‘Mothership,’ an exhibition organised by artists Elizabeth Byrne and Caro Halford, explores the theme of the mother artist. With 14 invited artists – we caught up with the organisers of ‘Mothership’ to get their thoughts on motherhood in the art world.
Alejandro Ball: To begin can you tell me a bit about how the idea for the exhibition came into being, and what drove you to organise this show?
Caro Halford – Elizabeth approached me with the idea of curating a show together after graduating. At this time, I had been offered The Sawmills in Wandsworth for non-payment to host an art exhibition. The idea of being female and a mother was important to both of us, having juggled with this combination whilst at Goldsmiths. Being a Mother and an artist was what was driving me.
Elizabeth Byrne – Goldsmiths was a formative time in my art practice not only for the academic and practical educational experiences I was engaged with, but also because during this time I became a mother for the first time, whilst also losing my own mother (and father) within a very short space of time of one another. Birth and death colliding in this way had a profound effect on my outlook, my lifestyle and my art practice. Becoming a mother and losing my own mother and father around the same time meant that many thoughts and questions about parenthood, particularly Motherhood, were constantly in the forefront of my mind, learning how to become a Mother and reflecting on my own memories created an intensity that started to reveal itself in my work. I naturally gravitated towards fellow artists who were experienced or supportive, I found comfort in other mother artists who were on the course as well as through my wider art network. Caro having already had her three children was one of these artists and from this relationship a mutual understanding and respect developed for what we both had to navigate as emerging artists building up a body of work and being mothers.
What really struck me was how my previous social life as an artist felt almost impossible to maintain now I had a baby, how the art world was very unaccommodating for an emerging female artist with a child, no longer could I go gallery hopping at a whim or float to and fro from private view to event, getting lost in the night when I had a little one needing night feeds and my love and care. Who did the evening private view truly serve? It certainly excluded mothers with young children. My priorities changed, if I was to maintain a practice as an artist this meant I had to be more disciplined with my time, more organised in order to continue making work, it focused my mind on what was most important. Birth, death and art are very similar in many ways, they all stir deep intense emotions and are very personal experiences. I could also see how women artists were not equally represented in gallery and museum exhibitions yet dominated the education landscape and I questioned why this was? At the same time female established artists like Marina Abramović were making statements such as:
“People ask why there are so few female artists who succeed. It’s because women are not ready to sacrifice as much as men. Women want a man, they want a family, they want to have children, they want to be loved, and to be an artist. And they can’t; it’s impossible.”
This just enraged my sense of injustice, if established female artists were going to be so publically derogatory of female mother artists what was being said behind closed doors? This was factually untrue and made me feel incredibly sorry for Abramović that she felt she couldn’t do both, where many men throughout time had done so before her and continue to do so, to me she was victim of her own making or lack of support or prejudiced views. From my position all I could see was incredibly strong female mother artists making engaged and sensitive work that had an honest vulnerability, which being a mother had informed and enriched, so contrary to being a negative it was developing the artist and informing the work being made long term adding value and weight to their career.
AB – Can you explain this wordplay in your exhibition title ‘Mothership,’ that emphasises being a mother as a profession?
CH – I suggested Mother as a title to Elizabeth, which she felt was too literal and also I had reservations about this title as Martin Creed has a famous piece with the same name. Elizabeth came up with the title Mothership. It almost could be compared to a ship/cargo. A friendship of Mothers?
EB – The title “the Mothership” felt like it had real weight and presence, the idea of a large group show of contemporary artist mothers I felt made a statement, asserting that; we exist, we are here, we are producing, giving and nurturing life as well as putting work into the world being both reproductive and productive. Both the name of the show and the act of putting this show on made a claim that being an artist mother was something to uphold, support and value. And not hide away or be ashamed of it (which many of the artists I had spoken to, who are also mothers, had felt was the case.) By putting on a show of 14 artist mothers, the Mothership came with a sense we were all setting sail together on a voyage towards a more hopeful positive and supportive future. Also, there was another play on words between mother and (friend)ship, how our friendships had formed through our shared connection of being mothers as well as artists.
AB – Within your press information you stated that ‘seemingly the role of the mother is a form of labour perhaps not highly valued,’ I find this an interesting thought because it speaks of motherhood, or being a mother, as a type of conceptual medium, could you elaborate on this thought?
CH – Being a Mother at home is still not highly valued and isn’t seen as work but as a stay at home mother. Motherhood still has this conceptual value of non-labour, just being a mother doesn’t seem enough and is disregarded in many career paths. This I have felt in the art world too.
EB – It struck me how being an artist and a mother both involve physical often unwaged work, as well as forms of immaterial affective labour that require emotional connection, intelligence, love and caregiving. They both demand that your soul to be at work, turning yourself inside out, where the body and mind are sites of production in the same way as in the studio; as a consequence, the two are intrinsically linked through their similarities. Yet mother artists are expected to attain the same standards and expectations of what it means to be an artist as those without these commitments. For many, the traditional romantic notion of the unattached ‘free’ artist roaming freely around the globalised art world doesn’t hold true; private view evenings, workshops at weekends, residencies often last for weeks and months in far away lands, applications for open calls and funding demand further unwaged labour and often fees, exhibiting is done at the artist’s expense. These all place high demands on mothers who are already stretched financially as well as meeting the demands of children.
AB – Do you feel that sometime within feminine discourse that motherhood is marginalised or not touched upon enough?
CH – Both! I feel a lot of the most successful female artists didn’t have children or have had them after becoming a successful artist so the role of the mother artist is definitely not touched upon enough. Mother artists are definitely marginalised and we are excluded as a lot of events and talks connected with arts are held in the evenings not daytime. Therefore the need to organise childcare and support networks.
EB – Absolutely, if feminism is about choice why is motherhood and being an artist in the contemporary art world such a taboo subject? In the corporate world maternity leave is now a legal requirement, in the freelance self employed world of an artist maternity leave is luxury, a sacrifice even. Galleries and those supporting and investing in artists should be supporting women if they want to have children and not expecting them to sacrifice their childbearing years for their art practice. It seems the art world has it’s own agenda that is unsympathetic towards the needs of the female artist mother.
AB: You talked about the strength and courage of one who is an artist and mother, yet I find in this case you are artist, mother and curator for this show, what are the added challenges and stresses by taking on this additional role?
CH – Lots in some ways and in others its almost taking on the role of the mother being a curator because we are managing other artists and taking care of their artworks, similar to when you’re looking after a child, you are in charge of their possessions too. Making sure they have all their school bags in the morning before school.
EB – I agree with Caro taking on the role of curator as well as already being a mother and artist is a natural progression in terms of coordination, organising and time planning and balancing and negotiating the needs of different individuals. Organising the show has put added time, stress and financial pressures on us but by collaborating we have been able to spread the burden of these pressures between us pulling on our individual and collective resources.
AB: Speaking about curatorship, please can you tell us about your process for this exhibition, what important elements did you specifically wanted highlighted?
CH – For me the various stages of the career of mother artists in the show and what different mediums we are all using or are involved in as an artist are hugely variable.
EB – I wanted to highlight through a large collective of 14 artist mothers how varied, individual and skilful the work currently being produced by mother artists is for our time. I wanted it to be both a celebration and culturally important insight into the work of mother artists. Also the diversity is really important, the range of materials and processes is wide and explorative.
AB: And in terms of the variety of mediums between artists on display what was the curatorial message behind this?
CH – Like being a mother, an artist also is multi-disciplinary, juggling lots of roles at home, an artist mother is capable of doing this in her professional artist life is important to bring to the surface for everyone.
EB – I agree with Caro on this one, the very range of mediums on display perfectly represents the multiplicity of the different characters and personalities of children! Each person is unique; each artwork is unique.
AB – And finally, what’s next for you guys, and if this exhibition is the beginning for potentially a long-term project, it be great to heart more on that?
CH – For me, I would like to continue to work with Mothers, and in particular, Mother artists. Maybe different themes, for example mature mothers could be the next show as a lot of artists peak later on in life? Or the younger generation of mothers coming through in the art world. To promote mother artists further.
EB – Yes I hope this is the start of a larger ongoing project, I would like to apply for funding or be invited by a larger space to try and get this show to tour around the country or even internationally, maybe at regional and larger institutions, inviting some new artist mothers for each show who are maybe local to that area, providing an added platform to show their work whilst celebrating motherhood in all it’s forms and challenges. I think this is an important issue that needs revisiting.
AB – Thank you for your time and we wish you guys the best of luck!
Mothership runs from Friday 2nd – Friday 16th December 2016 at The Sawmills, London.