Esmin Elizabeth Green spent much of her life attending to others. She worked as a caregiver for the elderly, as well as at a children’s day care. She sent the money she earned to her six children living in her home country of Jamaica. When in 2008, at 49 years old, Green sought medical assistance herself at Brooklyn’s Kings County hospital, she was asked to wait.
After 24 hours in the hospital waiting room, having yet to be seen, Green collapsed. A blood clot in her leg had spread to her lungs. Surveillance footage shows a security guard leaning over Green briefly before walking away. Later, another hospital worker taps her body with her foot. Green died on the waiting room floor. It was still 30 minutes until a nurse finally checked her pulse.
“She was disregarded, disrespected and discarded,” Representative Yvette D. Clarke told The New York Times, following Green’s death.
In “The Waiting Room,” now on view at the New Museum, artist Simone Leigh pays tribute to Green, whose story is emblematic of the way black women’s pain is historically underestimated and overlooked. “There’s this expectation of black women to be behind or come last,” Leigh said in an interview with Artsy.
The joint exhibition and artist residency imagines and realizes an alternative model of healthcare, one organized around principles of disobedience, determination and radical self-care, and founded upon the kinds of knowledge shared between black women, often privately or even subconsciously. It contains, for example, a meditation room, a movement studio, and an apothecary lined with herbs culled from around the world.
“I wanted to expand the idea of medicine to include other self-defense and care mechanisms like strategy, or even desire, as alternatives to the stamina and obedience that is expected as normative behavior,” Leigh explained to The Guardian. “Herbalism and dance would fall into the category of knowledge that resists the market and capitalization.”
Leigh’s clinic also includes a variety of “Care Sessions” offered for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Such sessions range from herbalism workshops to community acupuncture, “Afrocentering” to a guided meditation for Black Lives Matter. The sessions, all led by women, evoke the words of writer and activist Audre Lorde when she wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Dr. Shanesha Brooks-Tatum echoed Lorde’s sentiment in a piece called “Subversive Self Care,” published on The Feminist Wire. “It’s subversive to take care of ourselves because for centuries black women worldwide have been taking care of others,” she wrote. “When sisters unite in self-care, regularly indulging in what they love such as dancing, painting, laughing — soul and sanity food — we’re engaged in a soulful insurrection that disrupts the very forces that seek to sacrifice our beings. And, quite matter-of-factly, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?”
Six lectures ― again, all led by women ― round out the program. In a June lesson titled “On Disobedience,” artist Chitra Ganesh explored the aesthetics and performance of protest enacted outside the United States, specifically the way text and image can incite actual change and challenge systemic power. On Aug. 4, artist Lorraine O’Grady will lead a talk titled “Ask Me Anything About Aging,” using intimate conversation and word-of-mouth as a means of spreading valuable knowledge and insight about the aging process.
Finally, “The Waiting Room” offers a series of underground partnerships, classes held outside of public view, with no photography or video recording allowed. The confidential classes take inspiration from The United Order of Tents, an underground secret society of black female nurses that dates back to the Underground Railroad. The classes include self-defense, critical thinking and taiko drumming for LGBTQ youth.
While the mainstream public healthcare system in our country continues to fail its American citizens, particularly the lower class and people of color, Leigh mines parallel histories to uncover productive modes of healing and survival. She does away with the common hospital etiquette of compliance, patience and stamina, imagining instead a posture of desire and disobedience, stances that, hopefully, will help keep black women living and healthy.
Although housed within a museum’s walls, Leigh’s alternative clinic expands beyond the realm of art into the fields of history, activism, feminism, healthcare and civil rights. “The Waiting Room” offers a glimpse into a parallel world, where black women’s pain is acknowledged as unacceptable, and healing is a radical act of warfare. If only Leigh’s ideas could spread beyond the realm of socially conscious artwork and into the real world.
“I’m looking forward to the whole project evolving,” Leigh told Artsy. “It’s really a project for me, not an art installation.”
“The Waiting Room” is on view until Sept. 18, 2016 at the New Museum in New York. See a schedule of upcoming workshops and lectures here.