beloso has menorrhagia: her periods are extremely heavy and painful. She decided to make her condition the subject of her art, and used her copious menstrual blood as paint for a series of canvases she called “The Period Piece.” For her first piece, she squatted down over a canvas; after that, she collected her blood and applied it to the canvas. She told Jezebel the project helped her cope with the pain of her periods, imbuing her discomfort with a sense of meaning.