The legal, economic, and moral consequences of the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade are still unfolding. In the wake of it, artists and galleries have sprung to action, rallying to support abortion providers. The trend looks to continue at the Armory Show, which will include among its offerings a group of works from Paula Rego’s celebrated series on abortion access.
Opening on September 9 at the Javits Center, the fair has partnered with London’s Cristea Roberts Gallery to exhibit Rego’s “Abortion Etchings” in the Crystal Palace—the front entrance—during the fair’s run. Proceeds from the sales of the two most recent prints from the series will be donated to Abortion on Demand, a telemedicine abortion care provider. The donations will be made in the late artist’s name.
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“Rego’s work tackles dark and complex subjects, she wanted to make you stop and be unsettled, but they are never explicit. They’re not showing blood,” Sophie Lindo, associate director of Cristea Roberts Gallery, told ARTnews. The gallery is the worldwide representative for original prints by Rego.
Lindo added: “People will be arrested by them—we’ve talked about them possibly provoking an adverse reaction. She proposes conversations that are uncomfortable to have, but that need to happen.”
Rego, who died in June at age 87, forced the world to face its failings. In 1998, she began a series of abortion pictures inspired by the narrow defeat of a referendum to legalize abortion in her native country of Portugal. She drew young women in mental and physical anguish from illegal procedures. Some of her subjects are still in school uniforms; many stare boldly at the viewer. Rego spoke openly of her own abortion, determined to normalize the taboo.
The best known pieces from the series are her monumental pastels, which have been exhibited worldwide, most recently in a major retrospective at the Tate Britain in London. The etchings pack the same discomfiting power. They were exhibited at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon in 1999, and appeared frequently in Portuguese newspapers ahead of the successful second referendum on abortion in 2007.
The ten etchings coming to the Armory Show feature women in domestic settings. Although their bodies and faces are contorted in pain, they remain defiant. In Untitled 7 (1999), a stone-faced woman sits on a bed with her legs propped open by two folding chairs. Her fists grip the bedsheets, perhaps in anticipation of what’s to come. A gruesome narrative is implied but the audience must fill in the details, drawing clues from the lonely composition and tense scratches of Rego’s needle.
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1926 during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. His regime was especially oppressive to women—they didn’t attain the right to vote until 1976—and Rego left for England in her 20s. She lived there much of her life, but her art remained concerned with the plight of women in Portugal. A predominantly Catholic country, it had strict restrictions on abortion: the procedure could only be conducted if pregnancy posed a danger to the life of the mother, the fetus was nonviable, or the pregnancy was a result of rape.
“[Abortion restriction] affected the poor disproportionately,” she told the Guardian in 2019. “If you were rich it was easier to find a safe way to have an abortion, usually by traveling to another country. Poor women were butchered.”
Across her 70-year career, Rego worked in printmaking, installation, pastels, and painting, with a consistent focused on women’s relationships to systems of power and control. She notably was an outspoken critic of the wave of restrictive abortion legislation in the U.S. ahead of the 2020 presidential election—a precursor to the overturning of Roe V. Wade. In many cases, these laws allow zero exceptions for abortion.
“It seems unbelievable that these battles have to be fought all over again. It’s grotesque,” Rego told the British outlet. She editioned two more abortion prints in reaction to the news, marking some of the last works she created before her passing.
“I’m doing what I can with my work but both men and women need to stand up to this,” she said. “It affects men too. You don’t get pregnant on your own do you?”