At the corner of East Cabarrus Street and South Blount Street in Raleigh, past the neighborhood barbershop and Baptist church, you’ll find Lump Gallery’s modest gray storefront. Enter the gallery this month (ducking in, perhaps, to escape the heat) and you’ll also encounter more than a dozen pieces of multimedia art curated by the New York artist, activist, and curator Rebecca Goyette. Their theme: abortion stories.
A pink-and-green flag by Shireen Liane hanging in the back of the gallery marks that theme most directly, spelling out the words “Abortion Without Apology.” It sets a bright, affirming tone for an exhibit that is just that. There is also “Mother’s Right” by Michelle Hartney, an installation of 100 handmade hospital gowns on a rack (the gowns are borrowed from a larger display of 1,200, one for every person who died from a pregnancy-related cause in the year 2013); Viva Ruiz’s jubilant music video “Thank God for Abortion Anthem”; and watercolors by Goyette that reference her ancestor, also named Rebecca, who was hanged as a witch in the Salem witch trials.
The exhibit also has ties to Abortion Stories 2022, an interactive art and storytelling project founded by Cassandra Neyenesch and Carolina Franco that invites stories, per its event description, from “absolutely anyone who wants to share their experience with abortion, regardless of whether they have been pregnant or not.”
On July 22, at the exhibit opening, about 30 people gathered at Lump for a listening session facilitated by Neyenesch, a New York-based artist. Near the close of the exhibit, on August 17, Goyette will host a Zoom artist panel and abortion story-sharing session.
“The positive effects of [sharing abortion stories] are manifold,” Neyenesch says. “There’s the release of stigma when you tell your story. There’s the testifying and being heard. Especially for the pre-Roe people, there’s the recording of their experience for history, because it’s really been forgotten.”
That kind of sharing opportunity feels both obvious and rare. Though one in four women will get an abortion by age 45, making abortion one of the more common medical procedures, it’s uncommon to hear it talked about outside of hush-hush tones.
In the days after the Dobbs decision, this paradigm briefly shifted on my social media feeds, which surged with personal stories—one or two from cisgender men, otherwise entirely from birthing people—about abortion and the ways it had changed, and in some cases saved, lives. But Instagram stories have an air of ephemerality, disappearing after 24 hours, and even an Instagram post is designed by algorithms to be pushed below the recesses of sponsored reels about hair gels and fat-burning creams.
Beyond those late June weeks, broad public pushback against the decision and its many future repercussions has quieted. Marches on the street have stilled for now and so have the Instagram stories and infographics. There’s an element of burnout to this ebbing (climate change disasters and mass shootings have been quick on the heels of abortion news) and also anxiety, as it’s become evident that digital surveillance can collect and sell your story, even when—perhaps, especially when—you yourself aren’t ready to share it.
Reproductive rights may have broad support in North Carolina—a recent Meredith Poll in the state found that 52.6% of poll respondents support Roe’s provisions, compared to 40% of respondents who want to restrict access—but even in an abundant age of content, representation of those rights feels increasingly fraught.
Goyette and Neyenesch, for their parts, both saw the writing on the wall long before Politico leaked the Supreme Court draft opinion. Neyenesch began organizing the first Abortion Stories 2022 event after State Bill 8 passed in Texas in May 2021, and it was only coincidence that this year’s Abortion Stories 2022 festival, on May 6 in New York Tompkins Square Park, fell four days after the Dobbs leak. Goyette, who has been making abortion-related Salem witch trial artwork since Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in, exhibited that artwork at the event.
“Meeting these women and hearing these stories really amped up my sense of urgency,” Goyette says. “Now Roe v. Wade is overturned. The Supreme Court justices are in office for God knows how long, but that doesn’t mean to give up. This is the time to keep fighting.”
At that festival, Goyette met and began her collaboration with Neyenesch and was inspired to curate a show about abortion.
“When we get to see the variety of stories—which also includes things like ectopic pregnancies, complications, economic reasons; there are so, so many reasons why people get abortions—it really makes you double back on the idea that it doesn’t matter what the story is, you should have the right to make your own decision,” she says.
Films have paid some recent storytelling dues: there’s been, for instance, a spate of road-tripping-to-access-an-abortion indie films. Documentary The Janes, currently streaming on HBO, tells the story of an underground network that, beginning in 1969, helped women access more than 11,000 clandestine abortions. And then there’s body-horror thriller Happening, playing in select theaters, which brings to life Annie Ernaux’s memoir about her violent struggle to access abortion care.
These films are important though I’ve found that watching a documentary alone in bed offers limited catharsis. We’ve been conditioned to experience reproductive health and abortion (and their concurrent griefs) as private, lonely topics. The quiet of a gallery offers something more meditative and emotionally generative, and though Lump doesn’t see much foot traffic in the summer, sitting in public and being surrounded by stories feels communal.
During a time when North Carolina’s reproductive rights hang in the balance, Abortion Stories USA is an invitation to sit still and listen—and, if you feel so moved, to speak up.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.