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Art Culture Women's

On Motherhood and Art

The representation of motherhood has a long-standing tradition: as Madonna cradles the infant Jesus and matronly figures stare sternly into the mid-distance. However, art history and the art world hold witness to far fewer examples of artists who are mothers themselves. The demands of motherhood have often been considered incompatible with an artist’s career. In the words of Tracey Emin: “There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.”  

There are striking patterns in the research of the Freelands Foundation, who published data on the representation of female artists in Britain. Women are significantly over-represented at GCSE, A-Level, Undergraduate and Postgraduate level. As many as 80% of A Level Art & Design graduates in England are female. At graduation, fortunes shift. Of all living artists selected for representation by major London commercial galleries, only 35% are female. Women artists make up a mere 18% of total works in the Arts Council England collections, and there are plenty more examples of such inequality.

Writer Hettie Judah decided to explore why many women faced derailed careers in their 30s, focusing especially on motherhood. She interviewed 50 female artists over the course of a year about how motherhood has impacted their work. This culminated in an essay published by the Freelands Foundation. She named her essay Full, Messy and Beautiful, after the words of one artist mother.

Having children takes an enormous amount of physical and mental energy, and gendered societal norms put women under pressure to uphold housekeeping and child-care responsibilities. In her 1975 book Wages Against Housework, Professor Silvia Federici argued that “our work is work”, framing housework as unpaid labour which exploits women and limits their freedom. In 2018, Prof. Federici was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Edinburgh for her opposition of patriarchal exploitation and gender imbalance. Additionally, in the past the issue of childcare was explored by women’s art collective Hackney Flashers in their seminal 1978 exhibition Who’s Holding the Baby? Through the use of montage including photography, cartoons and text, the exhibition denounced the lack of childcare and reflected on how this impacted women’s lives. They also highlighted how expensive childcare was, which particularly impacted working-class mothers. 

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Similar themes stand out in Judah’s report. Many mothers reported difficulty in finding precious hours to work in, especially when the children are pre-school age. Galleries and studios very rarely offer childcare, and private childcare is still expensive, especially when many artists face uncertain income. Judah points out that most networking events and gallery openings happen 6pm-8pm, during the ‘holy trinity’ of dinner, bath and bedtime. A hectic lifestyle can take its toll, with common reports of postnatal anxiety and depression, as well as relationship strain. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has only exasperated these issues. Mothers have faced a loss of their support networks, from nurseries to care from extended families. Research by the U.S. Census Bureau found that women were three times as likely as men to have stopped work during the pandemic due to childcare demands.

Artist mothers can also have an image issue, in an industry which relies heavily on visibility and perception. This might be direct or indirect. If an artist mother cannot be present at an important event, then they risk losing out on employment opportunities. The art world may be blinded by the artist’s status as a mother, discrediting their capabilities. 

Certainly, mothers should be celebrated. The art world will only be enriched by a more diverse range of backgrounds and life experiences. Many artists who are mothers make great art centred around motherhood, inspired by its ‘fullness, mess and beauty’. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art featured artist Shona Macnaughton in their sixth and final exhibition of the NOW series, showcasing a performance during which Macnaughton was nine-months pregnant. Her 2017 work entitled Progressive was performed in the east end of Glasgow, providing a parallel commentary between regeneration in the city and her own changing body. She used a Baby Box, provided by the Scottish Government to all new-borns, as a podium to deliver a political speech to the audience. In addition, Brandi Carlile’s country track ‘The Mother’ touches upon the sacrifices and joys of being a mother, in a song addressed to her daughter: “She filled my life with colour, cancelled plans and trashed my car”.

Needless to say, artist mothers should not be restricted to just making art about their motherhood, as their artistic voices should be heard equally like their peers. There are promising glimpses of the future through initiatives such as Mothers in Art, a Netherlands-based residency for artists with children under 2 years. Moreover, a local example can be found in The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, which was specifically praised by Judah for providing childcare to an artist mother throughout the process of setting up and installing her exhibition. Accessibility in the arts benefits everyone, and artistic spaces should be stepping up to bring marginalised artists of all kinds into the spotlight. 

[Image Description: black and white photograph of a woman cooking with two little kids playing in the background. A black writing says: ‘Who’s holding more than the baby? Being a mother and a housewife not only means having kids and looking after them, so that one day they can be workers. It also means keeping men clean and fed and emotionally supported- in other words keeping them in working order fit for the factory or the office or the dole queue. This maintenance work is unpaid and undervalued. If all women went on strike our society would grind to a halt’]

Hackney Flashers- Who’s Holding the Baby? Image Courtesy of: Hackney Flashers