Malaysian-born artist Kara Inez, has been a powerful advocate for women grappling with endometriosis, a debilitating and yet often-overlooked condition affecting 1 in 10 women in Malaysia. Inez’s provocative artworks, which borrow from horror aesthetics, delve into the physical and emotional struggles associated with endometriosis. They offer an unfiltered perspective on the silent struggle that many endure. Hence, by making the voices of women suffering from endometriosis heard, Inez not only challenges preconceived notions but also reflects the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality.
Growing up with multiple physical and mental health conditions, Inez's affinity for grotesque and horror stems from her personal experiences. Her formative years were marked by struggles with psychosis, a symptom of her bipolar disorder, which she also vividly expressed in works like the performance piece Mattress. However, a pivotal moment that significantly shaped her artistic trajectory was her endometriosis diagnosis at the age of 17.
Endometriosis causes a woman’s uterus lining tissue to grow outside of the uterus. This lining will only continue to thicken, growing and shedding with each menstrual cycle, causing scar tissue and organs to stick to one another resulting in intense menstrual pains.
In a society where menstrual pain is often dismissed, women coping with endometriosis face challenges in all aspects of their lives, contributing to a loss of productivity and a reluctance to disclose their condition due to stigma.
Endometriosis, which affects approximately 350,000 women in Malaysia, remains a silent struggle due to a lack of awareness. Dr. Sharifah Halimah Jaafar, medical adviser for the Endometriosis Association of Malaysia, emphasizes the chronic nature of the disease, causing severe pain and impacting various aspects of women's lives, especially in the workplace. "Women coping with endometriosis symptoms lost between one and eight hours of weekly productivity due to either presenteeism (working without productivity) or absenteeism (missing work)," she said.
Inez herself experienced additional weight gain due to her medication’s side effects. The pain and weight gain led Inez to confront societal expectations around the female body, especially when it comes to the unrealistic beauty ideals women are pressured to attain.
Inez's artwork, Defective: Absent Bodies, is the powerful manifestation of her mission to challenge societal perceptions of female bodies. This introspective journey prompted her to conceptualize her works as educational tools. She aims to illuminate the harsh realities of living with a female body, especially in a society that lacks proper information on women's health issues.
The fleshy-looking pieces twist, turn and contort. They offer a visual representation of the pain and societal expectations that women with this condition grapple with daily. The grotesque elements in her sculptures serve as a visceral expression of the complexities and challenges associated with endometriosis. The piece also signifies patients who are breaking away from traditional representations of beauty and embracing the reality of the messy and painful female experience.
In her practice, Inez also includes synthetic hair in certain pieces, this conveys an additional narrative of femininity, identity, freedom, beauty, and even cultural identity, all while it is attached to a grotesque body.
These pieces join the ranks of other women sculptors who have recently been working with body horror, such as Mire Lee and Hannah Levy. Critics see this portrayal of women’s bodies by women artists as a way to make audiences feel and understand the harrowing realities that women face.
Seeing these “creatures” that Inez has conjured up ideas that philosopher Julia Kristeva calls abjection, where something that is normally hidden, like Inez’s creatures who seem to have had their bodies turned inside out, serves as a conduit to shock its viewers and drag them head-first into dialogue. These pieces are a product of several millenias of pain directed toward women’s bodies that are now being spewed out in a very raw and visceral form.
All in all, Kara Inez's groundbreaking artwork becomes a poignant voice in advocating for women with endometriosis. Through her visually striking and thought-provoking pieces, she confronts societal norms, dismantles stigmas, and empowers women to embrace their bodies beyond imposed standards. Her pieces contribute to a larger conversation about women's rights, highlighting the need for awareness, understanding, and a collective effort to create a more inclusive and equitable society.