Last month, we shared the news about our new art book, A Woman's Right To Pleasure, with Dr. Amir Marashi and LELO, featuring 77 of the most famous womxn artists of the last century. Today, we're revealing the second cover, by photographer Cass Bird, available exclusively via BlackBook Presents. With it, is a letter from BlackBook about the making of this project.
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It was a gelid winter day last year
when a doctor dressed in standard-issue blue medical garb rushed into our newly opened gallery in DUMBO, Brooklyn. For the past few weeks, we’d watched as he parked his car and hurried into
the building directly across from us on John Street.
Hi, I am Amir Marashi.
He wore a dark, scruffy smile and had a handsome bald pate.
I’ve been staring at that photo on your wall for days,
he said, pointing at the image.
I absolutely love it.
The photo was a five-by-ten black-and-white underwater landscape crowded with buoyant women and men captured in dramatic states of flux, their muscular bodies frozen in motion, reflecting the light permeating the water. In it, the subjects are pushing, pulling at one another, as if in an eternal battle.
There’s something about it that speaks to me and my work.
As our relationship continued to grow, Dr. Marashi would visit the gallery, where we talked about his career, medicine, his work with women, the women’s movement, and art. We also learned about his life growing up in Iran after the revolution, when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the then-American-backed Shah of Iran in 1979—the year Amir was born. It became clear that his father’s work as a prominent Iranian doctor influenced his own work. As a gynecologist and vaginal surgeon, he began his career in the Middle East performing hymenoplasty surgeries to help Muslim women avoid torture—and in many cases, death, due to a widespread radical interpretation of Sharia law—if they did not appear as virgins on their wedding night.
Those initial experiences and his later work helping victims of female genital mutilation informed Dr. Marashi’s radical mission to dedicate his life to helping women, giving them the tools—and the knowledge—to begin to understand their own bodies.
It is unimaginable that there are many places in this world where women must lie and come to doctors like me for these kinds of surgeries,
And it is even more unfathomable that living in America, or developed European countries, there are still places in the world where women are forcibly held down and mutilated so they can never experience sexual pleasure. They have no control, no say over their bodies, and are regularly punished, abused, beaten, imprisoned and given the death penalty, just for being women.
That emotion became the impetus for his dream project: this book, A Woman’s Right To Pleasure.
Since launching BlackBook in 1996, our ethos has always been about amplifying marginalized voices and creating a space where women, people of color, the trans community, punks, members of the subculture, and people from the fringes of society, as well as the mainstream, could be seen, heard, and understood—a place for forward- thinking individuals and cultural movements. A Woman’s Right To Pleasure does exactly that. Together with Dr. Marashi, we have carved out a dedicated space to hand the microphone over, where women from across the world and all creative fields can celebrate their right to pleasure in every aspect of their lives and in all its forms.
When we started, we were intent on capturing the literal definition of a woman’s right to pleasure: an orgasm. And we wanted to do so in the most unvarnished way, through paintings and photos of the vagina. But as we continued working with the artists, and the number of contributors grew, so did the range of artistic medium—painting, photography, sculpture, embroidery, and collage joined by essays about truth, pain, pleasure, revelation, fact, and fiction—and our own understanding of the idea. We realized that while A Woman’s Right To Pleasure would explore the visual and conventional idea of the vagina, we also wanted to look at it—and at pleasure—as a metaphor for so much more—one that speaks to freedom and the varied nature of the female experience, whether cis, trans, or non-binary.
Right now, there is a huge global conversation happening around the very idea of womanhood, and all the advantages, disadvantages, trials, tribulations, and successes that come with it—from feminism, to #MeToo, to privilege—and the idea of femininity at its core. At the center of all these discussions is the vagina, and in our changing landscape it’s clear that the vagina is not what makes you a woman—some women don’t have one at all. It’s as Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” And in this book, the vagina functions only as a symbol of empowerment.
Covering such a loaded and sensitive topic, we knew we had to be cautious—that this subject needs to be broached with tenderness and care, yet also with a certain assured knowledge of its history, present and future. With the help of artists, writers, and creative voices—some emerging, some iconic—we’ve tried to showcase these ideas. But pleasure, much like freedom—and art itself—is subjective. It looks different from every perspective. In New York Times best-selling author Erica Jong’s words, it’s “inexhaustible”; for author Roxane Gay, it’s in accepting—and celebrating—the modern conventions of desire. In legendary painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, pleasure is about beauty in its most natural form. For artist Judy Chicago, it’s an homage to Anaïs Nin; for Jenny Holzer, it’s in brash, unapologetic words; for Mickalene Thomas, it’s the power in the Black queer female experience; for Judith Bernstein, it’s in the absurd. Then there are photographers like Nan Goldin and Cass Bird, who explore pleasure through the literal act of documentation, or Signe Pierce and Arvida Byström, who look at it through the lens of the web. For artists like Carrie Mae Weems, pleasure is in the subtle, ordinary acts between people, while Jenny Saville finds freedom outside the norm. Photographer Cindy Sherman, through her practice, looks to herself for pleasure; and in Marilyn Minter’s words, “It’s all about the bush.” From Cecily Brown and Tracey Emin to a new generation of artists like Martine Gutierrez and Monica Kim Garza, from the legacy of Kathy Acker to the politics of Pussy Riot, from Erika Lust to Stoya, the only thing all of our contributors have in common is that they took an honest look at their experiences in the name of A Woman’s Right To Pleasure. And while we still don’t have all the answers, we do know one: the time for a woman’s right to pleasure is now.
We at BlackBook thank all of the artists who so graciously contributed to this book, Dr. Marashi for his generosity and vision, and to our partners at LELO, for their unwavering support. While floating in the shallows of our daily working lives, it’s important to know that there are still noble pursuits and issues worth fighting for. This is one of them.