What Damien Hirst’s sculptures of a human fetus mean for Qatari women

Part of the journey
Part of the journey
Image: Shutterstock/Dominic Dudley
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Outside a hospital in Qatar is an unusual sight: 14 massive bronze sculptures depicting the development of a human fetus, from conception to birth, created by British artist Damien Hirst.

The artwork, situated outside the Sidra hospital dedicated to women’s and children’s health, is intentionally provocative. Some critics say its frank depiction of a woman’s uterus is a progressive sign in a state where women’s bodies are often physically shrouded. The sculptures were first unveiled in 2013 to much public controversy, then put under wraps again while building work was completed. At the time, the New York Times characterized (paywall) Qatar as a country “aggressively buying its way into modernity,” including through its bold decisions on public art.

Years later, with the sculptures once again on display, the artwork’s commissioners have said that their goal is to promote debate. But it’s worth examining what kind of debate, exactly, the sculptures are likely to provoke.

The emirate is working to improve its human rights record, as evidenced by recent changes to both women’s and migrant workers’ rights. But discrimination against both groups remains a problem, according to both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Public debate is not free. Abortion is illegal—and carries a prison sentence—in most cases, other than when continuing a pregnancy poses a grave threat to a woman’s health or to her life. In this environment, artworks that celebrate and elucidate a process that takes place inside the female body could well lead to fruitful conversation, and perhaps to greater freedom for women to express their needs and views. As Hannah Clugston writes in The Guardian, “We need to stop shrouding women’s bodies under mysterious facial expressions and myths that risk confusion about how childbirth works.”

But the works, called The Miraculous Journey, focus on only one aspect of women’s bodies: The ability to produce a healthy child. That makes their situation at a women’s hospital problematic. Among the patients who will walk past the sculptures are women coming to the hospital with fertility problems; for complications from miscarriage; for those rare, medically-legislated abortions. They will pass them when leaving the hospital after having experienced stillbirth. Art that produces debate is indeed important. But at the crisis point of life that having or not having a child can represent, many of the women who enter and leave the hospital might prefer not to confront the looming monuments to their reproductive system for the sake of spirited public discourse.

Hirst has said that he was inspired to make the sculptures after himself becoming a parent. But in seeking to depict the gestation period in all its specificity, the artwork also neglects to remember that reproduction is not wonderful for everyone. And the sculptures do that on the doorstep of the place where everyone—those with difficult outcomes as well as joyous ones—go to be cared for.