History of Menstrual Blood in Art
Menstruation is a normal biological process and a vital sign of a menstruator’s endocrine and reproductive health. But throughout history, menstruation has been a topic shrouded in shame and silence. It wasn’t until the 1960s, during second-wave feminism, that women began to talk more openly about this time of the month. In 1978, Gloria Steinem wrote her influential piece If Men Could Menstruate and by the 1980s, the menstrual health movement was launched. Continuing efforts throughout the 80s would eventually pay off, resulting in 2015 being labeled the ‘year of the period.’ While strides still need to be made (especially surrounding period poverty), positive changes have occurred and, for many, the shame and silence that once veiled menstruation have begun to lift. One way that women have been able to promote these positive changes is through art. From the 70s to the present day, women have embraced their menstrual blood and used it to create visual forms of activism.
Judy Chicago’s Red Flag, created in 1971, is widely accepted as the first image depicting menstruation in Western art. The work is an image of a woman removing a used tampon from her vagina. The photo is taken up close and is in black and white, but with a tinge of red on the tampon. The work was controversial when it was first put on display. That is after people realized what it was. Many were confused by the image at first and thought that it was a bloody penis. Some felt that menstruation was not an appropriate subject for art, but Chicago persisted in her efforts to normalize this biological process. She even created a second menstrual work just a year later, Menstruation Bathroom, that featured a garbage bin filled with used menstrual products.
The same year that Chicago was creating her Red Flag piece, Leslie Labowitz was performing her work Menstruation Wait for the first time. Labowitz created a poster saying she was waiting for her period and, sitting in a public place, invited people to come up and ask her questions. In response to the work, Labowitz was almost expelled from her program at Otis College of the Arts by the all-male faculty. Shortly after this time, she received a Fulbright Grant to study in Dusseldorf, Germany where she performed Menstruation Wait a second time. Labowitz saw this work as a means to initiate social change and felt she represented ‘all women’ by publicly confronting this social taboo and the secrecy that surrounds it.
Similar to Carolee Schneemann’s notable piece Blood Work Diary, Portia Munson’s Menstrual Prints, completed in 1993, were made with her blood and displayed in a calendar-like fashion. Starting in the late 1980s, every month for about eight years, Munson would take a sheet of paper and while menstruating press the paper to her body. The blood from her cycle would flow onto the page and create a kind of print that often looked like a winged creature. The prints were ultimately displayed in a calendar form that created a personal account of Munson’s cycle for the past eight years.
Another artist who utilizes the frequency of periods in their art practice is Carina Ubeda and her piece Panos (Cloths in English). This work, displayed in 1993, consisted of several decomposing apples and ninety pieces of cloth mounted on embroidery hoops hanging from the ceiling of the venue. Each cloth was marked with menstrual blood from Ubeda’s cycles over five years. The cloth was used in place of commercial single-use products that caused Ubeda discomfort and allergic reactions when she used them. The apples here recall the story of Eve—their inclusion may stand as a symbol of the outdated beliefs and shame that Eve’s story has caused. The brown, rotting apples replace the classically bright red apple in Eve’s story to refer to these archaic beliefs.
Just a few years after Ubeda’s work, in 2000, an artist named Vanessa Tiegs coined the term Menstrala as a way to refer to artworks created from menstrual blood. The word also refers to a series of menstrual artworks that Tiegs created in an effort to “reply to humanity’s oldest and most provocative taboo.” Tiegs hopes that Menstrala will “reform the stigma of cyclical bleeding for future generations,” while also helping women reconnect with their own menstrual cycles.
In 2009, Ingrid Berthon-Moine photographed twelve portraits of women who were wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick. The series, Red is the Colour, represents the twelve months of the year and was inspired by ancient Australian aborigines. Berthon-Moine shared that ancient tribes like the Dieri would apply menstrual blood around their mouths to signal the arrival of their cycles. The photos are simple in nature and vaguely resemble driver’s license photos. Each woman looks straight ahead; she does not smile or pose but just stares. All twelve images were also given a name, like Merlot or Forbidden Red, as a way to poke fun at the way cosmetic industries name their products to pander to constructed views of femininity. Like her predecessors, Berthon-Moine was told that the work was gross and unworthy of being considered art at all.
Zanele Muholi used menstrual blood in her queer artwork, Isilumo Siyaluma, a Zulu phrase that roughly translates to period pain. This series took place in 2011 and features beautiful mandala-like prints. The prints are circular and have repeating patterns that evoke looking through a bright red kaleidoscope. Muholi created this work in response to the brutal murder of three young black lesbians in South Africa, Muholi’s home. The murders, classified as curative rapes, were committed by individuals who are part of communities that do not tolerate homosexuality in women. Curative rape is a hate crime in which straight men rape lesbian women in an attempt to “cure” or “correct” their homosexuality. Muholi, who is a lesbian woman herself, created the work to express that many of the girls and women in her black lesbian community bleed from their vaginas as well as their minds. She used menstrual blood to not only lay bare this taboo of femininity but also as a vehicle to express the deep loss she feels when hearing about the violence committed against those in her community.
While Ingrid Berthon-Moine’s work was heavily criticized, opinion shifted and by 2015, women’s voices in support of the normalization of menstruation began to overpower dissenting views. In 2015, an Instagram influencer named Rupi Kaur posted an image of herself fully clothed lying on her bed with her back to the viewer. Blood from her period is showing through on her gray sweatpants and on her bed sheets. The image caused a lot of controversy—not because it showed period blood, but because Instagram took the photo down within a few hours of it being posted. Kaur was confused, as Instagram tolerates a whole slew of pornographic images and pages yet censored a photo of her fully clothed. She reposted the photo only to have it removed a second time. After posting her frustrations with not being able to share this totally common event (haven’t we all awoke one morning to find stained pajamas and bed sheets), her story went viral and after receiving substantial backlash, Instagram eventually issued an apology and allowed the image to remain. This event is an important win in this fight and a solid indicator of the growing support to strike down menstrual taboos.
In 2016 menstrual art explored a new medium—fiber. Sarah Naqvi created Menstruation is Normal, a work of what looks like a pair of white silk underwear with lace across the band, embroidered onto a piece of fabric in an embroidery hoop. The stark white underwear is interrupted by pink and red threads that deepen in color closer to the bottom of the underwear. The undulating threads make them look like they are flowing delicately across the underwear and create a novel way to view the inevitable leakage that occurs during menstruation. Naqvi created a similar work on a pad, using red and pink threads, as well as red sequins and beads to create a beautiful pile of blood that seeps across the pad.
Menstrual blood as an art material has become so normalized that even women who do not consider themselves artists begin to collect and paint with their own menstrual blood. While there is still an ick factor from many people online, the mere fact that women with no artistic background can do this with little to no repercussions outside of online comments speaks to the changes that have already occurred. A woman named Jasmine Carter has become a very popular menstrual art creator. With 32.3k followers on Instagram, Jasmine Carter has reached a large crowd of people. She continues to create stunning prints from her menstrual blood while inviting others to explore and understand their own feminine power through their periods.
Artists who have unflinchingly put their periods on display have aided in dispelling menstrual myths and breaking the silence around menstruation. The consistent use of menstrual blood in art across several decades represents just how routine and typical this event has become. These women have rejected the notion of shame by proudly putting their periods on display. Ignorance surrounding women’s bodies and their physical and mental health is still prevalent in our society. Recent changes to abortion laws have made this ignorance clear. Information is power and menstrual blood's use in art is just another way that women have been able to help combat ignorance in favor of understanding.
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