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Performing Motherhood & Making Art

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Ann Newmarch, Australia, born 1945, Washing day, 1981, Adelaide, collage of type C photographs mounted on cardboard, 8.9 x 110.8 cm (image), South Australian Government Grant 2005, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 20056Ph4. Click here to enlarge.

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I was told once that there are more female curators because it is a ‘nurturing’ role. You would think that with all my professional experience in ‘nurturing’ I was made for this role as a mother. Like many women before me, entering motherhood was an intense and complex experience. I had never before been so exhausted, or so relentlessly required to perform in a role that was so devoid of intellectual stimulation. And, as the ‘stay at home’ parent I was thrust into the bleak realities of domestic labour. For the purposes of this essay, I’d like to position my shifting identity as a mother, writer, curator, laundress, as part of my cultural work. I didn’t stop being a curator and a writer just because I was on maternity leave. It is from this context that I want to speak about making space for parents, and particularly mothers, to find opportunities for cultural contribution within our arts communities.

Seeing Ann Newmarch’s photographic collage Washing Day at the Art Gallery of South Australia was a significant moment for me in defining my role as an arts worker and a mum. This little known work was first shown at the EAF in 1981 as part of The Lovely Motherhood Show curated by Jude Adams. The long line of photographs shows her family’s washing hung out to dry on a wooden clothes rack. The clothes are separated into colours, common practice for washing clothes that have unstable dyes. Newmarch’s experience of ‘performing motherhood’ and responsibilities of domestic labour resonated so strongly, I felt the haunting power of her boredom and her desire to validate her experience.  

Through documentation of her laundry process, Newmarch elevates her mundane labour to a high art context. Corduroy pants, velour jackets, towels and baby clothes are composed into blocks of colours. They cheekily reference the hard-abstraction and colour field painting which was the dominant style amongst her peers during her training as an arts teacher in the late 60’s. Though she rejected the style and philosophy of hard-edge abstractionism early in her career as a practicing artist, this work is a tongue-in-cheek throwback, a comment on the capability of her domestic labour to be read within an art context.(1) The work asks: could female domestic labour be art? OR, should we be working to make more space for female & mother artists to make creative work rather than spending time doing the family laundry? More than 35 years later, feeling like I was drowning in my family’s laundry, this collage of images had me thinking: how is this still an issue? In 2019 should we be looking at new models for including parents in within our arts community?

A major South Australian proponent of the feminist catchphrase ‘the personal is political’, Newmarch encourages the viewer to consider their own family dynamics within social and political contexts. In a statement made in 1981 she writes ‘Art should be made out of personal experience, and not out of ‘ART’ concerns. Personal experience is only a useful source of art when it is accompanied by an understanding of the social conditions in which it arises.(2) Washing day continues to resonate, speaking to the emotional and physical labour of motherhood. Social and political shifts have occurred, but the way in which women are expected to ‘perform’ motherhood remain narrow. Instagram and ‘mummy bloggers’ now provide more avenues for (mostly white, cishet, middle class) women to discuss the complexities of motherhood, but for some reason their statements are always qualified with phrases such as ‘but its all worth it to have my beautiful child’. Why do women feel they need to qualify their dissatisfaction with a system that devalues their labour by arguing that love conquers all? Love is part of it, for sure, but it certainly doesn’t make doing the laundry any more interesting.

My reading of Newmarch’s work is viewed through the lens of my own experience of motherhood and its intersection with my practice as a curator and writer. This work spoke to the boredom that I experienced as a ‘stay at home mum’. In the first year of being a mother I often felt that I was surrounded by women, but lacking platform for speaking about things outside of motherhood. The arts community in Adelaide, in particular the public programs run by local organisations often allowed me to engage in thinking outside of motherhood. Editors provided me with opportunities to write, study gave me space to exercise my brain (my version of self-care). But despite this I still found this space difficult to navigate; I’m not just me anymore, I’m me plus one, and sometimes my plus one is socially inappropriate, or needs a nappy change on the cold cement floor of the dirty bathroom in an artists run initiative.

At this time I wrote in my diary about ‘work that stutters its way into existence’, my practice had to be flexible and responsive to suit my new life. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by mother-artists in panels run by collective Fight For Self founded by curator Polly Dance and artist Heidi Kenyon. Artists including Fran Callen, Zoe Freney, Jess Mara and Jess Taylor spoke to this theme as part of the public programming for exhibition Good Mother curated by Gabi Lane at Adelaide Central School Gallery in August 2018. Many of the conversations centred on how artists have adjusted their practices to suit the challenges of motherhood. Slowing down, working differently, new subject matter, and flexible approaches to juggling the demands of art practice and those of motherhood. And while I think these are important conversations to have, I also think that there is a risk that individualising the problem means we don’t tackle the bigger picture; if women lose connection to arts communities during motherhood, what are the repercussions for the culture of these communities, and for the future of these women’s careers in the arts?

Interdisciplinary artist Lenka Clayton, founder of open source project Artists Residency in Motherhood, speaks about the impact of motherhood on her career as an artist. She writes in her manifesto ‘In common with all new parents, the birth of my first child changed many things in my life. One of those changes has been the way I and others think about my career as an artist. I find now that many aspects of the professional art world are closed to artists with families. Most prestigious artist residencies for example specifically exclude families from attending. Despite a legacy of public artist/parents it still seems to be a commonly held belief that being an engaged mother and serious artist are mutually exclusive endeavours.’(3) Her response was to create a situation where she could work - she organised childcare and developed her own residency model, which she now shares with women across the world. It’s a brilliant concept, but again mothers are forced to take on the emotional labour of remaining relevant in a culture that is actively excluding them.

In a recent article about maternity rights in sports Kylie Maslen reports that one third of women in Australia face discrimination on their return to work after maternity leave. In the sports world, as in the arts world, women are also faced with job insecurity and a competitive market. Kylie writes ‘We need childcare to be more equitable, we need job stability for women wanting to have children while in casual or non-permanent jobs, and we need to acknowledge the pressures that adversely affect mothers such as travel and working out-of-hours.(4) These are things that we need to move towards in the art sector in order for female artists and arts worker to have a chance at advancing their careers at the same rate as their male counterparts.

Alongside improved maternity leave and childcare, I want to point towards some of the ways that the art world could adjust to make spaces and programs more accommodating for parents so that they can be involved in art-work, art-talk, art-experiences, and conversations that extend beyond ‘how to adjust your own practice to suit motherhood’. I’m asking the broader arts community to lean in to motherhood with me, share some moments of fragmentation- yes my baby will probably interrupt your event. Rather than that being my cue to leave, please ask me to stay, ask me what you could do to help me be able to stay. Because I want to be part of the community, and more than that, I need to connect and contribute. Universal access means that people who use wheelchairs can gain access to arts spaces and events, but also parents with prams. It’s a win win. Please include information about accessibility with your event invitations so that people know whether they can physically come into your building or not. Consider whether the times that you hold events exclude people with caring responsibilities. If you can, provide a change table in your bathroom. Let people know that your events are child and breastfeeding friendly, and make sure your staff and volunteers make breastfeeding people feel welcome. Think about the ways that you can make opportunities for engagement open to people who need to bring their baby or toddler along without isolating them to groups specifically for mums & babies. Record your public programs and make them available online. The wonderful thing about all of these strategies are that they are easy to achieve and benefit so many more people than just mothers.

The fact that Newmarch’s domestic still life speaks so strongly to an audience of mother-artists several decades later is an indicator that the shifts which are occurring in the art world are not keeping up with the needs of parents, in particular women. While women are demanding changes in the corporate world, and in the sports industry, we need to see that reflected within the arts too. For women to truly be able to embrace careers within the arts industry, they need to know that they can also take on the role of parent without risking their livelihood, or being confined to the boredoms of endless loads of laundry.