176 million people worldwide have endometriosis. Despite its prevalence, many people don’t know what it is. It's not talked about, it's under-researched, and it's persistently underfunded. For Endometriosis Awareness Month, Bustle UK is hearing from people living with the condition and doctors who specialise in it, and is opening up the conversation to help you get the treatment you deserve.
For many people, having endometriosis represents a loss of control over their body, their independence, and, in some cases, their future. The pain alone can be debilitating, not to mention complications that can arise from the condition's development or delays in its diagnosis. Those with some of the most acute cases may have to deal with multiple surgeries, back-to-back doses of painkillers, the inability to work, and a higher risk of infertility. If all this sounds disheartening, that's because it is. Which is why, for artist Adelaide Damoah, depicting her endometriosis in her work is a means through which, as she explains it, she can "take back control" of her body.
Damoah was diagnosed with the condition back in 2000 when she collapsed on a work trip. A few years later, the pain of endometriosis prevented her from continuing on her chosen career path in the pharmaceuticals industry. She had been using art as a means to help her handle life's challenges since her school days, but after leaving her full time job, it took on a greater significance. "I didn't study art to any high level, I just did GCSE Art. It was my favourite subject and I got an A but I didn't it was going to go anywhere else," she explains.
"I continued painting and drawing after I left school just because I liked doing it and it was something I used to return to as a comfort when something was happening. When I started getting sick then it was again another way of me retreating into myself, looking after myself. Everyone knows that art can be therapeutic so it was that for me for a long time."
Through support from her immediate network, Damoah was encouraged to turn her passion into a professional endeavour. "Friends and family started to take note of what I was doing and got to the point where they started offering money. I had a lightbulb moment and it was just it was a no-brainer because it was what I loved to do. It just hadn't occurred to me I could make a life out of something that I love to do."
Fast forward to 2019 and Damoah is a successful artist whose work has been exhibited in London, Venice, Dakar, and Marrakech. But, beyond shaping her career, endometriosis has a profound impact on her creative style and artistic process too. Although her art covers many themes unrelated to the condition including sexual harassment, colonialism, and her Ghanian roots, even here the relationship to her body that her diagnosis helped create informs her work.
The artist grapples with the illness in many of her works, either directly as subject matter or indirectly as a tool. "The way that the endo also changes my body can be seen in the work in subtle ways," Damoah tells me. "Initially it was very obvious how the endo [related] to my work because I was specifically making work about the endo. And I was depicting [it] in all sorts of ways. And later on with the work that I'm making now, you can see that I'm using my body."
Damoah uses everything from her hands to her body in its entirety to create shapes, whether they're eerie inky black finger marks and hand prints or blood red body prints, distorted but unmistakable. On her Instagram, she is pictured up to her elbows in black paint, painted navy blue from the neck down, or swiping white paint across her mouth. Damoah also specialises in performance artworks — pieces that require her to use her body to create over the course of several hours.
She explains, "There were so many other layers to me deciding to my body, but one part of that is about taking back control of my own body. Because when you have conditions such as endometriosis, you have no control over what's happening to you. And times when it impacts me, or it affects me sometimes I can't really do very much.
"The art has always been an empowering tool. It's been a way for me to not only heal myself and soothe myself, physically and mentally but also a part of my struggle with my body is always trying to stay fit ... and that feeds into the work.
As a a result of everything endometriosis has given to and taken away from Damoah, her relationship to the illness is like her art — complex and layered. She tells me, "I once wrote a blog post [about endometriosis] called something like 'It: My Friend & My Foe'. On the one hand, I don't like having this condition because when it's affecting me it's really painful but, on the other hand, if not for this condition, then I wouldn't been forced to be reevaluate my life and do something that I actually care about."
And it's not just Damoah who gets a sense of release from her art; she tells me about a woman who was profoundly impacted by a work the artist hadn't even intended to be about endometriosis.
"When we were looking at that piece, she said to me 'it reminds me of a womb.' I said, 'it's funny you should say that because I have endometriosis.' The woman burst into tears — she had endometriosis [too]. Not only that but she's had to have a hysterectomy [and] she'd been through all of this stuff in her life. She sent me the loveliest message after that to say how much I'd inspired her through the work."
Although Damoah describes endometriosis as "fundamental" in shaping her art career, she is careful not to paint her story as a fairytale of chronic illness. She has plenty of words of hope for sufferers of endometriosis worried about their working life, but is also realistic about how difficult creative careers can be to pursue.
"Although I'm I'm all about empowering women and showing women that no matter what your circumstances, you can find the way out, I also do recognise that not everybody has the tools available there that I have to enable them to do that."
"I recognise that I'm probably quite privileged in that I knew I had this talent that was always there and also that I had a real support system that enabled me to do this. Art is a rich person's game. I don't come from a rich family or anything. However, I do have a very very supportive family. It got to the point where I got so sick, I couldn't look after myself, and I had to rent [my] property and move back to my parents house."
She continues, "I fully recognise that there are so many [people] who don't have that don't have families, they don't have finances, or they don't have something like [art] to fall back, [to] comfort them and show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel."
However, Damoah does feel that, thanks to the internet, there are far more opportunities available to women who are struggling financially, or are concerned about the impact endometriosis may have on their career, than there were when she was first diagnosed. She urges them to have hope.
"It doesn't mean that it's the end of the world, sometimes you just have to think outside of the box," Damoah says. "I didn't start making money from artwork straight away. It's only since the middle of last year that I've started making consistent money [from art].
"Before that I was freelance writing from home. There are qualifications you can get from your house and just do stuff from home from your bed. I call it my bed office. As long as you can have an internet connection, there are things that you can do."
Adelaide Damoah is represented by MTArt Agency, the world’s first talent agency for upcoming visual artists.