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PALIMPSEST

Palimpsest (noun) /ˈpalɪm(p)sɛst/​: A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

In the past, parchment and vellum made of animal skins were used for writing. They were costly, so pages were often re-used by scraping off the previous writing. In palimpsests, traces of the scraped off writing could still be seen. 

This palimpsest project is about me and my mum. It's about her breast cancer surgery in 2008 and my own in 2014 and 2016. It's about other surgeries and scars we have had. It's about my familiarity with her scars as well as my own. It's a tribute to the strength and beauty of our two bodies. And a reflection on some of the emotional scars we bear.  More than anything, it's a way of saying how much I miss her, and how I see her in myself. 

Our palimpsest

My mother, me, the layering of scars. Hers lying behind my own. Her abdominal scars almost part of my own body. I can feel them beneath mine. Our three mastectomy scars. She died with one breast, I live with none - the second, 'chosen' surgery to remove my remaining breast a kind of reclaiming of my body. 

Our skin as vellum, our histories written on it. A progression and a circling. An autobiographical palimpsest, an encyclopaedia of our bodies. Emotional scars that leave their deep imprint. Bodily scars where there were breasts, ovaries, uterus, cervix, liver, appendix.

What's on this site?

In Light changes everything I use photos I took before my second mastectomy to portray the breasts me and my mum had lost between us. The red of the third image - my 'chosen' surgery - represents power and courage. 

Progression (back to flat, the day before) uses images I made the day before my 'chosen' (prophylactic) operation. Sixteen months after my first mastectomy, I covered my one remaining breast in paint, and spent the the day making prints of it in different paint colours. I also photographed myself doing it. It was a celebration of my body, a breast I was about to lose, and a determination to live well and happily. 

Mound is about my experience with the second mastectomy - 'prophylactic' surgery. It expresses my frustration that I had to have a psychological assessment in order to get agreement for this relatively straightforward operation, yet had I wanted the more complex reconstructive surgery, I could have just gone straight ahead. I share that complications of this surgery left me with a large, solid hematoma, rather than the flat result I expected.

Torso palimpsest indicates the patterns and markings of other scars. My mum and I shared a liver condition, and she had a transplant for hers. That was quite a scar. It was layered over when she had major surgery for ovarian cancer. She died soon after that surgery, in 2015. When I look at myself, I'm conscious of where those scars of hers fit on my belly, and where they intersect with my own scars - from a c-section, removal of cervical cells, an appendectomy. 

Fiona Hale, London, 2021