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Menstrual cloths as art: Manuela De Leonardis features the work of 68 female artists

Blood of Women
Manuela De Leonardis poses with her book ‘The Blood of Women: Traces of Red on White Cloth’ after her lecture at the FedEx Global Education Center.

The FedEx Global Education Center hosted a lecture Tuesday by Manuela De Leonardis on her traveling art exhibition The Blood of Women: Traces of Red on White Cloth. The visual art project presents antique menstrual cloths decorated by 68 international female artists. 

While shopping at a flea market in Rome, De Leonardis encountered menstrual cloths for sale. She recognized the cloths because they resembled the one belonging to her mother. From this connection between her personal memory and society’s collective memory, she was inspired to turn the ordinary object into an art exhibit, De Leonardis said.  

“I am always interested in found objects,” De Leonardis said. “I think that the thrift shop or flea market is like a museum. You can find everything. You can find humanity.” 

De Leonardis, an art historian, photo archivist, journalist and independent curator, began the project in 2014 by sending the flea market menstrual cloths to artists who agreed to contribute. Many of the artists were on De Leonardis’ team or had collaborated on projects with De Leonardis in the past. Once the artists completed adding their own unique artistic expressions on the cloth, they mailed their artwork back to De Leonardis to be used in the collection.  

The first exhibition, which highlighted the work of 14 artists, was in 2015 at the International Women’s House in Rome. With the aim of challenging the taboo of menstruation, the artwork explores many aspects of femininity, including love, birth, sexuality, violence, death, menopause and the relationship between men and women, De Leonardis said. 

Since 2015, the exhibition has also been adapted into a book, which was published this January by the Italian publishing company, Postmedia Books. De Leonardis delivered her first presentation on the book at the FedEx Global Education Center lecture. With the help of the UNC Center for European Studies, Susan Harbage Page, an associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, organized the lecture. Harbage Page was one of the artists who participated in De Leonardis’s exhibition. 

It really is a transnational feminism project,” Harbage Page said. 

During her presentation, Leonardis displayed images of the artwork and explained each artist’s intent behind her creation. The menstrual cloths included embroideries, visual poems, printed images, cartoons, footprints and other mediums of artistic expression. De Leonardis’s commentary explored the various sensations and beliefs associated with menstruation. 

“It was really interesting seeing all these artworks that were like, ‘It’s a natural thing that happens, this is my experience, these are experiences of other women,' just trying to normalize the topic,” said Julie Martinez, a junior attending the lecture. “I think it’s important for people to realize it’s not anything bad. You get your period, and you move on.” 

“The Blood of Women: Traces of Red on White Cloth” will continue to be featured at multiple presentations around Italy, beginning March 8 through September of this year, De Leonardis said.

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