Abortion & Art: What We Can Learn from Paula Rego
In the weeks leading up to the 8th amendment referendum in Ireland, I have started to think of representatives, icons and movements that we have had before this when a country was faced with a similar social, political and often religious debate. A referendum like this has seen no hold on different opinions, with the quietest voices in our own personal lives often taking on a new vibrant persona due to the true magnitude of the impacts of this decision, what it means for the women in this country and ultimately, how we will move on as a country with whatever the outcome is. We must then focus on our significance as citizens and depending on the outcome we must ask what our true value is as a citizen.
What is undeniable is the efforts made by the people to voice their passions and their opinions of each side in formats that mean a lot to them. Isn’t this personal touch one of the best ways to get our story’s across and to be heard, with the hopes of letting people have a front row seat in our minds and our own opinion, even if just for a moment? That glimpse of reality is perhaps one of the most important aspects in our colliding opinions on repealing the 8th amendment. Paula Rego, the Portuguese artist born in 1935 is a woman we can certainly direct a nod to during a debate like this. She is an artist who is unapologetic of the realities of women and paints the visceral, subversive scenes that are often experienced by women despite such themes being blocked out by society, which has in the past cleansed certain tainted aspects of our daily lives, often only considered tainted due to the enforcements and rigidities of society and religion in the first place.
Rego’s art is dominated by women and each figure has its own story to tell. All these women are distinct, nomadic and relatively unfeminine, mostly due to the activities they are taking part in. Rego had come from the regime under Salazar, a totally authoritarian regime which was particularly oppressive for women. Although Rego was aware of the repressive regime, she escaped the full impact of it having been brought up in a bourgeoisie household and having the opportunity to move to London to Study at the Slade School, a life that was relatively free and contrasting to her life in Portugal. The Slade School offered Rego the opportunity to get an outside look on the regime, but at the same time she found the Slade’s teachings too ‘grown up’ and restrictive. Her painting moved in the direction of a more pulsating, spontaneous style. Her paintings are personal and reflect real life experiences, but she incorporates politics and true issues, her art turning into a sort of micro politics, and celebrates the almost violent and organic in her art. In Portugal in 1998 the referendum to decriminalize abortion within the first ten weeks of pregnancy was not repealed, mostly due to the very small turnout, less than 50% of voters. Rego’s anger over this encouraged her to create her Abortion Pastels, a series of ten pastels which portray women undergoing illegal abortions. Rego took this ideas from both personal experience and her own surroundings in Portugal. With Rego’s series, we are forced to look at the realities of what women were going through under the legislation, no longer able to turn a blind eye. What these women represent was not guilt or shame on their part, but instead inflicting strong gazes in the direction of shame onto the system.
Rego was able to give her opinion on a mass platform and her series certainly allowed people to truly consider their stance on the subject. Today in Ireland people are sharing their stories on media platforms and are giving us an insight into different circumstances. We are becoming more aware of the individual and not just the rule. This artistic and mass sharing’s in aid of the referendum have become crucial in the broader spectrum of the debate and should be celebrated as the stories of our citizens, and what will lead us to our ultimate decisions on 25th May.
Holly Lloyd – Arts & Events Editor