Sonya through a glass darkly
Sonya Whitefield, from Co Tyrone, reacted to her hysterectomy by picking up her camera – and the resulting exhibition is shocking Belfast. Jane Hardy reports
At first glance, these legs look as if they belong to a ballerina, or maybe a girl just back from her first prom. On closer inspection, you realise the stockings are surgical, the pretty skirt a hospital gown and the owner is en route to theatre for surgery.
At the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, a red brick temple to modern art, there is an exhibition of photographs that is provoking quite a reaction. The Journey of the Hysterectic Woman has so far caused at least two viewers to need a glass of water and a quick sit down.
Gallery owner Peter Richards comments: “The reactions have been fairly extreme, which is good. These women were reminded of something in their own experience, I think.”
The show is not for the squeamish as it creatively records the actual experience of a hysterectomy, including close-ups of surgical stitching and shots of the uterus being carried away for burial in a minuscule coffin.
Photographer and artist Sonya Whitefield (48) has bravely confronted the kind of subject matter most of us still consign to private whispered conversations.
She is an unusual woman.
Pre-operatively, not many of us would have an epiphany while staring at those unflattering over-white surgical stockings you have to put on to avoid thrombosis.
But Sonya experienced something fairly incredible as she lay in her bed at Craigavon Hospital two years ago waiting to be wheeled to theatre for an early hysterectomy.
She recalls: “I looked down at my white nightie and these surgical stockings and suddenly felt like Alice in Wonderland. I reached for my camera, took a photo, and was on a kind of endorphin high. It just lifted my whole mood.”
The result is a truly iconic shot that adorns the exhibition fliers. Sonya adds that while taking the photo, she almost expected the anaesthetist to pop into view like some harassed White Rabbit.
Then aged 46, Sonya had been suffering from the rather unromantic female complaint of fybroids. The symptoms led her to examine assumptions and taboos that surround being a woman.
On holiday in a friend’s mobile home in Nice, Sonya found that she’d bled on the sheet and decided to take a picture. “It was Caravaggioesque, all red and white.”
She says it was an attempt to make something beautiful out of something traumatic, to distance herself through art. “I’d been bleeding and had had invasive surgery so I knew exactly what I had. These fibroids got bigger and as I’m skinny, I looked pregnant.”
She became progressively more ill and faced major surgery.
Yet she knows that as a mother of two she is relatively fortunate. “Having a hysterectomy is still a loss, but I recognise I am lucky in that I have children.”
This isn’t a medical story, though, it is about how people’s creativity can be triggered by unusual circumstances.
Sonya’s Journey of A Hysterectic, now an exhibition and a book, self-published with support from the Arts Council, is a feminist statement, a work of art and a means of exploring the depersonalising experience of having your womb removed.
In hospital, Sonya succumbed to the regimented routine and felt afraid. “I was scared before the operation, although my mother’s friends all said to me, ‘You’ll not look behind you if you have it done’.”
Aged 22 she had previously undergone sugery for an ovarian cyst, another female biological curse, and had had a bad time. In spite of her reservations, she realised in June 2008 she had to embrace the solution to the pain, indignity and bleeding and agree to a three-hour operation.
In tune with this philosophy, Sonya held a pre-op party with her female friends “and some bottles of wine” and celebrated the organ most identified with femininity, and the journey towards a healthy post-hysterectomy state.
The photos of Sonya’s journey are dramatic and beautiful. There is a picture of her post-hysterectomy stomach, for example, which took her a couple of days to feel strong enough to shoot, because of the trauma of seeing the surgeon’s rough stitching.
“I couldn’t look at it the first time I was in the shower without a bandage. But when I looked and saw the jagged line, I thought ‘I used to be punk and this relates to that ethos.’”
The resulting self-portraits and shots of the hospital and the apparatus of illness are harrowing but important, underlining the compartmentalised way in which doctors have to view patients and the beauty in extremity that Sonya found throughout her experience.
Of course, this approach to the female condition isn’t new. Frieda Kahlo famously produced paintings which depicted her miscarriages in pretty, haunting images.
Danish photographer Rineke Dijkstra includes in her Portraits series vulnerable, naked new mothers with their small babies.
But it is good to be reminded of the transforming power of art.
Kahlo was a painter, and Sonya is a photographer, making her first venture into digital photography with this series of images, using a basic Canon camera.
So when does photography become art?
Sonya, who was born in Moy, Co Tyrone and went to Bournemouth College of Art in the 1980s, says: “There is, of course, a difference between snapping a scene on holiday and setting up a photograph. It’s to do with interpretation, and my influences when I was studying were painterly photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron.”
Generously, Sonya concedes that there is room for all levels of photography.
Glancing down at those slightly Pepsodent stockings was undoubtedly a pivotal moment for Sonya. It brought her back to art, after a period spent project managing for among others, the Arts Council (“It pays the bills”).
The journey metaphor has become something of a cliche when applied to illness, usually cancer, but this journey of a hysterectic is very real and important in various ways. There is something deeper going on here. In a way, the hysterectomy turned out to be a blessing in clinical disguise. “Yes,” Sonya agrees, “it has been a blessing and has changed my life.”
This is appropriate as the original meaning of blessing is linked to the word for blood and by association, fecundity. So as she lost her organ of generation Sonya regained her artistic creativity.
Sonya’s two children, Jordan (20) and Zachary (18), have had different reactions to their mother’s self-revelation. “My daughter said ‘Well done’. and was keen I’d done this while Zachary chose not to come to the private view, saying ‘I’m fed up with looking at pictures of you naked’.”
Her partner Aidan has been very supportive, although like many men, not initially keen on the subject matter she was tackling. “But in the end he was proud of what I achieved.” His hand appears in one shot of Sonya’s feet, near enough to look affectionate in this slightly abstract portrait.
It is significant that there are no heads or faces in this exhibition. In a way, she is suggesting the depersonalising effect of hospital seen in angled shots of a drain
containing her blood and the mechanism for raising the bed.
Yet the work is utterly personal, too. The sequence of photos surrounding Sonya’s decision to recover her womb, referred to as “the tissue” by the hospital authorities who had to approve, and take it home for a proper cremation, is moving.
Sonya says she took the coffin to her parents’ home near Killyleagh for a cremation. “It seemed appropriate to go to my parents’ as this was about life, and we all come from the same source.”
You can sense the liberation in the photographs of the bonfire. Yet, she says, this is definitely not art as therapy: “I haven’t produced a documentary and it wasn’t intended to make me feel better, it’s a project.”
There is also a handsome accompanying book entitled The Hysterectic, with a blood red cover, containing Sonya’s photo sequence plus a poem and some delicate tissue paper between the images — “rather like the hospital toilet paper, don’t you think?”
The Alice in Wonderland theme is clear, with the distortions of scale and slight spaciness, and Sonya is going to send a copy of her book to director Tim Burton whose film version of the story is currently intriguing audiences.
Art critic Cherry Smyth says: “This is a skilful, resonant documentation of a woman's determination to humanise and feminise the dehumanising and defeminising experience of having a hysterectomy.”
She says that girls and women and the men in their lives who like the rest of humanity emerged from this “intimate source” should see this show. You may blanch at the white mini-coffin holding the uterus, but Sonya’s arresting look at an all-too-common female experience will make you think.