Nao Bustamante Redesigns a Common Gynecological Tool

Los Angeles artist Nao Bustamante’s latest project BLOOM at Artpace in San Antonio was inspired by an uncomfortable visit to the gynecologist in 2011. “I left thinking, ‘Gosh, they can send a man to the moon, but they can’t devise a comfortable speculum,’” the artist wrote in a recent email to Hyperallergic. The speculum is a duck bill-shaped plastic or metal tool used by gynecologists to open the walls of the vagina for pelvic exams and medical procedures. Over the past decade, Bustamante has been thinking of ways to make the tool less unpleasant for the millions of patients who encounter it each year.

As Bustamante tells viewers in her video “Gruesome History” (all works 2021), there’s archaeological evidence of the speculum dating back to 79 AD. However, the roots of the modern-day speculum lie in the work of J. Marion Sims, a mid-19th century Alabaman doctor who conducted cruel experiments on enslaved women, subjecting them to multiple operations without anesthesia in his backyard ‘hospital.’ In the video, the artist retells the horrific history in a silly, Muppet-like voice as she manipulates a metal speculum like a goofy puppet, its big googly eyes rattling with each word. Bustamante’s levity is disarming, but it reminds us of the general silence and avoidance of this and so many other issues related to women’s health and well being.

Nao Bustamante, detail of “Vagnasium” (2021), video installation and mixed media

Bustamante’s unexpected sense of humor also appears in “Vagnasium,” a video in which the artist — seated on a couch and wearing a flesh-colored tunic — leads viewers through a mesmerizing set of Kegels-like pelvic floor exercises as spacey music and images from the interior of a Texas cave play in the background. The video is educational, New Age-y, and quirky. Beyond the physical guidance, the artist-narrator speaks glowingly about a cosmic ‘vaginal imaginary.’ “Everyone knows what penis envy is,” Bustamante noted over email, “but the endlessness of the vaginal imaginary can be scary for some. I love to wander in mental space, and that is somehow akin to the ‘vaginal imaginary.’” 

In the case of generating a new kind of speculum, Bustamante’s imaginary draws inspiration from nature. Her sketches of a revised speculum are paired with oil paintings of flowers in BLOOM, a series of mixed media digital prints. And “Vaginal Imaginary (community build)” is a collection of small ceramic sculptures of new speculum models generated by participants in a public workshop that the artist led during her time in residence earlier this year at Artpace. Once again, by involving the public, Bustamante works to normalize conversations around bodies.

Nao Bustamante, BLOOM, installation view at Artpace

The speculum that’s in use today is the same one that was developed in the early 1940s. During her time in San Antonio, Bustamante was in dialogue with physicians and medical professionals about her speculum redesign. This fall, her work will move beyond the gallery, thanks to a University of Southern California Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences Research and Creative Grant. The support will allow Bustamante to partner with patent drawers, 3D print technology specialists, and material scientists to develop a prototype that the artist hopes will be ready by 2022. And maybe, someday in the future, her speculum will be the one clients prefer.

Nao Bustamante, BLOOM series (2021), oil paint on glass on archival digital print

Nao Bustamante: BLOOM continues at Artpace (445 N Main Ave, San Antonio) through September 5.

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