Cauda Equina

Lehrer, Riva

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Annotated by:
Lam, MD, Gretl
  • Date of entry: May-03-2016
  • Last revised: May-05-2016


A woman stands nude with her back to the viewer. Her arms are raised, hands interlaced behind her neck. Her back is deformed and scarred, but her body, depicted in warm flesh tones, looks solid and capable. She stands uncomfortably but patiently, as if she is waiting for a medical exam in a doctor’s office, or as if she is inviting the audience to look and learn.  

A skeleton is superimposed anatomically over the lower half of the woman’s body, including her lower spine, pelvis, and femurs. A round form surrounds the lower spine which looks abnormal. In the blue background is a skeleton of a horse. The horse is angled away from the audience, such that we see its rear and tail most prominently. But its head is turned to look backwards, so that its empty eye sockets appear to be peering at the woman and at the audience.  


The artist, Riva Lehrer, was born with spina bifida, a medical condition where the neural tube fails to close properly, causing defects in the spinal cord and bones of the spine. She paints portraits that focus on identity and disability, and she has painted numerous self-portraits. In an interview with blogger Kathie Berquist she explains, “When you tell a kid not to stare, you’re stepping right in the middle of a biological imperative to figure out what doesn’t fit. I want people to look, but I want to complicate their predisposed assumptions.” 

Cauda equina means horse’s tail in Latin. In anatomy, this term refers to a bundle of nerves that emerge from the end of the spinal cord. This is the area that can be affected in people who are born with spina bifida. In a play on medical terms, Lehrer paints herself with a skeletal representation of her spina bifida alongside an actual horse’s skeleton with a prominent tail end. It adds humor to the painting as she invites the audience to look at her imperfections and consider her as a whole person.

To view work 


Acrylic on amate paper.