Mas(k/t)ectomies: Losing a Breast (and Hair) in Hannah Wilke's Body Art


  • Julia Skelly Queen's University


feminist body art, breast cancer, Hannah Wilke, feminist art history


There is still a silence shrouding the loss of breasts and hair in art historical literature. While the ââ¬Åexplicit bodyââ¬Â of the feminist artist is no longer a taboo subject due to the work of scholars such as Amelia Jones (1998) and Rebecca Schneider (1997), illness has not been given the scholarly attention it deserves in the context of feminist art. My objective in this article is not to merely contribute to a historiography of feminist artists who have produced artworks inspired by breast cancer, although I do see the importance of such an undertaking. Rather, I am concerned with how a womanââ¬â¢s illness, the treatment for that illness, and the resulting loss of a breast or hair forces the woman to engage in new performative acts to signify gender identity. In this article I discuss some of Hannah Wilkeââ¬â¢s photograph-based works, focusing primarily on Portrait of the Artist with her Mother, Selma Butter (from the So Help Me Hannah series, 1978-81), and the Intra-Venus series (1992-93). I argue that Wilkeââ¬â¢s art documents the loss of hair and a breast (her motherââ¬â¢s), and captures women in new performative acts of femininity, using props, poses, and costumes to reconstruct their gender identity. This reconstruction calls attention to the fact that gender identity is just that: a construction dependant on a series of enactments. Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble that a ââ¬Åperformative theory of gender actsââ¬Â offers a framework through which to read discursive practices that denaturalize the categories of body, sex, gender, and sexuality (xii). I suggest that Wilkeââ¬â¢s photographs, the Intra-Venus series in particular, are self-portraits that might be described not only as performance art, in that Wilke is performing stereotypical feminine roles for the viewer, but also representations of performative acts that disrupt the idea of a coherent or intelligible femininity.

Author Biography

Julia Skelly, Queen's University

Julia Skelly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art at Queenââ¬â¢s University. Her doctoral dissertation will critically examine representations of female drinkers in nineteenth-century British visual culture. Past and present research interests include nineteenth-century British art and literature, contemporary feminist art, representations of women, and addiction.