For the last week of our Feminist Art History class we met up for a private viewing of the Birth Rites Collection. The collection is hosted by the Department of Midwifery, part of the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care at King’s College London. Our guide was Hermione Wiltshire and she walked us through the works, history and the impact of such a collection.
We first viewed Kinderwunsch, a series of photography by Anna Casas Broda. Her photographs have a strong cinematic atmosphere, using a heavy vignette to pull our focus into the domestic life that she documents over the course of her two sons early childhood. The author says "Kinderwunsch constructs a narrative that approaches maternity as a setting of complex interactions, where my children’s identity is created and my profound transformations as a mother are explored."
I feel the author has communicated these ideas profoundly, by using her own space and her own body. There is an undeniable love and tenderness in her self-portraits a mother, but it comes with an unavoidable anguish, stress and weariness. While in some photos she is feeding, pacifying, nurturing her children, in others she is almost passive, resolved to become part of the furniture of their childhood. Her body is a landscape, a place her boys came from, a playground they are growing up on.
Next we moved onto single pieces like "Islands of Blood and Longing" by Tabitha Moses, where the author used her own blood from a lost pregnancy to "map out" her grief. Another grief-stricken work was Bella Milroy's "Sharing the Gift from Elanor", where she revisited a family photograph taken when her newborn sister didn't make it through the birth.
"Ur-form" by Ping Qiu is a series of ceramic objects (vases?) playing with the traditional, ancient ceramic shapes and modern commentary by depicting reproductive organs all over the objects.
We were joined by the author herself for the next piece. Suzanne Holtom kindly joined us to speak about her experience that led to painting of "Contact". She has spent weeks shadowing an obstetrician in Manchester, where she was befriended by a mother in a difficult position where her baby was in the intensive care unit for months since birth.
She was touched by this woman's mothering in the middle of a stressful environment, often without physical ability to touch her baby. She said the mother would wipe the baby's incubator, as if cleaning her house, in an attempt of intimacy she was denied by the illness. In the rare moments of baby being held, popularly known as "contact", the painting arose in her mind.
I asked about the baby's body vanishing into the mother, with no clear edges between each, and the author confirmed it was to show the depth of such a contact after a prolonged distance between a mother and a newborn. The painting intentionally shows the monitors and all the tubes and cables surrounding this intimate moment, which are used to also show us there is another story developing right next to the mother and child.
Displayed right across from it, the neon light installation "A Conflict of Interest" by Lauren McLaughlin fittingly reflects onto the painting. It is programmed to flash in sequence between the words ‘mother’, ‘other’, ‘me’ and ‘her’.
In another building of the college, we viewed "A Link with the Past" by Billie Bond, where she shows a teenage mother in an Egyptian-inspired sculpture, fitted with an accompanying QR code that takes you to the (imaginary) mother's Facebook page. In the same hallways you can see a beautiful drawing "Gravid Uterus Twin" by Matt Collier, and "Lunar Phase" by Beatriz Acevedo, a sperm-like wall fixture with a wiggling tail.
Hidden in a small corridor are puzzlingly 'controversial' pieces like "Forceps series" by Suzanne Holtom, done during her time at the St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, and the most controversial, "Warm Wet Velvet" by Dominika Dzikowska. Both works are showing birth, and neither are showing any gory details. What seems to be controversial are the photos of mothers in labour, some showing ecstatic birth.
The author says: "There are very few situations in human’s life that could compare with the intensity of childbirth. Extreme emotions: fear, excitement, tenderness and anger are mixed together and accompanied by a strange, almost narcotic trance."
In the last building we were treated to Judy Chicago's "The Crowning". She began work on "The Birth Project" in 1980 collaborating with more than 150 needle workers during the process. By the time it was finished, it had taken five years.
Birth and motherhood is somewhat a foreign topic to me, but despite my child-free lifestyle a mild tokophobia, I am always happy to hear the women in my life talk to me about their experiences. This exhibition feels like those conversations: intimate, honest, devastating and full of humour. Just the fact is it viewed by medical students on a daily basis gives us hope of new generations not shucking anything exclusively domestic, female and vaginal, onto the margins of experiences.
I am reminded of watching one of my favourite illustators, Paula Bonet, going from portrait art into creating fetus images prompted by her own experience of failed pregnancies. My takeout from this whole course and this particular exhibition is to remind myself not to minimize my own experience for being from an exclusively female perspective. Just like I gasped when I heard Zadie Smith say in a podcast: "We must find a way to not make feminine a humiliating way to be".