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Mothers*, Warriors and Poets by Didem Yazici, Curatorial Text

Mothers*, Warriors and Poets is an exhibition and discussion programme that is focusing on the question of what it means to be a mother and a parent artist today in an art world that assumes that artists have no children. Instead of an illustrative exhibition about motherhood/parenthood and contemporary art, we come together to speak about the dynamics of being an artist mother/parent – through art works, research and activist projects. Whether women, trans, men, nonbinary people or samesex couples, single mothers, self-mothered-children or polyamorous people, all artist parents experience the similar structures that are limited, unsupportive and discriminative. As an independent art worker, currently a pregnant woman and a non-western person living in Germany, I come to the realisation that the act of mothering oneself is not only being tender with yourself instead of judgemental in good and bad times, but it can also be an act of resistance. Probably one of the greatest things we can do to ourselves in life is to know how to mother ourselves.  In Audre Lorde’s (1932-1994)  essay “Eye to Eye” she writes that we can learn to mother ourselves: “It [mothering oneself] means we must establish authority over own definition, provide an attentive concern and expectation of growth which is the beginning of that acceptance we came to expect only from our mothers. It means that I affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival, in my own self, and in the self of other Black women. On the other hand, it means that as I learn my worth and genuine possibility, I refuse to settle for anything less than rigorous pursuit of the possible in myself, making a distinction between what is possible and what the outside world drives me to do in order to prove I am human.” Inspired by the struggle and work of black feminism and Audre Lorde’s idea of mothering ourselves, the exhibition is titled after her self-description “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,”. For Lorde, it has been crucial to choose multiple adjectives as she honors the complexity of oneself and one’s vision. To be a mother/parent artist is to be a warrior at the same time, and to think radically and metaphorically like a poet. 

Whether through a plant named ‘Mutterkraut’ (literal translation: mother herb), a post-colonial feminist perspective and sugary and salty relationships to our mothers, fragility of mothering demonstrated through (im)balance of levitating balloons, exploring the women’s resistance in the Southern-Italian folk dance and music tradition of Tarantella, counter statements to artists who argue that being a mother conflicts with being an artist, a multi-layered filmic essay by an expectant mother and another single mother having been in the menopause, the exhibition manifests different forms and struggles of being an artist parent. In 2021, artist Joanne Masding shared an urgent and timely guideline titled ‘How Not To Exclude Artist Parents: Some Guidelines for Institutions and Residencies’ on the internet/online. Written collectively by art critic Hettie Judah and a group of artist mothers, the guideline is made of ten clear points, demanding fair working conditions for artist mothers and parents. As part of the discussion programme, Masding will speak about the process of working on the guideline. Following the talk, there will be an open discussion on what can be done to make the working conditions better for the mother/parent artist parents. After the exhibition, we will keep on our research on critical thinking and artistic and literary practices on motherhood and art in different forms. I have been invited to curate this exhibition by Stuttgart-based artists, Marie Lienhard, Anna Gohmert and Renate Liebel, who initiated this project. Following this collective spirit, we asked all the participants of Mothers, Warriors and Poets to co-write the exhibition text with their statements on the exhibition concept. Let’s pay attention to their words.

Katharina Pethke: Women in the art world, what are you looking for? Can’t you see the image is set? Genius is a lonely and self righteous male figure and this image has nothing to do with you! Why don’t you go home and do what needs to be done there? Taking care of the children, being a good mother! They need you, and only you. Feminism is a Fata Morgana! Here! Look at the sculptures of the place of your work. Look at them! Look closer! 

Joanne Masding: While motherhood isn’t a central theme in my practice, I do make work to think about what it is to want to make, create, produce, birth things, and what it means to add to the world. Even so, I have been surprised that aligning myself with other working parents, and working to support artists who are raising children, has become something that I do. It began when I became a parent, because of the shift in the way that my needs meshed – or didn’t mesh – with the offerings of the art world that I was used to operating in. This necessary work was invisible to me until I was personally affected. Familiar spaces became harder for me to access or closed entirely; residencies, private views, evening events, overnight stays for exhibition installs, call-outs for work made in the past 12 months. I hope that by grouping and sharing the similarities of experience among us, in the face of something that appears rigid, embedded and difficult, we can identify ways that the outdated underlying structures can be unpicked and opened out, and that we can rebuild these parts in a new shape.

Renate Liebel: Between desires and consternation, between gritting our teeth and breathing deeply, between myself and the others, between 10 needs and satisfactions, between resting and fighting, between family, job, art, relationships, realities, we flow through our states of mind and have significant reach. – only in the bubble? It’s just a pity that the social awareness is missing in these vital questions  I quote the manifesto of Mehr Mütter für die Kunst: (More Mothers for Art) DO WE WANT TO LIVE IN A SOCIETY THAT DISQUALIFIES WOMEN IN ART PRODUCTION BECAUSE OF THEIR MOTHERHOOD? DO WE WANT TO DO WITHOUT THE ARTISTIC PRODUCTS OF THOSE WOMEN WHO HAVE MADE ANOTHER FIELD OF EXPERIENCE ACCESSIBLE TO THEM THROUGH THEIR MOTHERHOOD? IS THE ART WORLD TODAY STILL SO MALE-DOMINATED? DO WE ACCEPT THAT?

Anna Gohmert: I find it a strange imbalance that society expects parents to: plan for results; act with foresight; invest economically and sustainably. Always educate in terms of the child’s needs, and remember that everything should have a positive influence on the child’s development. (  for the child’s future  role in society, of course!). Actually, all business partners should consider themselves lucky if they have parents in their team. Because parents are the most luxurious project managers! Unfortunately, they are missing in too many teams, which has to do with the structures of the labour market. Despite the experience in coordinating and being able to estimate workload vs. time, parents, especially mothers*, who are entitled to maternity leave due to pregnancy, and thus temporarily take time out of the work process, find it difficult to (re-) enter professional life.In my experience, project management where parents are part of the team is always more efficient and successful and socially fairer. The problem is that parents, especially “mothers”, are assigned the role of unreliable workers due to the fact that women are often paid less than men and therefore juggle several jobs at the same time. Therefore, it seems that they work less or slower – although the opposite is usually the case. The social structure creates conditions which are not oriented towards the participation of families – people are just so used to it that they manage  by hook or by crook, because the love of the family bears (and demands) this effort. Mastering these challenges is accompanied by great costs. Accompanying symptoms are exhaustion, a lack of time to devote to (their) children/family in the wider sense, not to mention one’s own private life. In the arts, this is specific: the art system was and is family-unfriendly: establishing artistic practice, which means anchoring it in contexts that make it (barely) possible to finance oneself through one’s own artistic work. In family concepts where everyone does not live under one roof, the challenge is huge.

Alessandra Eramo: A new life, the newborn growing inside me, a unique genealogy of the spirit, the birth of a creature that grows and does not know what will happen, uncertainty between inside and outside, uncertainty that generates beauty, uncertainty that generates wonder, uncertainty that generates power. Introverted desire plays and moves between inside and outside, a tender voice that tells of a destiny we still have to struggle with. My skin is thin and transparent, my skin is as hard as a crocodile’s. Spilled blood, blood and pain. My great privilege is to have understood what sorrow is. A piece of me that is falling off. Other of me. Elsewhere. A creature who looks me straight in the eye and yet cannot speak, words are useless, it is all heart, all love for the whole world. Immeasurable love without end. When will we all be able to be mothers? Do we need struggle and war to love a little more? We can learn to be mothers and fighters. Mothers, poets and warriors.

Lerato Shadi: I think we should ask male identifying parents more questions about parenting and parenthood. I think it is important to not let women do all the labour of opening and creating spaces, because when those spaces are there, everyone benefits.

Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro: “Maternal moments are not always beautiful, they are there to radically change you. The maternal force has complexities in beauty and darkness, difficult, confusing and strange. Motherhood is not innocent and not assigned to gender, it’s assigned to empowerment, death, queering and magic. Resistance is not only about refusal, its’ about echoing voices, visibility and resignation. Resistance demands for imagination and the urgency for transformation. Re-inventing radically with tenderness, the kind that doesn’t need to make you feel comfortable.” interview with ‘Performance & the Maternal Research’, The University of South Wales 2020

Chloe Coomans: I never had any other choice than to fight for my independence and my freedom. The freedom of a woman artist, with my two girls next to me, every day and night.In my country, my girls had to go to the nursery at the age of only two and a half months, so that I could return to my  food work, the one which gives me the possibility to survive and to raise my girls with a minimum of material comfort. This work was necessary so that , at the same time, I could devote myself to my artistic path.
It’s all about juggling and stubbornness. My daughters are growing up with a mom who worked tirelessly and it was not always easy for them. But they understood the importance of the search for poetry and commitment.

Marie Lienhard: In the development of the fluid state and motherhood*: The situation of becoming a mother is a unique jump into the absolute unknown where the only certainty is the responsibility for a new life. This experience which powerfully changes a gestational parent brings with it a massive emotional and mental expansion forth, while at the same time a massive contraction of personal liberties occurs. The discovery of very new feelings and thoughts especially during the responsibility of pregnancy, birth and the first moments of a baby’s life where the mother/gestational parent is absolutely irreplaceable (especially  if chest/breastfeeding),are unique.This brings with it a huge change in two opposite directions: the discovery of a borderless, constantly and uncontrollably opening new world of physical changes, emotions and thoughts and at the same time a restrictive physical and logistical daily reality. Depending on many factors, the way mothers/gestational parents react to this inescapable situation is hugely different, obviously. Nonetheless it is clear that it has a powerful personal impact which obviously influences every other aspect including their professional lives too. For the project “Mothers* Warriors and Poets’ mothers and gestational parents reflect on the condition that can be summarised by the term “fluid”. Starting from the everyday reality of being mainly responsible for their offspring and the way their daily lives and artistic productions are influenced by circumstances such as fighting for gender equality, role conflicts, resilience, responsibility, family business, (regretting) motherhood and sisterhood. The necessary flexibility which must be developed through being responsible for all these different aspects of daily life as parents are addressed from each participant’s individual subjective angle. This project opens spaces to celebrate the fluidity we have to develop, which forms us as human beings & influences our artistic production. My thesis is that the development of fluidity is not purely a “mothering” virtue but a skill developed beyond pregnancy, birth (and if applicable) chest/breastfeeding through taking on the responsibilities of parenthood on a daily grind level and evolving in the mental, emotional and organisational flexibility, necessary to respond appropriately according to the various demands at hand.  The ideal scenario is contributing to a recognition and appreciation of the value of fluidity through an equal sharing of the responsibilities of parenthood.  Thus, reaching gender equality on a personal and professional level, highlighting the benefits of practicing the emotional, mental and practical fluid state. In my humble opinion, this is vital in every person’s psychological and practical development, whether male, female, both or diverse, and this kind of personal transformation would have a great impact in shaping a worldwide society of inclusion and care.

Lisa Tuyala: After the birth of my first child 12 years ago, I became aware of the fact that our society anusiness, (regretting) motherhood and sisterhood. The necessard especially the gainful employment, to which I naturally count professional artistic work, despite the precarious situation of many artists, are (still and again) shaped by capitalist, patriarchal and racist structures. As a Black woman and mother, the reproduction and reinforcement of “traditional” gender images and Western stereotypes and notions of artistic creation within the art world play a central role for me. For example, the notion of the Kantian lone genius still seems prevalent. This is evident, for example, in funding structures, but also in the production methods often practiced and demanded, which, for example, exclude people with care responsibilities. On the development of the fluid state and motherhood*: The situation of becoming a mother is a unique jump into the absolute unknown where the only certainty is the responsibility for a new life. This experience which powerfully changes a gestational parent brings with it a massive emotional and mental expansion forth, while at the same time a massive contraction of personal liberties occurs. The discovery of very new feelings and thoughts especially during the responsibility of pregnancy, birth and the first moments of a baby’s life where the mother/gestational parent is absolutely irreplaceable (especially  if chest/breastfeeding),are unique.This brings with it a huge change in two opposite directions: the discovery of a borderless, constantly and uncontrollably opening new world of physical changes, emotions and thoughts and at the same time a restrictive physical and logistical daily reality. Depending on many factors, the way mothers/gestational parents react to this inescapable situation is hugely different, obviously. Nonetheless it is clear that it has a powerful personal impact which obviously influences every other aspect including their professional lives too. For the project “Mothers* Warriors and Poets’ mothers and gestational parents reflect on the condition that can be summarised by the term “fluid”. Starting from the everyday reality of being mainly responsible for their offspring and the way their daily lives and artistic productions are influenced by circumstances such as fighting for gender equality, role conflicts, resilience, responsibility, family by flexibility which must be developed through being responsible for all these different aspects of daily life as parents are addressed from each participant’s individual subjective angle. This project opens spaces to celebrate the fluidity we have to develop, which forms us as human beings & influences our artistic production. My thesis is that the development of fluidity is not purely a “mothering” virtue butnsibility is still mostly attributed to women and is also currently exercised primarily by them. I would like to name this and nevertheless try not to further reinforce this image. Audre Lorde writes in “The Master’s Tool Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House”1 that motherhood is the only social power assigned to women* in a patriarchal system. In her opinion, the true power of women* lies in the need and necessity of mutual care. It is important to note that Audre Lorde’s text is a response to a feminism that does not acknowledge the realities and contributions of women* of color. She argues for recognizing that women* and their lived realities are different; however, these differences are interdependent. For her, it is in the recognition of these differences that the power of unity is grounded. For me, this means that solidarity must become a stronger focus in our artistic work (and beyond, of course). What would happen if we catapulted caring for each other out of the oppressive and ghettoized realm of unpaid “women’s work” and saw it as fundamental to our human togetherness, beyond oppressive male-female dichotomies and capitalist principles of order? What would happen if we not only knew, but felt to our very core, that we are all interdependent?

[1] A commentary on the panel “The Personal and the Political” at the “Second Sex Conference” on October 29, 1979.