Sonya Whitefield: Journey of the Hysteretic Woman

The term hysteria was coined by Hippocrates, who believed it was caused by a woman's wandering womb

When Sonya Whitefield arrived at the morgue to collect her womb, they returned it to her in a tiny white coffin with gold handles. They also warned her there might a faint smell of formalin and that although the tissue was fixed it would deteriorate eventually. Whitefield drove home with the coffin sitting on the passenger seat of her car.

‘I felt like Alice,’ Whitefield, a slim, bright woman with a crop of sandy curls, describes the moment. ‘I was quite at odds with myself.’

Perhaps the surreal is always there and it is only in moments of stress that we recognise just how bizarre our lives really are. Whitefield’s exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery is a pictorial history of her hysterectomy from the moment she accepted she needed one up to lighting the bonfire to which she consigned that tiny white coffin.

One in five British women will have a hysterectomy before their 60th birthday. It can be devastating, physically and emotionally. Whitefield admits that she was scared before the operation, pointing to a portrait of her lying next to her partner in bed, their legs barely touching.

‘You’re afraid that you’ll lose that,’ she says. ‘Your femininity.’

Deciding to turn operation into art is what helped her come to terms with what was happening to her. It gave her agency, made her a part of what was happening to her body, and afterwards gave her something to focus on as she put the exhibition together and designed the accompanying book.

The exhibition is beautiful and strange and disturbing and mundane. Prosaic images of call buttons and hospital food are juxtaposed against gaudy, fantastical images that could have been drawn from a children’s book: an en pointe Alice in surgical gown and white surgical stockings; the black, white and red as blood bed that Snow White was born in.

There are only a few images of her body after the hysterectomy on display. She took them in the grey hospital shower a few days after the operation.

‘I couldn’t before. It didn’t look like me,’ she says quietly. ‘That was when it had started to heal, that was my body healing me.’

The pictures are blanched and oddly clinical. In one a bandage covers her stomach, saturated with blood. In another you can see the staples that hold her together. It’s technically graphic but the intent isn’t to shock and they don’t.

The exhibition is more about Whitefield than the operation herself. It tracks her journey chronologically, chronicling moments and objects that draw significance from her perception of them as significant.

‘That was the first thing I saw when I woke up,’ Whitefield says, pointing to the image of a call button. ‘It was pointing right to where they’d operated on me. I thought that was funny.’

Perhaps the hospital thought it was odd to have someone photographing every aspect of the procedure or perhaps not. Whitefield was concerned the hospital would think it strange when she asked for her excised organs back, uncomfortable with the thought of them incinerated in a furnace or left on a shelf, only to discover it was a common enough request. One man had asked for his leg back, burying in the plot at the cemetery where he'd eventually join it.

Whatever the doctors thought, Whitefield has no regrets about her decision.

‘For a few years I’d spent a lot of time focusing on admin instead of art,’ Whitefield says, looking thoughtful. ‘This helped me take my creativity back.’

The Journey of the Hysterectic Woman by Sonya Whitefield is on display at The Golden Thread Gallery until March 18.