Depicting the Hidden Agony of Endometriosis in Paintings
Australian artist Ellie Kammer makes oil paintings that visualize the rage of women's silenced pain.
Ellie Kammer alongside her work. All images courtesy of the artist.
Ellie Kammer’s paintings are grotesque and exquisite. Using oil paint and expressive brush strokes, she portrays nude women laying down or hunched over in agony, figures contorted as they grasp their bloody abdomens. Using a deep red to convey gaping gashes and thick smears of clotted blood, her works visualizes the rage of female bodies in silenced pain. And for Kammer, the paintings function as a kind of physically-manifested scream—both a cry of personal aching, and a rallying call for a cause.
The Australian-born artist first noticed there was something off with her body while traveling in 2014. She was on the streets of Toulouse, France and started to experience “incredible pain that coincided with a very inconvenient, sudden blood clot,” she tells Broadly. Kammer went back to her hotel and didn’t stop bleeding. Later, she realized she had experienced a miscarriage.
After that day, Kammer noticed that her periods weren’t normal: She bled very heavily and had extremely intense bouts of pain. In December 2015, she was diagnosed with endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a disease in which uterine-like tissue grows outside of the uterus, causing extreme pain during periods and often leading to infertility and miscarriages, among other symptoms. Approximately 176 million women globally are affected by the disease, with an estimated one of ten women suffering from it in the US. Despite those numbers, though, there is still a serious lack awareness surrounding the condition—in part because it’s often misdiagnosed or overlooked by doctors who refuse to believe women’s pain isn’t all in their heads. Later, Kammer learned that she also has adenomyosis, a condition with similar symptoms in which endometrial tissue expands into the uterine wall.
In 2015, Kammer underwent surgery in an attempt to mitigate her symptoms. During recovery, she fell into depression. “I was struggling with the concept of being a sick girl and getting accustomed to a completely alien lifestyle for me,” she recalls. “A life full of considered choices, spending a great deal of money on health management, and having regular surgeries and procedures.”
The situation was worsened by the lack of accessible information about endometriosis online and the general stigma that leads to women’s reproductive health issues not being taken seriously. Feeling angry and disconnected from her body and the world, Kammer turned to art to articulate her pain.
Creating her first painting, “Endometriosis (Coagulate),” felt like purging her frustration, says Kammer. Amazed by how the process of catharsis so intensely fueled her creativity, she decided to expand the piece into a series. Eventually, it became the focus of her practice.
Now 27 years old, Kammer’s aim has since expanded. Beyond releasing personal pain and shame, she hopes her work can raise awareness about the relatively little-known disease, and challenge people’s apathy toward the way women who suffer from it frequently discredited. She regularly shares her paintings and process with 33,000 Instagram followers alongside candid captions that shed light on the realities of living with endometriosis. The posts themselves appear to be an integral part of her practice, breaking down taboos around openly discussing women’s reproductive health and building a supportive community of fellow people with endometriosis.
“I hope that sufferers will feel empowered or comforted by the work,” says Kammer. “For those who have never heard of the condition, I hope it piques their interest enough to spark a question.”
One post from March 2017 reads: “This morning I sat down at my desk and the act of sitting sent a shooting pain from my pelvis up into my chest.” Another, from earlier this month, discusses misconceptions about the different stages of endometriosis. One follower responded, “Oh my god I have endo and have never been told there are stages. I’m so disheartened. So glad you’re doing what you’re doing for this poorly noticed disease.”
Kammer garnered further attention for her cause in the fall of 2017 when she paired up with a well-known ally: Lena Dunham. The actress has been open about having endometriosis, and often speaks about the need for it to be taken more seriously. Last summer, Kammer messaged her on Instagram asking if she could paint her portrait for a charity auction benefitting an endometriosis organization in Australia. Dunham agreed, and Kammer plans to auction it off this year.
Kammer was raised in Adelaide Hills in Southern Australia. In high school, she found herself wilting rather than blossoming, so she decided to drop out at the age of 16. Soon after, while juggling a number of jobs, she began experimenting with art in her free time. She eventually taught herself to draw and paint by researching artists and art history, watching online tutorials, and enrolling in online classes. At 21, she realized that art could be a legitimate career option and transitioned into being a full-time painter by age 23.
Kammer’s next project will be a maturation of her endometriosis series that considers how the condition impacts one’s personal relationships, taking inspiration from that between her and her twin sister. She’s ardent about the fact that, although endometriosis is considered a “woman’s disease,” it also affects the partners and families of those who suffer from it.
“Some children have to watch their mothers in pain and lying in a hospital bed with oxygen cord around their nose,” says Kammer. “The disease is a crisis and the gendered attitude towards the condition is helping no one.”