Courtney Kessel, ‘In Balance With’ at FAB Gallery, University of Alberta, Canada, 2016, photo: Michael Woolley
The Mother as a new artistic role model – in conversation with artist and researcher Deirdre M. Donoghue
For her PhD-research on ‘maternal aesth-ethics’ Deirdre M. Donoghue departed from the actual doings of mother-artists such as Weronika Zielinska, Courtney Kessel and Arahmaiani Feisal. Richtje Reinsma talks to her about mothering as ‘a discipline’ with far-reaching aesthetic, political and environmental force.
Could you introduce your research in a nutshell?
‘In my doctoral dissertation I research what I call ‘‘maternal relational aesth-ethics’’. In simple terms this refers to the weaving together of maternal and artistic practices. I look at how the maternal experiences and practices of five contemporary mother-artists have interrupted and changed their artistic processes. I explore what these experiences and practices have set in motion regarding their artistic methodologies and their sense of self, and what is produced as a result. I then compare the mother as a cultural producer with Modernity’s legacy of the artist as an autonomous genius, and seek to re-imagine maternal practices and thinking as generative for the production of art.’
What is a mother-artist?
‘For me mother-artists are not only woman artists who choose their maternal doings directly as an artistic subject matter, like for example breastfeeding. In my view being a mother-artist means applying the logic of maternal practice as a starting point for making and thinking with art.’
Could you expand on maternal experience?
‘What I mean with ‘‘maternal experience’’ refers to different things, as well as of course it is always different for everybody. It can refer to the mundane daily practices of caring, protecting and socialising ones child or children. This is labour that anybody can participate in and experience: all bodies can perform care. It can also refer to how a person experiences being a mother and how being a mother (which is always tied to social, cultural, political coordinates) affects ones subjectivity. Or, how a person experiences pregnancy and birth, which are embodied psychosocial and psychosexual experiences of being in a feminine body that has the ability to carry life and bring forth life… From the moment a woman realizes that she is pregnant, she no longer is just ‘‘one’’. She becomes aware of being both singular and several. I find this understanding of maternal subjectivity as a sort of an expansive understanding of the self very fruitful in thinking about artistic subjectivity.’
'From the moment a woman realizes that she is pregnant, she becomes aware of being both singular and several. I find this expansive understanding of the self very fruitful in thinking about artistic subjectivity’
In your research you speak of mothering as a ‘discipline’. This sounds revolutionary to me, as I associate a discipline with something you choose to pursue and then need to learn to master.
‘Indeed, regarding choice, it is important to remember that for the majority of women motherhood is absolutely not a choice. There is coercion; many indigenous people have been forcibly sterilized throughout history; there are financial and social incentives — all around the world women are being rewarded for being pregnant and giving birth. Some women are faced with infertility, some women are raped… Yet, commonly – in the West – mothering is viewed as labour of love, something one does because one ‘chose’ to become a mother.
Mothering most often refers to a bunch of basic and repeated life maintenance tasks. Things one does day in day out without much importance or value to public life. I take the idea of mothering as a discipline from the feminist philosopher Sarah Ruddick. In her book Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace Ruddick says that maternal labour is a discipline which, like all disciplines, trains and produces a particular kind of thinking. She describes how a discipline starts with having certain aims and goals. As you hope to reach those goals, you act in a particular way. This acting in a particular way in a consistent manner becomes a practice. Through time, a practice you do continuously and committedly becomes a discipline because of the shared aims of those participating in the practice. According to Ruddick, the maternal discipline has three main goals: preservative love, nurturing growth, and training acceptable social behaviour. So when you are a mother, this is your discipline. Again, a lot of this is action that many different kinds of bodies are able to do. So when one speaks about being a mother, and we could talk a long time about this word…’
Maybe we should?
‘I insist on using the word ‘‘mother’’ and not simply change it to ‘‘parent” because of acknowledgment and respect to the fact that historically, it has been women who have done all the invisible and unpaid maternal labour. Of course there are people who suggest ‘‘Let’s move on now and just use the word ‘parent’, that’s more equal.’’ But I feel that we still have to acknowledge all the historic, free labour performed by women! Sure, all kinds of bodies can perform care when it comes to the action and the attitude, the ethos. I have learned tons about mothering from my husband! However, for me as a feminist researcher, a woman and a mother, it is crucial to talk about women’s maternal, situated and embodied experiences and knowledges about becoming and being a mother and not just suddenly sweep these away before we even gave them a chance to rise to the fore.
Also, I find the model of the maternal body very productive and interesting precisely because it shows we are not hard-cut individual creatures. We are chimaeric beasts. This notion of chimerism is knowledge I take from cellular biology. Scientists used to think: there’s a mother and there’s a baby, and there’s the placenta in between — mother and baby are two different and distinct creatures. But now they realize that it is not just the mother giving her cells to the baby, the baby also gives cells to the mother. These fetal cells can exist in the female body for decades, also in cases of abortions and miscarriages. For example, one’s subsequent child or children could also have the previous child’s or children’s cells in their bodies. Cells travel, we are mongrells without fixed borders. That’s exactly why I like to think with the mother, because this figure interrupts our inherited ideology of the universal, individual, male subject.
In art, this notion of individualism is being replicated by the figure of the solitary artist genius working in his studio and the legacy of the figure of the flâneur. Every time we make art from the subject position of the individual art star, we are reproducing this old model. What I try to do is to interrupt this inherited model through the figure of the mother, as defined by the real life experiences of actual mothers, as a creature who has this daily labour of caring for others, of preserving life, of preparing acceptable social behaviour, as well as a creature who is experiencing the transition from being individual to becoming several. The figure of the mother is a subject whose sense of self is (continuously) being interrupted, and this state of ‘‘being interrupted’’ can create a ripple-effect; it can interrupt other things. But only if we embrace it and say: how can we think with her?’
'The maternal discipline has three main goals: preservative love, nurturing growth, and training acceptable social behaviour - a lot of this is action that many different kinds of bodies are able to do'
Can you tell about the different maternal artistic practices that you have focused on in your research?
‘In my research I think with five contemporary mother-artists who have a feminine maternal experience of some kind that has affected their ways of producing art: Weronika Zielinska, Courtney Kessel, Sharon Stewart, Shira Richter and Arahmaiani Feisal. I have analysed how their specific maternal experiences have changed their methodologies of making art, and how in turn this has changed their art practices and what is produced as a result. I focus on their varied maternal artistic practices through ecofeminist, new materialist and psychoanalytic lenses. All of them display an affirmative turning towards their maternal condition. All of them sublimate their maternal subjectivity of severality into their art making. And all of them use their feminine maternal experience as a generative force. That’s a very different choice than a lot of famous woman artists have previously made. Think of, for example, Marina Abramović and Tracey Emin, who both have strongly expressed that one cannot be both a good artist and a good mother. This view is quite patriarchal.’
Can you give an example of an art work made from the maternal subjectivity of severality?
‘Well, it is not a category of art; it is an approach to art making. I will try to give an example of such an approach as I foreground it in my dissertation. In the first chapter I map the maternal relational aesth-ethic processes of Weronika Zielinska, Courtney Kessel and Sharon Stewart, who’s changed artistic processes – I argue – give rise to a relational aesthetic that is different from what I would call more masculine ‘‘Relational Aesthetics’’ dominating in contemporary art. So in order to give a concrete idea of what happened to someone who’s daily practice began changing during her pregnancy, I can describe Weronika Zielinska’s experience. She used to be a painter. Through her maternal experience, she went from making paintings to investigating forms of hospitality and collaboration. It started with simple things. Weronika couldn’t paint anymore like she used to as she couldn’t stand up anymore for so long once pregnant. She had two wear a mask because she wanted to protect the baby growing inside of her. Her socio-economic situation changed because of being pregnant and she couldn’t afford a studio anymore, she had to start working at home. Her paintings were huge and she couldn’t store them there. She also didn’t want to have her house filled with paint and chemicals as she now was thinking of the health of this other within her. So care, protection and new, embodied knowledge began forming in between her and the canvas. She started to question the way she was producing art, even why she should make paintings. Her last painting – up to date – she did is quite demonstrative of this proces, in fact it is completely faded out.
After the birth of her son, Weronika began opening up her home for other artists to do short residencies there. And from there grew a practice that questions and queers the borders of private and public spaces and the limits of collaboration and hospitality.
In the second chapter of my dissertation I write about the maternal relational aesth-ethic process of Israeli artist, filmmaker and feminist peace activist Shira Richter, and how her practice brings about social, political and cultural critique and dissent, disrupting the deep-seated patriarchal cultural narratives about mothers and motherhood in Israel. And in my third chapter I write about the pioneering Indonesian performance artist Arahmaiani Feisals maternal relational aesth-ethic process after her daughter was stolen from her, and how she began developing her ecologically orienteered practice of environmental re-generation.
What the art works of these five artists in my dissertation look like differs greatly as they use different mediums, engage with different subject matters and are located in very different geopolitical locations, yet the logic underneath driving each artistic practice, in my analysis, stems from the artist’s maternal subjectivity of severality.’
'What I try to do is to interrupt the inherited model of the individual art star through the figure of the mother'
Besides being a radical academic, you are also a visual and performance artist. What is the relation between your artistic practice and your PhD based in Gender Studies?
‘My artistic practice has always been research based. As an artist I most often set up social scenarios through which multiple relations and crossdisciplinary knowledge production can be mobilized. My PhD research approach is similar in the way that I set up relations between the figures of the Mother, the Flâneur and the Artist. I dive into the history of these figures, think with them and give them another spin. In the case of my PhD research the outcome is a theoretical contribution based on the research into the actual doings of mother-artists. I put the maternal forth as an aesthetic, political and environmental force. I propose the maternal subjectivity of severality as a different onto-epistomological position to look at the world than the individual subjectivity we have inherited from dualist, Cartesian, Enlightenment thought. When it comes to making art work as a mother-artist myself, I don’t directly represent my maternal experience. But anything I do, I bring maternal ethics into my doing.’
Do you have a utopian vision for the future of artistic practice? Is there room enough in the art world for both the flâneur, the studio hero and the mother-artist, can they happily co-exist?
‘Yes they can. It is not either one or the other, I don’t want to reproduce the patriarchal logic of dualist and hierarchical thought. And not all art is for all audiences. Art is not universal. It is made within geopolitical specificities and shaped by lived experiences. It does different things to different people, depending on their histories and backgrounds. Of course there should be artists working in studios, I think this is really important and should indeed be valued. I am not trying to replace the model of the flâneur, but supplement it. We can have different models and they don’t need to be perfect. I am mostly interested in what maternal subjectivity can be and can do, and what the subject position of maternal severality can mean for our cultural, social and political life.
It is not my intention to say maternal subjectivity is morally superior and better, but to broaden understandings of what the figure of the mother might be and do when defined by real life experiences and thinking of actual mothers rather than others from outside of that experience. And I do so by looking at mother-artists’ experiences when it comes to the practice and discipline of mothering and thinking about and with the figure of the mother in relation to making art… I want to bring this knowledge of a rather fundamental human experience and thinking into the varied range of interdisciplinary approaches to artistic research. To research in general, in fact.’
Why do you think there is a growing interest for motherhood in relation to artistic practice?
‘I think there has always been an interest amongst mothers to deal with the shock and challenges of becoming a mother and striving to be both a mother and an artist. Since already before the millennium there has certainly been a growing visibility of mothers in the arts, largely thanks to the internet. The internet connects women who mother across all kinds of borders. There is power in visibility and numbers, in sharing experience, resources and support with each other. This all builds momentum. The challenge that I see right now however is to create structural visibility and support for intergenerational and intersectional knowledge sharing, so that each new generation of mother-artists does not feel or think that they have to start from zero. That they need to invent the wheel. There is scholarship, activism, artists, exhibitions, archives, initiatives, networks, strategies, incredible women, mothers and other maternal thinkers whose work we must be aware of and build on.’
Deirdre M. Donoghue works as a post doc researcher at the Faculty of Humanities, Department Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University. She is director of the international m/other voices foundation; founding member of ADA (Area for Debate and Art); mother and birthdoula; member of the ‘Performance and The Maternal’ advisory circle (University of South Wales and Edge Hill University), co-organizer of the two transatlantic conferences ‘Mothernists’ (2015) and ‘Mothernists II: Who Cares For The 21st Millennium?’ (2017) and has contributed to several publications on maternal and artistic research.