So there we have it. Motherhood is back in play and it’s not just sex, bumps and boobs. There are also scars and tears and honesty. Motherhood is hard. Not being a mother is hard. Wanting to be a mother is hard.
Untitled, 2012 by Hannah Putz.
The culmination of curator Susan Bright’s PhD was a comprehensive exhibition taking place over two venues at The Photographers’ Gallery and The Foundling Museum with an accompanying book published by Art Books. The issues she raises are poignant, real and yet still controversial to some; probably those who have not gone through the very intimate and personal experiences portrayed in the show. From the emotional shock of parenthood, to physical exertion, to the pain of not conceiving, to not knowing who your mother is, to dealing with your mother’s mental demise, this exhibition hits us where it hurts.
That’s not to say that it isn’t also a celebration of motherhood. As if, by being honest, the artists are saying they don’t love being mothers (or love their mothers) – it is evident that they do. It is their life and their being. But motherhood is an all encompassing role and it’s encouraging for me to see this being acknowledged in two central venues in the capital.
Someone asked me if I related to the work as a mother and I suppose I do and I don’t. If I had to take away an aphorism from this show it is that motherhood is a complex and individual path. There are as many experiences of motherhood as there are mothers so although this show highlighted and gave voice to many issues that are still worryingly taboo, in it’s variety it validates the individual.
From the series Annunciation by Elina Brotherus.
If someone asked me the different question of what work I liked most I would say that Elina Brotherus’ Annunciation stayed with me in a strong way.
In her series the Annunciation Elina Brotherus (b. 1972, Finland) records herself through years of failed IVF treatments. Full of art historical references, Brotherus’ images stand in sharp contrast to the traditional scenes and symbolism of Annunciation paintings. While the Virgin Mary receives the news that she is to give birth to the son of God, Brotherus pictures herself month after month in-front of a succession of negative pregnancy tests. Feelings of elation and abundance are replaced with those of sorrow and loss. Brotherus’ photographs question the term ‘mother’, suggesting that it can stem from intention rather than being bound to biology or the physical act of having a child.
The Photographers’ Gallery
The night before the opening I had been to Ikea and bought two white shelves for my daughters’ bedroom. When I saw Elina’s work (her beautifully framed and almost fragile images were leaning against the wall on low shelves) I was struck with the pain of the contrast. Perhaps the overall effect stayed with me because her experience spoke so strongly to my inexperience. Not only are the images beautiful and fitting but the vulnerability and bravery of her as a person is demonstrated in this delicately considered and pensive installation.
At the opening one thing I thought as I looked around was how photography brings people together. Motherhood does the same thing. Stories of our own experiences of motherhood and of our own mothers could keep us talking for hours. And that’s just what was happening, both at the opening and in our little discussion table over lunch.