Tsedaye Makonnen’s Art Addresses Reproductive Healthcare Inequalities Affecting Black Women

Ayanna Dozier
May 6, 2022 10:53PM

Tsedaye Makonnen, The Crowning Series: Nsukka Market I, 2018. © Tsedaye Makonnen. Courtesy of the artist.

“We understand what it means to enact collective care for each other,” the artist Tsedaye Makonnen told me this past Wednesday afternoon via Zoom while taking her five-month-old out for a stroll. “When we benefit and are taken care of, everyone benefits,” she added, referring to Black women’s historical cultural practice of supporting one another across reproductive healthcare. “I don’t know any other group that knows how to do that.”

Based in Washington, D.C., Makonnen works with performance and sculpture to honor Black women’s legacies across the diaspora. She specifically foregrounds the inequitable access to safe abortion and childbirth services available to Black women in the United States. That inequality will be further exacerbated if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade this summer.


Makonnen’s artistic practice is shaped by her experience as an Ethiopian American, a doula, and a mother. Her multidisciplinary work provides alternative—outside of what Makonnen describes as “the medical industrial complex”—resources for Black women to take care of themselves and support one another in accessing reproductive care. This includes going to the clinic with one another and offering tips and remedies for abortion and childbirth aftercare.

Makonnen conveys this work and wisdom in her textile pieces and light sculptures, as well as through performance collaborations with other Black women artists, like Alisha B. Wormsley, Ayana Evans, and Dominique Duroseau. Makonnen has performed rituals of remembrance for fallen Black women with Duroseau and Evans; and recently curated with Wormsley “Black Woman as/and the Living Archive” (2020), a series of performances and talks that foregrounded Black women’s reproductive healthcare needs, for Washington Project for the Arts. Makonnen’s body of work prioritizes the communal care of Black women in environments where their needs are ignored and routinely erased.

Black women disproportionately account for the majority of childbirth-related deaths, according to a recent study by the Washington, D.C.–based Maternal Mortality Review Committee (MMRC). The MMRC’s chairwoman Aza Nedhari trained Makonnen as a doula.

“I feel like there is no separation in my practice between my work as a doula and an artist,” Makonnen said. “I feel that the training that I received as a doula, supporting Black families and supporting Black moms in very hostile hospital environments and clinics, is always in the back of my head when I’m in the studio.”

Her body of work “The Crowning Series” (2017–present) involves performance, sculpture, and photography revolving around a gilded cast of pelvic bones that Makonnen wears as a crown. By wearing the pelvis as a crown, she elevates, in her words, the “womb as wound.”

Tsedaye Makonnen, Astral Sea II, 2019. © Tsedaye Makonnen. Courtesy of the artist.

That phrase refers to the large number of comorbidities affecting the womb that Black women experience, from fibroids to cervical cancer. “My use of pelvic bones is not just about birth,” Makonnen said, “it is about reproductive health, which includes abortion. Why is it that Black women have the most womb issues of all people? What the fuck is that about?”

Makonnen is obsessed with pelvic bones because of how they are abused in the West through work—resulting in back issues that arise from either physical labor in service industries, or from sitting in a chair for extended periods of time. In foregrounding the pelvic area in her work, Makonnen reminds audiences to consider the daily strain we cast upon ourselves through our jobs.

In the performances of “The Crowning Series,” Makonnen highlights how Black women are routintely denied post-case follow-up for both abortions and chidbirth. In this aspect of the series, Makonnen draws inspiration from the historical spiritual practices enacted by Black women to perform rituals of healing for others. “We have historically had to be our own doctors because we are not being taken care of in these environments,” she said.

Tsedaye Makonnen, Senait & Nahom | ሰናይት :: እና :: ናሆም | The Peacemaker & The Comforter, 2019. © Tsedaye Makonnen. Courtesy of the artist.

Even in her more abstract work, like the “Astral Sea” series (2019–present) and her recent light sculptures, Black women’s generational labor remains the driving source of her inspiration. For example, the light sculpture Senait & Nahom | ሰናይት :: እና :: ናሆም | The Peacemaker & The Comforter (2019) features 50 light boxes encased in mirrored, polished stainless steel. Carved into the steel are Ethiopian coptic crosses that distill the light from the boxes within.

The 50 boxes, which are stacked to make seven towers, are each named after 50 individual Black women who died by police brutality in the United States or while crossing the Mediterranean Sea as refugees from Libya in 2019, referencing the ship that capsized that year and claimed the lives of 1,000 Libyans. The work was acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art earlier this year, and a new iteration of it will debut in Providence, Rhode Island, after it was chosen as the 2021 Landmark Public Art Commission by the City of Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism.

Elsewhere, Makonnen has incorporated her firsthand responses to the trauma she witnessed as a doula into her performance practice. “There was this one traumatic birth where I almost watched one of my moms die,” she recalled. “It could have been prevented and I tried during the two days when she was in the hospital to prevent what they were doing. They railroaded her into so many unnecessary interventions where she ended up in the ICU.”

Portrait of Jasmine Hearn performing Tsedaye Makonnen's Astral Sea (The Need for Black Refuge), 2022, by Ebony McKelvey. Courtesy of Tsedaye Mackonnen.

Makonnen performed a piece directly after this harrowing experience at Grace Exhibition Space, where she made clay babies that she had spray-painted black and filled with chocolate. She gave the babies to the audience to tend to, and after a period of time in which they “bonded” with these “babies,” Makonnen violently threw them against the wall, causing the chocolate to spill forth like blood. “I was working out so much of my anger about my secondhand trauma with Black women in these hospital rooms and clinics in my earlier performances,” she said.

While pain and inequality that Black women face is at the center of Makonnen’s practice, so, too, is the rich collective care that Black women deliver for one another. Makonnen uses her practice to amplify Black women’s needs in society, specifically across reproductive care services to ensure their survival outside of state legislative control. “I love collaborating with Black femmes,” she said. “It is a material in my practice. That collective work, whether it is in my art practice or birth work, is so important to me.

“When Black women come together, the shit that we are able to do, the power that we’re able to cultivate on a spiritual witch level, and the practical sense of working together can make a change.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.