Nearly 50 years after second-wave feminism, mothers remain guilty and isolated. “Motherhood, it could be said, is the unfinished business of feminism” argues thinker Andrea O’Reilly.1 The institution of motherhood2 is particularly oppressive in the United States, where public policies to support families are virtually nonexistent. Among the wealthiest nations in the world, the US is at the absolute bottom, with no national paid leave or universal access to childcare, per an Unicef report. Art world’s barriers mirror society at large, and maternity has been framed as a burden. Fruits of Labor — Reframing Motherhood and Artmaking calls for a paradigm shift: it’s not mothering that is incompatible with artmaking but prevailing narratives defining women, caregiving, and artistic expression.

Fruits of Labor — Reframing Motherhood and Artmaking brings together a group of artists who unpack the vastly personal yet universal experiences of mothering. Encompassing multiple mediums, the exhibition explores the myriad of ways in which the subject appears in artists’ practice, as a mode of work and being. Coming from the trenches of early motherhood, they juggle the pressing demands of caregiving and making art, not in solitude, but in the domestic space. Their work showcases the rhythms of mothering — the interrupted, fragmented focus, the nap-length studio time, the lack of resources, the time that both drags on and moves frantically — and how this rhythm unfolds into creative practice.

A poetics of interruption and negotiation
As a foreign new mother in the US, many standard practices, like consumerism-fueled “rituals” and medical care, struck me as outlandish or downright outrageous. Isolated, I turned to Art History. From the Venus of Millendorf to Madonnas and Impressionist chubby babies, I excavated an iconography of birth and motherhood — a creative survival strategy. Eventually, this research evolved to contemporary artists. The works I was most drawn to had a common thread: their artists embraced the limitations of family life as a valid work mode. I had a concept for an exhibition. Inspired by them, I would let the seismic shifts I was experiencing guide my curatorial methods.

Discussing Bracha L. Ettinger’s body of work, art historian Griselda Pollock articulates the maternal subjectivity as “a matrix for other logics, for ethics, for aesthetics, for poetics, and even for social relations perhaps.”3 Pregnancy, infertility and early motherhood are times of ambivalence and upheaval, joy and disappointment, sheer exhaustion and a struggle to reclaim a sense of self. As the artists on view exemplify, caregiving can also mean inspiration for major breakthroughs in one’s career.

The metamorphosis of self is the subject of Sara Shaoul’s Belly (2019). Drawing on Mary Kelly’s Antepartum (1973) and sci-fi tropes of mysterious gestation, otherness, escape and arrival, as well as watching her son through the baby monitor — an experience at once soothing and anxiety-inducing— the video shows the artist in her child’s nursery, massaging what is left from her pregnant abdomen. With the blurred effect of a baby camera, the images give a glimpse of the startling physical realities of early motherhood and underscore the profound shifts in identity and perception that come with it.

An economy of means is also the case for Katya Meykson, who creates textile sculptures that nod to transitional objects. A painter by training, she switched mediums for practicality after childbirth. Working in the evenings, after a day of juggling childcare and teaching jobs, she uses embroidery techniques to reconfigure shapes out of old fabrics and materials found around the house, transforming them into talismanic, tactile sculptures. Small, easily transportable, her work is art at a domestic scale that is historically associated with women. “They also fit in the suitcase of the immigrant artist,” she jokes, referring to her family history of asylum from the former USSR.

Mother as a muse
Grappling with a traumatic delivery, and a near-death experience due to preeclampsia, Ashley January redefines one of the most enduring Art History’s motifs — the mother and child. Painting fellow Black mothers, survivors of pregnancy and birth complications, and their children, she addresses the American maternal mortality crisis – more than 80% of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable, and Black women are three times more likely to die than white women. January’s paintings are much more than mere factual records, though. Everyday rituals of care are rendered in scenes that brim with warmth and resistance — for her, Black mothering is a political act against intersecting inequalities. In She was given agency in the process and survived (2021), the title alludes to ways out of the patriarchal systems that minimize women’s pain and violate their experience.

Inspired by the approach of Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler (1902–1984), which is based on self-initiated play, autonomy and respectful care, Graziela Kunsch created Public Daycare, a space for children aged 0 to 3 years and their caregivers. Originally presented at the Documenta-15, in 2022, this iteration was adapted to apexart’s space and received a new name — Small Public Daycare. apex’s version has a play area and a changing table, as well as archival images by Hungarian photographer Marian Reismann. Reismann began collaborating with Pikler in the 1930s, and set a standard for children’s photography, which favored spontaneity. Kunsch invites us to slow down, daring to imagine a world in which caregiving is society’s collective project, one that regrettably came to be seen as naturally female, therefore, invisible and undervalued but is rather “highly skilled work that is essential, creative and influential”4.

Play and spontaneity, values learned from caregiving even before she had a child, are also part of Koyoltzintli’s practice. Images of In the Mouth of the Mountain Jaguar Everybody is a Dancing Hummingbird (2019) are saturated with magical realism, and the boundaries between conscious and unconscious are porous. Rooted in Amerindian mythology, the series MEDA (2019) records the movements of a two million year old woman, our primal ancestor, from which all other living things emerge. In Gathering Roots and Holding up the Mirror, she captures naked bodies of women, their skin in contact with the landscape, pointing to our intersectionality with the earth. Time and memory — personal and collective, current and ancient — are also part of this topography.

Mothering-informed gestures
Ahna Serendren had to take a hiatus from her studio practice to care for her daughter during the pandemic. With parks and museums closed, they made regular pilgrimages to the beaches near their home. At night, Serendren experimented with mixing sand collected by them into paint to create textural reliefs. She then invited her daughter into her process. They painted on large swaths of loose canvas laid out in their backyard using non-traditional tools — mops, hoses and water balloons — which freed them up to make energetic, bodily gestures and to keep the process playful. Working with a toddler, she had to be open to rapidly changing conditions, including the potential for chaos.

These raw and dynamic exchanges became part of the physical and conceptual ground from which she built her new body of work, Rip Current. In Swell and Slipstream (2022), Serendren builds up layers of oil paint, charcoal and sand to create textured reliefs, lines, and forms drawn from the landscape and bodily shapes, expanding the legacy of Abstract Expressionism to include a set of gestures informed by her lived experience as a mother.

Gabriela Vainsencher also employs the gestural marks from parenthood to create her hanging sculptures. In Why Is It So Quiet? (Pink), part of the series Mother Figures (2021 – ongoing), she subverts the traditional iconography of motherhood. Vainsencher’s mothers are not the picture of otherworldly serenity, but the face of the maternal mental load. Using a carved drawing technique, she then rubs, smudges and pinches her materials — similarly to the way young children touch their mothers, which often leaves them feeling “touched out” (or completely saturated with physical touch).

A counterpart to Vainsencher’s ceramic practice, Missing Person employs pages of an old archeology book stacked on top of each other to create an image that both replicates the chaos of an archeological dig and comes together into a new hybrid form. Weaving artworks together as well as their constellation of themes — self, isolation, body, interruption, time, memory, nature, mortality, care, the unconscious, and the artistic practice — Anna Maria Maiolino’s poems serve as narrative threads of the exhibit. The artist began writing poems in 1971, when she was living in New York with small children and her husband, who had been granted a scholarship. Isolated and overworked by house chores, she had to put her art practice aside. A friend, Hélio Oiticica, urged her to keep a diary, a “record of existence”5 — random thoughts, scribbles and drawings — whenever time allowed. These writings, a breakthrough in the artist’s practice, laid the foundations for a pioneering body of work spanning five decades and a wide range of mediums.

Envisioned as a space of community and conversation, Fruits of Labor — Reframing Motherhood and Artmaking aims to care for the artists and their work, for myself, our collaborators and audience, and ultimately advocate for change, both in narrative and in the context of policies.

With thanks to Anna Ruth Myers, Asya Geisberg gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Lívia Gonzaga, Pikler International and TOBE Gallery.

1. Andrea O’Reilly, Matricentric Feminism: A Feminism for Mothers, in Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (2019).
2. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Norton (1976).
3. Griselda Pollock, Mother trouble: the maternal-feminine in phallic and feminist theory in relation to Bracha Ettinger’s Elaboration of Matrixial Ethics, in Studies in the Maternal (2009).
4. Angela Garbes, Essential Labor: Mothering as a Social Change, Harper Collins (2022).
5. Anna Maria Maiolino, Anna Maria Maiolino: Digo e Tenho Dito. Ubu editora (2019).
Bruna Shapira
Open Call Exhibition
© apexart 2023

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