No Different from Your Other

Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/

Fleshy pomegranate carcasses and a shrine to a breast-shaped void are the centerpieces of undergraduate artist Darya Kharabi’s solo show No Different from Your Other at Carnegie Mellon’s Ellis Gallery. Playing with the sacred, damned, and macabre, Kharabi’s work explores the dark history of women and medicine. Matter-of-fact recordings of dehumanizing and horrifying past treatments for breast cancer are paired with drawings and paintings that line the walls of the gallery.

No Different from Your Other is a beautiful show that marries research and various mediums to create a complex yet clear story about women in history. Without being didactic, the show brought to light these tragic and horrifying pieces of medical history. Kharabi writes about historic practices of mastectomies before the science was where it is today — the insertion of hooks and the severing of nerves allude to the tendency of medicine to ignore women’s voices as patients. Using a color palette of fleshy pinks, burgundy reds, and sickly greens, these surrealist pieces combine imagery and text from medical journals with heavily stylized figurative drawing that build a chronology of instances in the history of treating, or not treating, breast cancer.

The show is also successful in its contradictions. On the one hand, this show is a space to hold the pain of women throughout history. Yet on the other, despite this fact, the show leans into the dehumanizing nature of medical practices. There are no identifiable women subjects of this story, the drawings of women, although beautiful and intricate, either allude to physiological diagrams or display an abstracted and distorted woman. The absence of an overt female subject emphasizes the invisibility of women in medical literature, but these figures keep the viewer grounded in the perspective of a female narrator.

The narrative Kharabi presents is clearly from a clinical perspective but is also contextualized by heavy religious references. The pomegranates and grapefruits reference the fall of Eve but also the human body; the entire show is set up like a holy space. The relationship of science, medicine, and religion is complex, and we see the lasting effects of that even today in our system for women’s healthcare. The confusion of untangling the relationship between these institutions with body politics and self-perception is central to Kharabi’s work. In some of the pieces, the role of religiosity enshrines misogyny and negligence in the medical fields. In others, however, it turns the unnamed woman into martyrs and provides the basis for the pieces that allude to the reclamation of the female body.

A black form shaped like a bullet or a breast appears as a monolith in several of the pieces. It works as a void that represents perhaps the breast or its removal, as well as the removal of the agency of women around their own bodies in these cultural and medical spaces. It is the centerpiece of the show. A wreath of twigs turns the absence of women from medical knowledge into a holy tragedy. The void of the monolith and the holy space of the entire show allows for a space to grieve for the women who suffered for the sake of science. This show’s source of power is the pairing of sadness with rage. Most present in the final piece that contains a poem sentencing an unknown other “enrobed in [their] own ignorance” to hell, these works are also a direct expression of anger.

This past year, news outlets from Teen Vogue to The New York Times have become hyper-aware of women’s anger, claiming that we as a society have never seen women become so publicly angry as they are right now. In the past month alone, with the slew of sexual harassment charges and attacks on women’s health care, has been a trying time for women. We’ve also seen the ways women have learned how to channel and express anger in a culture that teaches women that they aren’t allowed to hold this emotion. In No Different from Your Other, we see the exploration of a specific piece of scientific history built into our cultural understanding of women and their bodies with pieces that work frustration and pain in academic and artistic language. Given this broader social context, the work of artists like Kharabi are important and brave.

It is, therefore, also important that we listen to the women speaking out about injustice in their lives and our world. Often, the changes we see in the world come from youth culture and college campuses. And so, although the Ellis Gallery may feel separate from the professionalism of formal galleries, it is vital that we take participate and consume the expression of young artists on college campuses. The most important takeaway from these articles is that our student artists are preserving the values and questions our students are holding about our society, and will ultimately determine what direction progress is pushed towards. Keep an eye out for the work of Kharabi and the artists working in these spaces — their voices are a force to be reckoned with.