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The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: March 8, 2002

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Confronting Cancer Through Art

In the struggle against cancer, art is a tool of survival. For the artists in this exhibition, art-making is a response to a wide array of emotions. As they describe it, their art "shouts what I cannot say aloud," "releases what I was feeling," or "blocks out the pain and anger." It expresses feelings ranging from fear, pain, and rage to hope, acceptance, and peace. Almost invariably, confronting cancer through art is therapeutic, combatting a sense of helplessness in the face of frightening and overwhelming forces; affirmation as opposed to victimization. Creative expression and the will to live become intertwined.

In many of the images in the show, the body is the protagonist. Disfigurement and deterioration symbolize not only the physical, but also the psychic toll of the disease. At the same time, they contrast with the coping powers of an inner strength and spirit.

Certain images recur. One is the nude female body marked by mastectomy. Taking their rightful and perhaps subversive place in the history of the nude female in art, these depictions challenge the objectifying ideals of feminine beauty. These honest, sometimes harrowing, but ultimately heartening images of women who have lost a breast force the viewer to face the traditional roles that physical appearance and the concepts of motherhood, procreation and nurturing play in establishing a woman's identity. "Loss" is not hidden: the viewer, possibly made uncomfortable by such direct imagery, is compelled to share, at least on some level, not only the tribulations, but also the triumphs of the breast cancer survivor.

In many of the forthright images in the show, the "scars" left by cancer are transformed into badges of honor and courage. Recalling the decoration of the body in many cultures -- often signaling rites of passage, imbuing warriors with special powers, or recording bravery -- the body here becomes an esthetic surface marked and altered by malady: scars, incisions, tattoos, dyes, hairless heads and frail bodies. In particular, hair loss is emblematic for both sexes, hair being a symbol of beauty, youth, potency, and sexuality.

Many of the artists confront their own cancer; others deal with the illness of loved ones, relatives, friends or patients. For some, cancer encouraged collaborative work, mirroring how the disease brought them closer together. Some pieces are loving memorials to those who have died; others are moving celebrations of survival. Many function as legacies designed to outlive those who made them and those who are the subjects of the work.

Like cave painters who believed that magical powers issued from image-making, several artists think of their work as talismanic. Suzanne Pitak Davis' angels are amulets for warding off disease. Kevin Kostelnik's shield provides protection from the enemy: cancer. Christine Corbat, in casting the body of a woman with cancer, imagines it as a healing process through the laying on of hands.

"Cancer teaches you about life," remarks Lenore Malen, whose piece Maze, part of her Games of Disquiet series, shows how coping with cancer brings the unfathomable mysteries of existence into painfully sharp relief. In the end, all these esthetic confrontations with cancer open our eyes to the preciousness of life. From this realization comes work of great dignity, courage, poignancy, and inspiration.

Gerald Silk, PhD
Curator
Confronting Cancer Through Art



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