At an exhibition of photography centred on motherhood, Philippa Dunjay finds much to consider as different artists portray hopes, fears, misfortunes, joys, trials and questions of maternity
For all our rapacious appetite to see if Kate Middleton’s stomach has returned to its pre-baby, idealised flat state or to criticise Kim Kardashian for looking like ‘a whale’ while pregnant, more complex representations of motherhood seem absent in contemporary photography. If Facebook produces an endless feed of cute babies and serene toddlers, it tends to miss the messiness of birth, the scars left on women’s bodies, the struggle to raise children and the complex new identity of being a mother.
Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood & Identity is a visceral and powerful exhibition that examines how the act of becoming a mother affects female bodies, creativity and sense of self. Set over two floors, many of these photographers are women who are mothers and artists, illustrating a complicated set of desires and identities they are trying to figure out.
In the first set, Elinor Carucci dissects her own post-partum body: how it’s been distorted, stretched and cut apart in service of the child within. Her body, shown without a face, reminds me of the fertility statues carved by cavewomen in the Ice Ages and thrown into rivers for good luck. A pregnant body is an enduring symbol of creation – she asks if this eclipses the creative process of making art. In another, Carucci cradles her child, both naked, her underwear pulled down emphasising where a baby comes from, staring blankly away while her child turns to her. In another, she tries to bathe her child who is reaching out of the frame to escape. She also photographs the reactions of her parents to her naked pregnant body: her mother gazing onto her stomach, her father meeting her eyes, a poignant moment that captures the cycle of life.
Janine Antoni takes stills from her performance piece, where her body is suspended in a child’s room, wearing a child’s doll’s house. A tiny spider spins webs between her thighs and arms and the house, constructing the delicate framework that she, as a mother, must create for her daughter to thrive. This spider’s construction takes patience, care and hard work – but webs are traditionally seen as traps. Is Antoni the vital centre, suspended in this room of tiny things, or is she caught and trapped there? A close-up shows her child trying to spoon food into her belly button – a reversal of the placenta, where the child is now trying to feed the mother.
The exhibit by Leigh Ledare has been controversial and thus well publicised – a son photographing his mother’s sex life. She is shown in situations such as showing her cleanly waxed cunt to the camera, posing like an old Hollywood star holding a mirror and sucking her new young lover’s cock. The mother/whore paradox is well known, even though mothers must, by usual definition, have had sex. But her e the boundary is also that of the parent/child relationship, as well as the dichotomy between man/woman. Should a son be photographing his mother having sex? Does this make her a worse mother, or him a bad son? Ledare’s show is interspersed with interesting pieces of text – her letter, detailing the wonderful gifts rich handsome men have bestowed upon her and the subsequent records of credit card fraud, where it emerges she bought those gifts for herself. In a teenage diary entry, Ledare places her between models and celebrities in a list of “Women I Want To Do”. If it presents an unconventional mother-son relationship, conventional worries rise to the surface – his mother is obsessed with celebrities, urgently seeks men as benefactors and protectors, worries about ageing and her fading looks, flaunts her sex life as a woman over 50 and works occasionally as a stripper. In a couple of photographs, the son also in front of the camera – mother and son are framed hiding under a pillow fort and we wonder who is looking after whom.
Not all motherhood comes easy. Elina Brotherus presents almost painterly photographs, referencing the Annunication of Mary where Mary was told she was pregnant by angels, as she details her five-year trial through IVF. Modern motherhood is not necessarily natural – it can be a medicalised, tough and dehumanised process – an endless succession of blood, tests, pills, hope and failure. I notice that every photograph has a wire trailing through it, the symbol of ovarian tubes replaced by test tubes. Her voyage of despair and hope ends with a close-cropped shot of a necklace saying “C’est la vie”. Acceptance, perhaps, but no new life.
Upstairs, Ana Casa Broda also explores her four-year desire to have a child – the desire she calls “kinderwunsch”. She now has a pair of twins and the giant wall of photographs captures her relationship with the much longed-for children. There is a repeating theme of milk, liquid, water or cream being poured over her or the twins – a replication of the messy birth scene, a symbol of the nourishment of breast milk or the endless drag of cleaning up the fluids of children. Nudity is intergenerational. Here, the toddlers scribble on her supine body, use a dinosaur toy to pretend to bite her or drag her breast down into their mouths. Sometimes, Broda looks tired, drained, unwilling, with the children voracious consumers of her body and life. In one of the most touching pictures, the child washes his mother, the carer being cared for, a hint of the hope in old age that your children will return the care you gave them.
A succession of smaller photographs and poems pressed under glass adds the father into the viewpoint. Fred Huning photographs his wife and their baby, offering playful glimpses of bread rolls shaped into mice, playtime in nature, a child covered in makeup and feet in sunshine. Snapshots are lighter, almost faded out, and offer the simple pleasures to be found in raising a child together. These feel more like the familiar representations of family life.
The fear of losing yourself into your new identity as a mother is a concern for the last two artists. Katie Murray has a looping video of her exercising on a brutal looking machine in her living room, attempting to regain her old body and image. Her children continually come in and interrupt her, and she finally picks them and straps them onto her as she keeps going. She physically carries the burden of her children as an enthusiastic exercise routine video blares in the background. The video is cut with shots of lions chasing and bringing down gazelle to feed their cubs. Motherhood completes Murray but it has also eclipsed what she has before.
Hanna Putz also explores this delicate tension, photographing her friends as they become new mothers, one by one. The baby they hold often obscures their faces, as mother and child turn inwards to each other, finding mutual support, offering mutual love, but hiding their former selves.
I once asked my own mother if she minded that her name – Elizabeth – was something her children never said, eclipsed completely by the general title of ‘Mummy’. And she said that was the most important name anyone could ever have. This exhibition explores that tension – between holding onto an independent, individual body and self and being subsumed in the fierce love and greater purpose a mother feels for her children.
Home Truths is showing at The Photographers’ Gallery in London until 5 January, 2014. Admission is free.
IMAGE ONE: Home Truths – Photography, Motherhood and Identity – Elinor Carucci, Feeding Emanuelle From a Plastic Bottle after I Stopped Breast-feeding Her, 2005. A woman holds an infant, feeding it from a bottle. Their shadow is cast onto a white wall.
IMAGE TWO: Home Truths – Photography, Motherhood and Identity – Leigh Ledare, Tina Reflecting, 2003. A woman and man lie naked in bed. The woman is looking into the distance. The man is asleep.
IMAGE THREE: Home Truths – Photography, Motherhood and Identity – Katie Murray, Still from Gazelle, 2012. A woman works out on a crosswalker in a living room, with a child strapped to her, while watching television.