Behind the Breast Cancer Art Exhibition

The Tab talks to the exhibition’s curator

#breastcancerart #pinkweek interview

This Pink Week marks the very first opening of the Medwards Breast Cancer Art exhibition: a moving and sobering art installation entirely comprised of pieces from those suffering with breast cancer.

The project is not a new one: The Breast Cancer Art Project began in 2017 by Adriana Ford – a Peterhouse alumnus – who was herself inspired after being diagnosed a year previously. Initially beginning as an online initiative, last year the first physical exhibition took place in Puerto Rico. This year, the project comes to Cambridge, and more specifically Murray Edwards. The all-female college seems a natural fit for an exhibition so focused around women’s experiences.

Miranda Nicholson, a student at Medwards and the curator of the present exhibition, is responsible for its move to the college. An art historian, she was researching breast cancer artwork for her dissertation and had already decided to stage an exhibition when she stumbled across the project, which she says is deeply valuable as “art can be a vehicle for so many emotions.” The fact that Ford is an ex-Cantab herself only made it more poignant.

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Sophie Marie Niang and Constance Ayrton, event organisers

Her conception and ideas around the disease, she says, “changed a lot” over the process, as “it’s so hard to understand a disease you don’t have.” Working on this has, to her, “illuminated a lot of aspects.” Her most surprising discovery was something many others will be unaware of: the phenomenon during treatment known as “chemo brain.” “Doing chemo essentially slows down your brain,” Miranda tells me, and those who complete treatment still feel its effect long after the course has finished. Perhaps, she thinks, this is why so much art has come out of the disease- when the brain slows down and makes verbal communication difficult, art can be the perfect means of expression. In addition, Miranda found the disease itself has a profound impact on the way we see women, as “breasts are seen as such an integral part of the idea of femininity”- an idea which is explored within in the exhibition.

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Honor May, Miranda Nicholson and Faith Inch.

Recently there’s been an upsurge of cancer coverage in the media, with the success of the radio show and podcast You Me and the Big C, and the tragic death of Rachel Bland. Has this had any impact on the exhibition?

“I think the issue’s more prevalent now than it’s ever been, just because of its presence on social media. But, and this has come from my dissertation which looks at breast cancer 500 years ago, it seems like such a modern disease, but it’s really not at all.”

Clearly, treatment has progressed from the days of non-anesthetised mastectomies (the harrowing accounts of which can be found online), but is the message of the exhibition about that progress, or a something more sobering?

“I’d definitely say sobering is the word for it. Very few of the works have messages purely of hope and happiness.” At the same time, “such a multi-faceted experience, with so many emotions” can’t just be represented by the more difficult aspects of the disease. “We could have arranged it so you walked into the more harrowing, scientific perspectives,” but that wasn’t what they wanted visitors to come away with, says Miranda. Ultimately she hopes viewers will come away sobered but inspired by what they see, rather than traumatised.

On a more practical level, the achievement here really is massive. The exhibition, which encompasses works from all over the globe, was only really set in motion at the beginning of last term, and it had its setbacks. Although Miranda is at pains to stress how helpful the college have since been, at the outset they were sceptical about the amount of work and funds it would take. Only in the last few weeks has there been a real uptake, inspired in part by a Telegraph article. This is Miranda’s first experience of putting together an exhibition, and she says that the actual curation was “the hardest part.” Difficulties came in choosing pieces which were actually available – there were no funds for expensive overseas transfers, for example – and in physically placing them in the gallery space. “There are so many things you don’t notice (labels, for example) which are essential for what the viewer comes away with.”

Her work was made easier by the collegiate environment. “I could always ask for advice”, but also “Thank God for Google,” she laughs. One of the oddest parts of the experience was locating a piece of art which seemed to be completely off the beaten track, and then it turning up in Norfolk.

Is there a concern that it’s too female-centric?

“A lot of criticism of Pink Week is that its female focused and that’s valid, but it is a predominately female issue. We did think about doing something for prostate cancer, but the age range with which you're at risk is so much higher that it’s hard to reach out. Whilst almost everyone will know someone with breast cancer, most men “might not have any contact with (prostate cancer) for another fifty years: university is a difficult place to raise awareness.”

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The exhibition promises to be like nothing we’ve seen before. It is a multimedia experience, with auditory as well as visual work on show. Adriana Ford and her network will be there on opening night, as well as Susan Olivera, the first artist to contribute to the project. There’ll be poetry readings, an incredibly personal hip-hop performance, and “songs about growth and healing” from the band Mermaid Café.

As for Miranda’s favourite piece?

“It’s being shown in the Fellow’s Drawing Room and it’s by an Australian artist, and it’s a self portrait. The woman is bald – she’s been through chemo – and she’s emaciated, she’s had a mastectomy. In her arms she’s holding a raven, which is a symbol of bad luck, but she’s embracing it, and she still looks really strong. I think it shows how diseases can completely ruin your body, even your mind, but how strong you can still be.

“I think you do have to be really strong to produce the work that we’re showing.”

Opening night for the Breast Cancer Art Project is on Sunday 3rd February. The exhibition runs from the 4th to the 22nd. Many thanks to Sophie Marie Niang for organising the interview.