The Time Has Come for Artist-Mothers

At last, artist-mothers are having a moment. For centuries women have struggled to balance the competing demands of art-making and childrearing — and many have been excluded from the art world as a result. Only in recent years has talk of artist-motherhood and its challenges entered the mainstream, with a spate of books and films and essays, along with new residencies and networks, continuing to push the conversation further. The consensus: Women with children need institutional support — from galleries, from the government — in order to thrive as artists.

By now, the plight of artist-mothers has been — pardon the pun — belabored to the extent that I wondered, on entering Fruits of Labor: Reframing Motherhood and Artmaking at Apexart, what was left to say on the subject. As it turns out, plenty. 

Fruits of Labor, curated by Bruna Shapira, features eight artist-mothers whose work, directly and indirectly, is shaped by motherhood. Some take the frustrations and rewards of mothering as their subjects. In Anna Maria Maiolino’s mesmerizing 1995 poem “You+Me,” one of four on display, the Brazilian artist anxiously probes the schism between her body, busied by the manual labor of childcare, and her mind, starved for intellectual stimulation. Meanwhile, Ashley January’s painting “She was given agency in the process and survived” (2021) depicts a tender moment of repose between a Black mother and son. Standing beside a lilypad-filled pond, the boy is awed by the natural world, his mother awed by him.

Sara Shaoul, “Belly” (2019), baby monitor filmed with video camera, 1:02 minutes’

The exhibition’s most memorable work, Sara Shaoul’s video “Belly” (2019), considers motherhood’s imprint on the body. Filmed on a baby monitor, Belly depicts a woman kneading the loose skin of her postpartum stomach, invoking the visual language of body horror and acting as a quasi-sequel to Mary Kelly’s 1973 video “Antepartum.” Its use of grainy nighttime surveillance footage, reminiscent of Paranormal Activity and other on-camera hauntings, suggests how mothering can alienate the artist from herself and her physical being, making her feel, perhaps, like a ghost of her former self.

As Shapira notes in her exhibition essay, several of the artists’ creative practices were changed by motherhood — not stifled nor improved; just altered. The most compelling example of this is in the work of Ahna Serendren, who collaborated with her toddler daughter on the stunning paintings “Slipstream” and “Swell” (both 2022), with the duo using mops, hoses, water balloons, and sand collected during their trips to the beach to create textured, abstract images. 

The exhibition’s sole misfire is Graziela Kunsch’s Small Public Daycare, a functional installation intended as “a space for children aged 0 to 3 years and their caregivers,” comprising a play area, a changing table, and a smattering of earth-tone toys. Despite admirable intentions, it’s hard to imagine that it sees much use (even at one of the three consciousness-raising-style events that Apexart will host in December), and during my visit, its sterile desolation seemed only to underscore the art world’s inhospitality to children.

Fruits of Labor is a formidable gathering of artist-mothers, each of whom approach the experience of parenting, and factor it into their work, in refreshingly disparate ways. Curator Shapira frames motherhood as a rich and polysemic subject, as well as a creatively generative experience for artist-mothers — or, at least, the ones with enough time, space, and access to childcare to make art at all. 

Gabriela Vainsencher, “Why Is It So Quiet?” (2022), porcelain, glaze, and underglaze, 12 x 11 inches
Koyoltzintli, “Gathering Roots and Holding up the Mirror” (2019–20), photograph, 22 x 37 inches
Graziela Kunsch, “Small Public Daycare” (2023)

Fruits of Labor: Reframing Motherhood and Artmaking continues at Apexart (291 Church Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through December 23. The exhibition was curated by Bruna Shapira.

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