The Pink Week Breast Cancer Exhibition: A Review

Molly Windust 7 February 2019

I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of the Breast Cancer Art Exhibition at Murray Edwards College. This exhibit displays artistic responses to the realities of living with breast cancer, as part of Cambridge University’s Pink Week. The night was comprised of speeches, poetry, rap, and even a guided tour of the exhibition currently on display at Medwards. The exhibition, curated by five undergrads from the college, features twelve artworks from the Breast Cancer Art Project (BCAP), one on loan from David Hilbeck, and three from Murray Edwards’ all female art collection. Having an exhibit featuring oil paintings, sculpture, pottery, sound recordings and video allows for an exploration of the myriad of effects breast cancer has. This conveys their message that “breast cancer affects everyone,” as we see an insight into the lives of some incredibly brave women who have suffered from this disease.

The BCAP began a few years ago as a website which opened up a space for people to express their relationship with breast cancer through any form of art. The Medwards Breast Cancer Art Exhibition therefore displays this hugely varying platform of artwork, paying homage to the 1 in 8 women who are diagnosed with this disease. The exhibit allows for the stories of women affected by the disease to be heard; an insight into the painful day to day experiences of a single mother with breast cancer, the psychological aspects of chemotherapy and prolonged hospital treatment as well as the celebration of the female figure post mastectomy.

The artists who have filled this space share this disease and yet their array of personal responses to breast cancer allows viewers to understand the complexity and intensity of the disease itself. The exhibition honours the life of Kirsti Ottem, who died in 2007, and who’s honest, painful and empowering painting is the first piece of art you see as you walk along the exhibit. The painting reveals the devastating reality of Kirsti’s diagnosis, with a pencil sketch of her turned face addressing the viewer directly. Her expression is not one of defeat nor triumph, but solitude and knowing, her eyes meeting the viewers directly.

As you walk along the collection each piece seems to capture a moment in time. Whether the artist is in remission or still battling the disease, the artworks act as a window into the lives of these women at varying stages of treatment. Angela Fox’s Objectification explores the language and stigma around breasts and breast cancer, with the capitalised angry red words ‘TITS BREASTS JUGS KNOCKERS BAPS’ printed on a prescription medicine bag. She challenges the way cancer makes women’s bodies feel like objects, comparing the way breasts are objectified through crude language and the detachment one feels from one’s own body when battling cancer.

Opposite this in a glass case is Jeanette Nowak’s pottery Wabi Sabi Breasts. Here Jeanette has created two mugs, shaped as breasts with gold paint outlining the scars, mirroring the way in Japan if something breaks, it is mended in gold. The use of pottery immediately elicits the notion of fragility and impermanence and yet the striking gold detail allows us to realise the value and power of the female body post-treatment.

My favourite piece of the exhibit was Kate Barton’s Cultural Science (Blue): a huge oil painting in cyanotype blue detailing clusters of cancer cells. The biological shapes, bloated and overpowering, form a dialogue between the medical diagnosis of cancer, in its complexity and confusion and the reality of having the disease. The painting seems to express the journey of coming to terms with the fact one’s own cells have become alien and uncontrollable and yet the regularity and precision of the cells juxtaposes the overwhelming sense of instability.

Along the glass wall on the right-hand side are a series of sound installations: poetry readings, videos and podcasts. Edwina Maria Thompson’s poem I Am She explores the effect breast cancer has on one’s mental health, and hearing her own voice read allows complete immersion into her encompassing, terrifying battle with both cancer and depression.

The exhibition space has one wall of glass facing the main fountain in Murray Edwards and one wall in which the paintings are displayed. The glass wall, therefore, houses the audio exhibits, creating a dynamic space where its corridor formation allows the viewer to feel as if they are really stepping into the lives of these women, as you walk forward. The exhibit makes the slightly detached and remote notion of breast cancer very real, drawing you into the minute details of the disease.  This poignant, moving and beautiful exhibit doesn’t shy away from the suffering experienced whilst also celebrating these marvellous women and their battle scars.

The Breast Cancer Art Exhibition opened on 3rd February at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge and will close on 24th February 2019. All proceeds from the exhibition will go towards its costs and the Breast Cancer Art Project.