January 6–April 17, 2022

A black shelf with dried wheat, cotton, flowers and various agricultural offcuts. A skull and metal bowl with surgical clamps are in the center. Black braids of hair and white gauze drape over the side.
Doreen Lynette Garner As the gauze in my mouth filled with blood and my limp body hit the concrete, I remembered Joice Heth, 2020. Photo by Charles Benton. Courtesy of the artist and JTT, New York

The Perlman Teaching Museum presents an exhibition of sculptures produced over the last five years by New York-based artist Doreen Lynette Garner (b. 1986, Philadelphia, PA). Garner’s artwork draws on a troubled American tradition of medically sanctioned experimentation on Black women’s bodies, a history which connects to the unequal medical care African Americans receive to this day.

Throughout the exhibition, narratives of historically voiceless African American women from the 19th and 20th centuries haunt Garner’s sculptures. These include Joice Heth (1756–1836), an enslaved woman who was exhibited as a spectacle in P. T. Barnum’s circus and publicly autopsied upon her death, as well as Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951), whose genetic material was taken without her consent in 1951 and is still used for research purposes today. Many of the works in this presentation focus on a group of young enslaved women — Anarcha Wescott (c. 1828–unknown), Betsey Harris, Lucy, and others not recorded in historic medical narratives — who were operated on by J. Marion Sims (1813–1883), an American physician who specialized in gynecological surgery.

These instances of medical harm are not examples of a distant history that we have progressed away from but remain active influences on contemporary medical practice that Garner is invested in exposing. By refusing to relegate these histories to a depoliticized record of the past, Garner emphasizes the problematic relationship of medicine and race that persists today.