Doreen Garner designs horror objects of exquisite beauty. Silicone skin and meat fibers, frizzy black hair, artificial pearls, mirrors, and Swarovski crystals sit on glass objects reminiscent of heads, breasts, and other curves of the body. They seem like fetish objects, surgically patched together, creatively composed, and sexually charged: monstrous objects of desire and macabre relics of the abuse and exploitation of the black female body, which has been the victim of medical experiments in the United States for centuries. Between 1845 and 1849, Dr. J. Marion Sims - the so-called "father of modern gynecology" - deliberately operated on female slaves without anesthesia, as he considered black women to be less sensitive to pain than white women: an assumption that is still smoldering in the US medical industry. The women were used as mere experimental objects, their lower abdomen slaughtered for experiments that served white patients. In her artistic practice, Doreen Garner takes up this narrative and holds it before us in an unsettling yet also enticing way, so that we cannot avert our gaze.
In her exhibition at CAPRI, the artist refers to the fates of the women who were abused by Sims and to the special cases of Henrietta Lacks and Saartjie Baartman. A tumor tissue sample was thus taken from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge, from which the first immortal human cell line was cultivated. Named “HeLa cells” after her initials, they were used for purposes such as the production of vaccines and for research into cancer, HIV, toxic substances, and cosmetics. To date, around 50,000 tons of HeLa cells have been cultivated. They form the basis of an immense pharmaceutical market. Henrietta Lacks never even got a gravestone. The South African Saartje Baartman was brought to London at the age of 21 by Dr. William Dunlop and sent on tour through Europe as a "curiosity". As a member of the Koikhoi, a population group regarded as the "link between man and monkey", Dunlop named her "Homo monstrosis monorchidei". Baartman had to appear naked and chained in medical seminars and at parties where whites stared at her and insulted her. Author Harriet Washington writes in her book "Medical Apartheid": "First they stared at her in disgust, then they laughed at her and finally they were sexually aroused by her". Baartman died at the age of 27. The naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier, who had danced with Baartman at a "party", poured her body in plaster before dissecting it and put it in preserving jars. Until 1974, her skeleton, genitals and brain were exhibited at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.
Doreen Garner transforms this sadistic, racist trauma into fragments somewhere between beauty and horror, which make the viewer into a voyeur and have them take a fetishized, racist perspective by default. Her sculptures seem like amputated aliens that attract and then immediately repel us: dead and alive, colorful and morbid, grotesque and sexual, baroque and minimal, sacred and anatomical. Placed on mirrored pedestals and highlighted by spotlights, they evoke both a medical and decorative style of presentation and at the same time exude a relic-like aura.
The bodies of the women inscribed in these objects remind the viewer of their bloody ordeals, which we continue to benefit from today. The fact that Cuvier is still listed on the Eiffel Tower today under the 72 names of outstanding people and that the memorial to J. Marion Sims in New York’s Central Park was only taken down in 2017—partly as a result of Doreen Garner's protests—shows that the reappraisal of this kind of racist abuse is only just beginning.
Doreen Garner (born 1986 in Philadelphia) lives in Brooklyn, New York. She studied glassblowing at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Her works and performances have been shown in New York at MoMA P.S.1, JTT Gallery, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Knockdown Center in Queens. She has also exhibited at the National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC.
Text: Gesine Borcherdt, Curator of CAPRI