In art as in life, motherhood is often romanticized – historically depicted as an act of absolute selflessness and devotion. These depictions, however, tend to be from the perspective of men. Looking to tear down unattainable expectations and infuse this subject with a dose of reality, a new exhibition aims to show what motherhood looks like in the 21st century within the art world.
Mothering: Between Stockholm Syndrome and Acts of Production, an exhibition at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City running until July 3rd, presents 47 works by individual artists and art collectives from different generations, countries, and art forms, produced in the last two decades.
The issue of Gender Equality, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, runs through the course of this exhibit. Being an artist and a mother is still a controversial topic. Some think they’re simply incompatible, like Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, who declared that having children would have been a disaster for her work. Canadian writer Sheila Heti also dwelled on this in her book Motherhood, where she writes, “A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.”
However, the reality is that there are artists who are also mothers. The two curators for this exhibit, Helena Chávez Mac Gregor and Alejandra Labastida, were inspired to address this topic after becoming mothers themselves.
Nonetheless, they agree that motherhood proved to be harder than expected. “No one told us that life would become small, that life would become flat, that you’d lose your autonomy, that there was a growing tension for those of us who worked and wanted to take care of our children, where there’s no time compatibility,” says Chávez Mac Gregor.
Stockholm Syndrome is a condition in which a hostage develops affection for their captor. The mention in the subtitle refers not to mothers feeling hostages to their children, but hostages to the system — a system that allows only one version of motherhood. “An idea of motherhood as an unpaid labor of care based on sacrifice, romanticizing the labor of motherhood precisely to have unpaid labour force and keep having vital force for the mode of production, in this case, capitalism,” explains Chávez Mac Gregor.
One of the largest and most striking pieces is Why are these our only alternatives and what kind of struggle will move us beyond them? by American artist Carmen Winant, a mural that mixes artworks made by children and Silvia Federici’s pamphlets, the celebrated Italian feminist who championed wages for housework in the 1970s. Paris-based art collective Claire Fontaine also participates with the neon installation Women Raise the Upraising.
Maruch Méndez, a Tzotzil painter and sculptor from the southern state of Chiapas, portrays the story of her life with her six adopted children in So ton jk'ajvaltik. Méndez adopted the children not in any legal manner, but rather took them in after their parents had died. Another piece, which she created with her nephew, shows her family life in the form of vignettes.
Another relevant narrative is mothering through violence. Paulina León, from the art collective Madres Desobedientes (Disobedient Mothers), presents a series of embroideries quoting feminist chants heard in protests and depicting a far too common sight in Mexico: mothers looking for the bodies of their missing children.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not go unmentioned, and Mexican artist Mónica Mayer updates a previous work of hers with #UnaMaternidadEnPandemiaEs where she shares experiences of mothers during the pandemic gathered through a hashtag on Facebook. A few are hopeful, many are bleak.
The closing piece of the exhibit is a video by Japanese artist Ai Hasegawa titled I want to give birth to a dolphin, in which a woman appears to give birth to a dolphin in a pool. Meant as a commentary in the branch of ecofeminism, this piece aims to question whether reproducing as we’ve done thus far is compatible with the sustainability of our planet.
Different perspectives on being a mother and an artist not only reaffirm this possibility but convey the importance of motherhood in the bigger picture — a matter ripe for critique and change within general culture. These are the new voices bringing to light old problems, demanding that the choice of becoming a mother be tainted with systemic violence no more.
You can check out Mothering: Between Stockholm Syndrome and Acts of Production at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City until July 3rd 2022, and you can visit their website here.