I knew what I was looking for – Judy Chicago’s Birth. I had seen a photo online. It looked vast and powerful, made in black and grey. I was wrong – it is fully black, and done with the negative and positive space openness of filet crochet. It is the first art piece viewed as you enter Art Basel Miami occupying the best spot in the Miami Beach Convention Center. With abortion rights out the window in many US states, with Women Life Freedom protests in Iran and global support for women’s rights and dominion over their bodies, the placement is a clear statement of Art Basel’s concerns, giving extra spotlight to the work of a woman artist in her 80’s. It literally shimmers against the wall, no matter which angle from which you look. I watch most women linger, and most men quickly move on.
Jessica Silverman’s booth, deeper within Art Basel Miami, held two additional pieces from the Birth Project, Crowning (Quilt 2/9), 1983, and Creation of the World (Embroidery 3/9), 1984. These two fabric pieces, much smaller at under 30” x 44” each, are quilted, layered, drawn, silkscreened, hand-painted, and embroidered. All were produced by three-women collaborations encapsulating how one process can communicate with another. This more intimate scale is powerful in a different way; they are personal to the viewer – here is our story of how life arrives and how the world was created. It was no male god, it was a woman who created the animals.
Birth has the bold, radiating lines that marked Chicago’s style beginning in the late 1960’s, and in the Birth Project (1980-84) they become seismic. The subject is simple – a woman giving birth. It isn’t about the baby but about the woman, and the energy emanating from her core and outward. The body shape is vague, mimics the outline of the vulva, and is protected once outside the body. The birthing woman’s body takes up the entire composition; reaching out, building up, contractions, tearing and calling forth life, all-consuming and present. It’s as if she is summoning you, and you must acknowledge female imagery, creation, and birth, on a monumental scale. There is no male voyeurism over a woman’s nude body here, there is truth. You must acknowledge collaboration and isolated fiber arts as womens’ work in a wholly powerful way, not as isolated actions. It is the largest piece of the Birth Project, and I’m drawn to consider the strength of their collaboration in fiber and feminism. Staying in the realm of fiber arts, the project doesn’t hide from acknowledging and growing from art forms made by women in rooms of their own. Whenever I think about collaboration among artists to build something previously unseen or under-acknowledged in the art world, I think first of Judy Chicago.
After several minutes, Judy Chicago emerged and talked with a few people. A woman handed her a black tote bag, with Women Life Freedom written in several languages on it. I waited. She told me Birth has been shown eight times previously over the years. Chicago worked with women from around the world for the Birth Project, placing newspaper ads, getting recommendations and asking for needlework samples. Filet crochet is a series of open mesh and closed mesh blocks and is historically used with a fine white yarn for curtains, tablecloths, and bedspreads. Chicago sent the pattern and an idea of size to Kaminski, a Pennsylvania-based crocheter. Before long, Kaminski said “it’s going to be a lot bigger” (emphasis added by Chicago.) It was also made from the bottom up, a process worked in by Kaminski. Chicago first saw it when it was 2” by 22’. When I asked why show this piece now, Chicago responded with “right now, with Roe / Wade, I felt it was crucial to show Birth as celebration. With so much violence around womens’ bodies right now, it’s potent and ongoingly important to show woman imagery.”
To me, it succeeds in the Art Trifecta: You want at least to make them laugh, cry, or say wtf. I’d argue Birth is one of the rare works that succeeds in all three. We end our chant with her breathing in my awe of the thing. I think, just a little, she still feels the awe herself. “It looks great, doesn’t it?” she said with a smile. Are you kidding me? It looks better than great.