Chicago-based artist, MICHELLE HARTNEY, has been hard at work over the past year to generate awareness of the the United States' high rates of maternal mortality, postpartum PTSD, and obstetric abuse. These issues are all too often pushed aside but the statistics are staggering. Hartney states, "According to the World Health Organization, since 1995, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has increased 250%."
Today, Hartney brings her Mother's Right project to the public in a 2-hour performance at “Rally to Improve Birth” campaign.
Hartney shares further insight into her thoughts leading up to today's performance, the history of her relationship to obstetrics and considerations towards PTSD in our interview below. If you are in Chicago, I hope you consider joining Hartney in this historic effort. Thank you for this work Michelle. -Quinn Dukes
QUINN DUKES: What led you to this particular issue?
MICHELLE HARTNEY: I got involved with this issue last year after I did a body of work called “Birth Words” which was a series that initially stemmed from a personal experience I had giving birth to my second child. I was about to push my son out and the doctor and nurse kept trying to make me lie on my back. I refused, I had been lying on my side and knew I could birth in that position. They kept telling me over and over and again, "Lie on your back, Lie on your back." It turned into an argument.
I was upset that I had to be involved in an argument while I should have been pushing, and that the argument was ridiculous. The resident and nurse should have known a woman could push out a baby on her side, this should be common knowledge to doctors and nurses who are attending births. The resident later told me that this was the first natural childbirth she had ever seen. So she was only used to women who had been given an epidural and were immobile and lying on their back during labor and was unaware of the fact that a woman could push a baby out in any other position. I was shocked she did not know this.
There were other things said to me during labor that were also so upsetting. I came out of that birth with mixed emotions, but was told that I had a healthy baby and that was all that mattered.
I knew I wanted to make art about obstetrics in America while I was pregnant with my second child, but I didn’t know exactly what that visual would look like. One day, a few months after the birth, I was reading an article by Cristen Pascucci on Improving Birth’s website called “A Healthy Baby Isn’t All that Matters.” It really resonated with me, and I got up, grabbed a canvas and paint and wrote “Lie On Your Back” on the canvas. That phrase, which was repeated to me by my doctor and nurse, had been stuck in my head and made me angry every time I thought about it. It is such a loaded phrase when you hear it and think about the history of oppression of women. I knew at that point I wanted to make a series about words and phrases that were told to women by doctors and nurses during childbirth that were negative and harmful. Cristen had also created the “Break the Silence” campaign, which covered this exact topic, so I found phrases from that campaign that were so shocking many sounded like words a rapist would say to his victim, only these were coming out of the mouths of doctors and nurses and going into the ears of a woman who was about to give birth. I sewed these phrases onto canvas that was stretched with fabric I designed that was made to look like hospital gown fabric, and the print was made up of the plant derivatives of the drugs that have been used on laboring women for the past 150 years. That series lead into Mother's Right, and I have several more bodies of work that deals with obstetrics in America planned.
QD: This project has many elements, why did you decide to include performance?
MH: I felt that the piece would be more powerful if women from the community were involved with it, and I also wanted the piece to be not only about our country's high maternal mortality rate, but also about postpartum PTSD. I felt appropriating the flag folding ceremony would pull in that reference to PTSD. While planning this project I knew that some people in the military might find it offensive because the flag folding ceremony is bathed in emotion, tied to the loss of loved ones, and there is no getting around high emotions when using this ritual. I am appropriating the flag folding ceremony as a model of respect and grief, and to raise awareness about postpartum PTSD as few people know that women are coming out of childbirth with the same psychological symptoms as men and women fighting in wars.
QD: I see that you will be performing with other women, how did you select these performers? Are they all mothers?
MH: Not all of the women are mothers, but most are. Many of the women are directly involved with the birth world. As rally coordinator for Improving Birth, I met many amazing doulas and midwives who wanted to be a part of the project. They are fighting for better maternal care, so I feel extra grateful to have them in this performance.
QD: As you approach the performance, do you have any concerns?
MH: YES! I have the obvious logistical concerns. Will it rain? Will all the performers show up? Will the folding take way longer than I anticipated?
QD: How did you become connected with Improving Birth?
MH: I initially contacted Improving Birth to ask them if they would be interested in letting me do my performance at the 2015 Chicago rally. I started emailing with Cristen Pascucci, the Vice President of Improving Birth about the projects I had planned and we kept in touch over the course of several months. The woman who lead the Chicago rally last year did not want to do it, so I contacted Improving Birth and told them I was interested, which lead to where I am at today as rally leader for Chicago. I have a co-leader who has been incredibly helpful as well so it's been a really interesting and fun experience.
All images are used with permission of the artist