by Rahul KumarSep 28, 2022
An unstable female form keeps nestling itself against the corners of a room. The empty sockets on one of the walls enunciates the domestic nature of this confine. Time is activated throughout the video art performance by the figure’s feeding of herself, her hands reaching within her bra to position one breast towards her own mouth to enhance the latching of her lips upon her teat. This continued, desperate-seeming act of a mother breastfeeding herself constitutes the core of the video performance piece which was on view at the exhibition, Word of Mouth, at Woman Made Gallery in in Chicago, Illinois.
There’s an undertone of absurdity enabled by the absence of a newborn or a toddler. Instead, we encounter a tired mother performing acrobatic-like movements in order to self-soothe. There’s an underlying pathos to each frame that renders it haunting and unforgettable. I speak from experience, since I first encountered it while jurying an open call back in December 2021. It’s an image of emotional and physiological starvation, performed with so much seething vulnerability, it is not possible to un-see. The title reminds us that this is a kind of set-up. The Brazilian visual artist, Guta Galli, whose body holds each frame, has called this 21:13-minute video, I Need To Believe That You Will See Me (2021), possibly referencing an exchange between the doubting apostle Thomas and Jesus Christ which revolved around his need to see the wounds from his crucifixion in order to believe he is indeed the resurrected Christ. Galli arrests the viewer into the position of witness. In our seeing of her maternal body’s exhaustion, we possibly feed-back a validation of it. Her performative enquiry is meant to prod the contours of a singular question: What—or who—nourishes our mothers? Galli, who completed her pregnancy and transitioned into motherhood during the pandemic, describes the video performance as a feminist critique of the ill-gendered realities of contemporary maternal lives and the hunger to locate female subjectivities in the aftermath of motherhood. “The stomach of this work is maternal anguish, inadequacy, invisibility and guilt, socially and culturally mediated: the mother’s traumatic experience of intense, infantile helplessness coinciding with a period of radical bodily changes, grief, loss of social status, isolation, and unrealistic expectations of competence and self-sufficiency.”
Performative interventions such as this work by Galli serve as vital counterpoints to the surge of white mommy influencer bloggers who dominate YouTube, who address the lack of sleep that marks the beginning of motherhood but are still invested in perpetuating the DIY culture that has become synonymous with soccer momhood. A poet friend who also gave birth in the midst of the pandemic, while speaking about her own exhaustion from being isolated from the world while raising a newborn with her partner, who is committed to sharing the load, alerted me to a quote by the author Beth Berry. She believed that Berry really hit the nail on the head with this one—“The majority of our mental load and emotional labour as modern-day mothers comes from constantly and creatively trying to piece together some semblance of a village, stepping into roles meant to be filled by other village members and unconsciously grieving this soul-crushing loss (which is hidden in plain sight). We hugely underestimate the weight of villagelessness on mothers.” This word ‘villagelessness’ felt spot on. It attests to the myriad absences, the many bodies that ought to be responsible for nurturing an infant, capturing the alienation felt by many parents in capitalist economies on account of the invisibilising and invalidation of reproductive labour. This sensual deprivation which is responsible for the feeling of maternal starvation manifested at a magnitude previously unseen on account of the pandemic.
It therefore comes as no surprise that many mother-artists who either gave birth in the last two years or were nursing newborns have centred this phenomenal, all-consuming, phenomenal sense of burn out in their art, thereby representing that which has otherwise remain unspoken, or privately uttered among close friend circles and maternal support groups. The rise of avowedly feminist and queer mothering has definitely also contributed to the trend as female and non-binary artists relied on the internet to foster the missing sense of community, or to remedy, however slightly, the feeling of villagelessness. One stellar example worth art historicising is Maternochronics: Maternal Exhaustion in the Time of the Pandemic, held virtually, from May until December 2021. Not only was it a magnificent, magnanimous effort that brought together art by mother artists that attested to the colossal fatigue that was so universally felt, the end result, still viewable online, offers viewers and critics the opportunity to theorise about some of the shared concerns and manifestations of work by mother-artists. To begin with, the curator, Emily Zarse, an artist, mother, and graduate student at Indian University, offered the term ‘Maternochronics’ to describe the potential genre, qualifying it as being defined by the chronic, durational fatigue of mothering/caregiving, and suggesting it a framework that explores an alternate way of experiencing time through the lens of motherhood. Zarse envisioned Maternochronics as an attempt to “create space for conversation about maternal time and the accumulation of stress”. Submissions were open to women and non-binary artists who were mothers or lifelong carers based anywhere in the world. The four-part art exhibition was sequenced chronologically, and so appear in the order in which they were received. Evidently, the curatorial disposition extends from Zarse’s own practice and its investment in articulating maternal subjectivity, with a special emphasis on the exhaustion of care-giving. She makes large-scale art installations using natural dyes. The fragility of her material universe embodies maternal vulnerability.
Maternochronics is a capsule archive of a vast range of maternal experiences that serve as a vital counterpoint to mainstream discourse that idealises motherhood. Instead of the trappings of presumed euphoria we have artworks that attest to how the demands of motherhood within capitalist-heteronormative-patriarchal systems cause a depletion of one’s emotional and physiological resources. Additionally, all the artists marry material with content, evolving daringly adventurous formal strategies that feel organic to their embodied experience of burn-out. For instance, Sarah Dolan’s work, Alone and Not: All at Once, which is meant to convey the impossibility of solitude in the presence of a 3.5 year old during a pandemic, is a collage that fuses her colour-pencil drawing of the magnetic tiles her daughter uses to build houses for her toys to play in with her daughter’s drawing. The blurring of the boundaries between the creativity of mother and daughter is powerfully, yet subtly conveyed, suggesting the danger of dissolution of maternal identity in the process of nurture. Another work by Katie Davis, titled Domestic Flood similarly uses the technique of collage along with household material like house paint, children’s sheets, paper, old curtains, colour pencils, etc. to articulate her personal experience of feeling ‘fully cooked, saturated, overwhelmed, and just full of it’ while also caring for a son with autism.
The grief of childlessness also finds voice in the show, which, given the silence surrounding pregnancy loss—more commonly experienced than we imagine—and the subsequent loneliness of such trauma, is certainly a welcome gesture. Artist Megan Lindsey uses a toddler’s mixed media on paper, combining it with her words in a profoundly moving work titled, A Sonnet Upon the Occasion of Another Miscarriage During a Pandemic, commemorating the accumulated grief from the three miscarriages she had during the pandemic, the first occurring on Mother’s Day. The magnitude of her loss was amplified by her inability to be soothed or comforted by other family members because of the circumstances of the pandemic. “I didn’t cry much—not until I was able to capture the experience as poetry did I feel like I had connected with my feelings about being both the victim of devastation and the gravesite of my future children during a season of global mourning,” she writes. The sonnet captures the complexity of emotion, the tendency to internalise the womb’s failure to nurture life, and the feeling of helplessness that accompanies being reproductively challenged.
Lindsey’s work echoes the somatic spirit of almost all the works in the show, revealing the mother-artist’s penchant for constantly referencing the body and its fluids, secretions, as well as conscious and unconscious desires as material and subject. This is powerfully evoked in Kasie Campbell’s series, Milk Diaries, begun in January 2020, in which the act of accumulating her breast milk forms the subject of the 45 photographs. Campbell explains how the last two years have been spent in isolation, navigating her artistic practice while wrestling with grief over her mother’s passing and dealing with infertility, on account of a miscarriage, and a fear of dying, thanks to the pandemic. Becoming a mother brought on its own set of anxieties, she says, “What if my baby gets sick? What about check-ups? Am I feeding my baby enough? Am I spending adequate time with my oldest child?” As a way of self-soothing, she began pumping breast milk at 5am after her child’s first feed. “I began writing thoughts or worries along with the date on each bag of breastmilk. I would then photograph the bags of breastmilk as a way to document life postpartum, anxieties about mumhood and life in COVID-19,” she writes. “The act of pumping breastmilk and freezing was a ritualistic and meditative way for me to cope and eased anxieties around getting sick and not being able to feed my baby.”
Whether such brilliant, haunting, poetic, and body-based work enters mainstream discourse is left to be seen. For the moment the fact that it exists, and that there are so many mother-artists who are using their art to speak about the gendered nature of parenting, the imbalance of emotional load among partners, with many often challenging binary notions of what constitutes maternal identity, must be celebrated and commemorated.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)