Beyond Binaries and Biology: “Menarche” Explores the Iridescence of Womanhood

What makes a woman a woman?

For centuries, thinkers, leaders, and scholars have tried to ascertain the criteria of being a woman. Rites of passage, such as menstruation and heterosexual marriage, determine the moment a girl changes into a woman. On a more prosaic note, adding a check mark to a box labeled FEMALE on official documents signals one is a woman, as opposed to a man. Like these limiting tick boxes, the age-old definition of “woman” exists in relation to the definition of “man.” 

But, change blows our way. In 1893, women first got the right to vote in New Zealand. In 1937, Ines Serion was elected as mayor of Vallehermoso, Negros Oriental – becoming the first woman mayor in the Philippines and in Asia. In 1986, Cory Aquino became the first woman president in the Philippines and in Asia. 

Complete gender parity is still well underway, yet we cannot discount the strides women activists made in recent history. Women are rewriting the narrative of what a woman can do. It’s time to redefine who a woman can be. 

The entrance of Cartellino within Galerie Stephanie. France Daffon’s “Emerita” is projected on the screen. Pam Quinto’s “To Be A Living Thing Cracked Open” is the first work that greets us.

To celebrate International Women’s Month 2024, Cartellino mounted a group show, “Menarche” from March 12 to April 2 at Cartellino’s space within Galerie Stephanie. The show was conceptualized by creative director Tara Valencia and curated by artist and independent curator Francisco Lee

Valencia and Lee brought together fourteen women artists: Sher Cajucom, Ccontrol, France Daffon, Mara Fabella, Arvi Fetalvero, Celeste Kuh Lapida, Veronica Lazo, Min, Julieanne Ng, Gabby Prado, Pam Quinto, Jan Sunday, Isola Tong, and Woman Create. Cajucom, Kuh Lapida, and Tong are transpinay, a term coined by Tong that celebrates the meeting point of their various identities. These fourteen artists were tasked to create work as a response to the show’s title, “Menarche.” 

The “Menarche” wall text is inspired by a blot of blood. Here, the wall text features a short description of the slow and a list of artists’ names. Gabby Prado’s “XYZ”

Menarche (pronounced men-nar-kee) refers to the first moment of menstruation. In some cultures, menarche is one of the rites of passage that represents a girl’s shift to womanhood because it’s when one can conceive. Valencia selected this contested subject to pose a few questions: 

How important is biology in determining one’s womanhood? 

How do we reimagine what it means to be a woman today?

The Body 

A wall with four works hanging on it. A soft light spotlights each work. From left to right: “To be a living thing cracked open” by Pam Quinto. “Ephemeris” by Mara Fabella. “Emerita” by France Daffon. “The Awakening” by Woman Create.

A handful of artists explore the human figure as a representation of a woman’s identity. 

Illustrator and artist France Daffon created a painting, entitled “Emerita,” featuring women lounging around and sharing snacks in the nude. Daffon took inspiration from a line from Katrina Stuart Santiago’s book of essays “Of Love and Other Lemons:” ““Talk to these women and find out what their stories are.” The artist remembered her aunts’ and grandmother’s tradition of merienda chikahan together. The artist’s signature linework, reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s sketches, lends “Emerita” a sense of effortlessness. Here, the figures’ nudity represents the ease and belonging found in a community of women. 

A close-up of “Daughter of God / Daughter of God” by Jan Sunday. A bust of the Virgin Mary is depicted using threads and textiles. Instead of her face is a tangle of threads.
A close-up of “Hemophobia” by Ccontrol. Here, a red creature is entangled with another creature with many eyes. Some parts of the painting feature raised paint and textures.

The female figure also gets a remix in textile artist Jan Sunday’s “Anak ng Diyos / Daughter of God” In this piece, Sunday uses the image of the Virgin Mary and embellishes it with lush embroidery. Notably, the Virgin Mary’s face floats away and is replaced with a tangle of threads. Sunday also subverts the Tagalog “anak ng Diyos” (meaning “child of God”) by choosing to gender “anak” as female. In “Daughter of God,” Sunday deconstructs (literally) the hold religious iconography has on our expectations for femininity.

On the other end of the spectrum, artist Ccontrol exhibits a painting, “Hemophobia,” which means fear of blood. “Hemophobia” shows two red creatures (almost demon-like) dancing in the middle of the composition while a multi-eyed monster slithers along the edges. In this painting, Ccontrol questions our culture’s fear of blood – and hence, menstruation – through a playful and irreverent visual lexicon. 

Two artists also focused on the body’s absence. Woman Create showcased a collage, “The Awakening” that portrays an explosion of floral forms. In the center is a cut-out of a figure in a dress. The cut-out implies the presence of a woman, but leaves the specifics of identity open to interpretation. 

Similarly, video artist Celeste Kuh Lapida displayed an experimental film, “Cinema Verite na Superkalurkey,” first shown at the UP Vargas Museum. The film shows overlayed footage of the artist with environmental backgrounds. Kuh Lapida appears like they’re fading in and out of view, expressing moments of transformation. The early process of becoming Celeste Kuh Lapida also involved the presence of another artist: Isola Tong. Tong acted as mother to Kuh Lapida, underscoring the role of solidarity and support in creating one’s identity.

Screenshot from "Cinema Verite na Superkalurkey," courtesy of the artist.


Francisco Lee arranged the paintings in a rhythmic way. This arrangement guides our eyes around the space. The paintings are as follows from left to right: “Daughter of God” by Jan Sunday “Dawn” by Arvi Fetalvero “She ate the earth and swallowed the stars” by Veronica Lazo “Sa Tapat ng Simbahan” by Min “To Make A Pearl” by Sher Cajucom “Hemophobia” by Ccontrol

The experience of being a woman also extends to one’s emotional and cerebral landscapes. For “Menarche,” artists share their view of womanhood through symbols.

“Dawn” by Arvi Fetalvero. This painting has two canvases that converge at the corner of the wall. The subject of the painting is a crush of fabric with different patterns.

Painter Arvi Fetalvero’s diptych,“Dawn,” stood in one corner of the gallery. “Dawn” depicts folds of delicately rendered patterned fabric. Each piece of the diptych hung on a separate wall, so that they converged at the center. Fetalvero’s painting reads as an homage to American artist George O’Keeffe, whose paintings of flowers resembled female genitalia. Yet, Fetalvero layers this reference through textiles that feel almost familiar and domestic.

A close-up of Sher Cajucom’s painting. Here, we see a split open oyster with a pearl lodged on the left side. Braille that reads “to make a pearl” stretches over the composition.
“To Be A Living Thing Cracked Open” by Pam Quinto. This oblique-shaped painting features a lone baroque pearl sits in the bottom of the composition.

Painters Sher Cajucom and Pam Quinto play with the symbol of the pearl. Cajucom’s “To make a pearl” portrays an oyster cracked open with a pearl on the left side. Braille, a motif Cajucom regularly employs, stretches along the composition, saying “to make a pearl.” Quinto also focuses on a pearl in “To Be A Living Thing Cracked Open.” A lone baroque pearl sits at the bottom of an oblong canvas, painted with a dark background. The position of the pearl and the oyster here references female genitalia, similar to Fetalvero’s “Dawn.” Yet, the pearl also represents the fruits of creation, whether biological or metaphorical. 

Julianne Ng’s work, “Divine Feminine.” Colorful paper circles are encased in a transparent container. The wooden frame acts as a mount.
A close-up of the previous image. The larger circles have smaller, colorful circles in them. The pattern creates the feeling of looking under a microscope.

Julieanne Ng concentrates on the act of creation in her piece “Divine Feminine.” Ng pokes holes on paper using burning incense, which results in intricate circular patterns similar to those of Filipina watercolorist Nena Saguil. “Divine Feminine” shows the process of cell division, where one cell creates many more. Instead of focusing on sexual reproduction, Ng draws attention to cellular reproduction, highlighting that femininity exists outside of procreation.


The works discussed so far – bodies, oysters, and flowers – all reside within the realm of the representational. “Menarche” also spotlights abstract artworks.

“Feeling Like A Woman” by Gabby Prado. Colorful and painterly forms cover the entire canvas.

For painter Gabby Prado, abstraction is a vehicle to express her reality. Prado has synesthesia, which means that bursts of colors accompany sounds she hears. She usually pairs her painting process with personal recordings to transport viewers into her world. Her two paintings at “Menarche,” “I Was Very Shy” and “Feeling Like A Woman” focus on bold, colorful strokes, speaking to her dual experiences as a woman and as someone with synesthesia. 

Similarly, video artist and painter Min uses abstraction to explore traditional notions of Filipina femininity. Min displays two works: a mixed-media painting entitled “Sa Tapat Ng Simbahan” and a video “Maria Clara St.” In these pieces, Min blurs and abstracts human figures to focus on texture and color, evoking the emotions of joy, rage, and anxiety. 

“Sa Tapat ng Simbahan” by Min. This piece feautres abstracted forms and paintstrokes that resemble flowers.
“Ephemeris” by Mara Fabella. A grid of small collages stands in front of a red background. The collages are of abstract, foliated forms with different colors.

Collage artist and writer Mara Fabella employs abstraction in her collage “Ephemeris.” The work is comprised of twelve small collages organized in a grid. Each collage has an organic, almost floral form at the center. No two forms are the same. Yet, hints of red – perhaps, an allusion to menstruation – permeate through all of them. “Ephemeris” communicates the cyclical pattern of both emotional and physical change women undergo. 

Experiments In Material

Artifacts of womanhood surround us everyday. Visual artist and architect Isola Tong and industrial designer and art educator Veronica Lazo uses existing objects and imbues them with new meaning. 

“Vessel of Gathering” by Isola Tong. A basket with long pine leaves dangling from it hands from the ceiling.
“She ate the earth and swallowed the stars” by Victoria Lazo. This piece features different materials within a frame. On the top of the composition are wooden blocks that look almost topographical. On the bottom is textile, embroidery, and pearl appliqués.

For “Menarche,” Tong exhibits “Vessel of Gathering,” a sculpture constructed out of pinewood, dyed raffia, and cotton twine. Tong’s artistic practice concentrates on imagining equitable futures. “Vessel of Gathering” features a woven basket made out of natural materials. Tong’s selection of the basket stems from its prevalence among indigenous communities around the world. Here, Tong asserts that the basket, a tool often associated with agricultural and work, be admired as a poetic artefact. “Vessel of Gathering” holds space for different identities, spanning gender, race, and class.

The coming together of different parts also extends to Veronica Lazo’s work. Lazo combines wood, textile, and embroidery in “She ate the stars and swallowed the earth.” Re-appropriation of found materials constitutes the basis for Lazo’s recent body of work. In “She ate the stars and swallowed the earth,” Lazo contrasts the ruggedness of wood with the delicacy of embroidery and attached pearls. The combination of materials references things found in the home, a conventionally gendered space. Lazo’s use of pearls resemble tears, contrasting creation (like Cajucom and Quinto) with grief and longing. 

Becoming A Woman

The fourteen artists at “Menarche” examined the full spectrum of womanhood. They raised questions about the human figure and biology through meditative and tongue-in-cheek approaches. They drifted away from the constraints of anatomy by applying symbolism. Their experiments in abstraction and material refracted their unique experiences.

After this wild, beautiful parade of art, the question still remains: what makes a woman a woman?

“Menarche” shows that there’s no singular and fixed definition of womanhood. Womanhood isn’t a destination or a milestone. It’s not just seeing the first drop of menstrual blood.

Womanhood is the adventure of becoming. To be a woman entails exercising agency amid the ebb and flow of one’s identity. To be a woman means to always birth new realities, universes, and selves.

Madeleine O. Teh is a designer and writer based in Manila, Philippines. As a writer, she covers rising talent, trends, and technologies in the visual arts.