Art and Motherhood at MoMA | PAAL

On May 24th, 2018, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. The following day, I received an email thanking me for my MoMA membership and my visit, with a request for me to share about my experience.

I replied with the following, but received no response.

PAAL is publishing it here, so the dialogue requested can continue elsewhere.


MY BIRTH – MoMA

Thank you for asking about my experience at MoMA last week. Though I have been a member with my spouse for a while now, I think this may be the first or second time I have utilized my membership since becoming a parent 19 months ago.

I attended MoMA last week intent upon seeing only one exhibit. With my baby toddler in his stroller, we rode the F train from Broadway/Lafayette to Rockefeller Center, braving the crowded sidewalks of Midtown’s end-of-May tourism. It is challenging to make time for art inside of motherhood. And yet, Carmen Winant’s was calling me, ever since I read an article about her 2000 images of pregnancy and birth in Vogue. Even before seeing the exhibit, I shared the article with every mom group I am part of and encouraged others to support her work at MoMA. After seeing the work in person, I posted this in all the same places and on my own FaceBook page:

“If you are a person who is a person, then you came from inside another person and therefore I strongly recommend that you see Carmen Winant’s My Birth at MoMA.

There are far too few images of actual motherhood in the public sphere. Here are 2000 images taped to a tiny hallway on the 3rd floor of a fancy art museum presenting the moments before, during and after women become mothers. They are celebratory, insistent, and exhausting images, mirroring motherhood in their raw beauty and ferocity.

It was profound to see them and think that I, too, had been in similar positions, had grown a child in my body and then worked to move him out of it and into the world. I was overcome and in awe of myself and all the women present.

And to all the mothers, new and experienced, hospital and home and vaginal and Caesarian birthing, biological and adopted, single and partnered, peeing, prolapsing and pelvic floor rebuilding, nursing and bottling, working in and out of home, dinnering and diapering and driving, trying and failing and trying again, laughing and crying, lonely and found — I SEE YOU WE ARE WARRIORS ALL!”

I have often been moved by art and performance, but image-based work in a museum setting has never moved me this much. These small but provocative images, taped with blue painters tape, stuck to a hallway hidden around a corner, stumbled upon by others as if by mistake (but by me deliberately sought), brought my breath into gasps. I felt tears in my eyes as I stood there, trying to honor each woman pictured for what she has accomplished, who she is becoming in that moment. I saw myself in all of them and all of them in me.

BIRTH is serious business, moving and messy and animalistic and is how Every Single Person on this planet got here. Each of us grew inside the body of another person and all of us got out somehow. And yet, the intricacies of birth remain quietly and shamefully hidden from nearly everyone who has not endured/witnessed them firsthand. We as a society like to see women’s bodies, but not like this. Breasts and vaginas can be sexy, but not with babies on them or in them. Oh, we like to hear about cute babies, babies against all odds, cooing giggling smiling babies, but we do not want to hear about emergency Caesarians, forceps, torn tissue, prolapse, incontinence, latching or supply issues, exhaustion, overwhelm, or anxiety. These are all things that moms share hush-hushedly with other moms. We as a society do not want to reexamine the structures in place that make motherhood a burden, such as limited health care, nonexistent family leave, unforgiving public transportation, poor sidewalk etiquette, the lack of working elevators in subway stations, complicated family dynamics, the disappeared village, expensive and/or inaccessible child care, and so on.

Winant’s collected images deserve more prominent placement than their third floor secret hallway. I asked four museum employees about their whereabouts after arriving at MoMA, including one person stationed right outside the New Photography wing, and all four had to really think for a moment to remember that 2000 images of pregnancy and childbirth were on display somewhere and where was it again? Maybe try thataways?

I realize that much happens at MoMA. There is a lot to keep track of. But the stark profundity and humanity of these images is striking. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with them but my baby toddler could only tolerate so many trips back and forth along two short walls. They deserve better. Mothers deserve better.

Furthermore, there is little dialogue about actual motherhood in our culture, whether on television, in performing or fine arts. A dearth, in fact, unless you are searching for a tragic mother such as Medea. When is a mother central to the narrative? When is her journey essential, rather than peripheral? When do we see pregnant bodies, discuss childbirth, and explore challenges therein? When do we celebrate complexities, embrace variety and subvert shame?

Though we all come from wombs, we get weird when people mention them, or blood or breasts or placentas. Or how challenging it is to do the work of mothering when many societal systems are not supportive of that task but will race to declare you a failure and responsible for any mishap perceived by your child or another. The work of continuing the species, mindfully continuing the species, is not work to be ignored. The work of women, the birthers, often the primary caregivers (whether or not they are working outside the home in addition to working inside it), the transformative power of motherhood — I wish there was more dialogue about this within our cultural institutions, large and small, and within our definitions of artistic practice, meaningful work and creativity. Instead there is a lot of unhelpful, divisive false dichotomy bullshit about motherhood as the end of artistry and the impossibility of mother-artist duality or integration, and so on.

I have come to quickly recognize that the world is largely not interested in artmaking (unless you are blessed by an institution of your size, and even then…) or motherhood. And yet we persist in both.

I was inspired by this:

MY BIRTH – MoMA

And wish there were many more of its kind out there, whether documentaries, installations, curatorial themes, retrospectives, performance festivals, etc. There are mothers EVERYWHERE and we need to remove shame and judgment from our experience and simply be allowed to have it. I would like to find the shared sisterhood that celebrates motherhood’s complexities and features its raw challenges and joys with beauty and appreciation.

Please consider continuing to find ways to bring this very real part of life into our lives.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

Catherine

By Catherine Mueller Melwani

My Birth is available at MoMA for viewing through August 2018. Have you seen it? Let us know your thoughts!

 

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