This collection of essays, interviews, letters, and illustrations, edited by Rachel Epp Buller and Charles Reeve, is a fascinating study of the exclusion of the maternal body and feminist perspective in the visual art world. As Epp Buller explains in her introduction of the anthology, we must seek “connections across generations, geographies, and disciplines,” especially as women’s experiences “still are ignored, stigmatized, or censored.” Both Epp Buller and Reeve are art historians, curators, professors, and parents. Epp Buller also brings her background as a printmaker and book artist to these insightful discussions of women’s outsider status in cultural institutions in the United States, Canada, and around the world.
Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity presents firsthand accounts of women (and a few men) who attempt to combine their domestic and artistic lives with mixed and varied results. For some parent-artists, their babies and children become sources of creativity and subject matter. Other contributors use their artistic skill to fight for family access to often restrictive and unaccommodating cultural institutions, as in contributor Lisa Halle Baggesen’s creation, “Mothernism”. Designed to be a tent-like installation, “Mothernism” offers a womb-like space for rest and relaxation with children, and provides comfortable seating, bright colors, and gentle lighting. Other contributors use their maternal energies to politically organize through social media, public installations, and regional action groups. In all cases, these writers and artists are helping to expand the “maternal” influence in artistic subject matter, academic programs, and exhibitions. This telling anthology is a useful and intimate compilation of honest stories and experiences creatively birthed by a diverse group of artists and writers.
The prolific volume is divided into three sections: Body Politics, Family Practices and By Design, making the book easier to read and digest. The appealing layout allows readers to peruse at will, choosing topics of immediate interest or relevance without necessarily consuming the rich text from start to finish (although it will be well worth their time to do so.) The illustrations are equally important to the overall understanding of the book. They include photographs of art installations, oil on wood paintings, Chinese ink paintings, watercolors, embroideries, sculptures, video and performance stills, and handwritten letters. Although the images are all printed in black and white, the beauty, content, and diversity of the art are all striking and provocative. These images of women’s bodies and domestic lives reimagine the traditional narrative of motherhood. They underscore the main theme of the book, which is the historical marginalization of the woman’s viewpoint in the conventional art world.
In the first section, “Body Politics,” the issue of “nonconforming bodies” is considered. Specifically, the writers look at disabilities and stereotypes of female identity. Caroline Seck Langill writes about artist Judith Scott who was born in 1943, with Down’s syndrome. She suffered hearing loss from scarlet fever and was institutionalized for 35 years. Her 20 sculptures of “cocoon-like tightly bound textiles” were shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale. In expanding the dimensions of “appropriate” bodies, Langill explains, “were the audience not familiar with her circumstances, they would assume she was able bodied until the last sentence: ‘The artist was born with Down’s Syndrome.'” Langill wonders, “Was it necessary to educate the audience regarding this artist’s chromosomal circumstance?” This is an important question and asks the reader to confront the narrowness of what is deemed “suitable” and normative.
Another meaningful inclusion in “Body Politics” is a poignant letter from visual artist Irene Perez, born in Spain, to her daughter. She shares that the “gender norm rules from our patriarchal culture whispered fear of disapproval to us.” She also reveals her painful memories of her own mother’s constant refrain to her that she is “fat and should be on a diet.” She offers these insights so her daughter might find courage to present her physical beauty and femininity “in a different way.” When her daughter shaves her head to take control of her own body and appearance, both mother and daughter bravely face the taunts and intrusive questions about gender identity and expression. This chapter is filled with Perez’s evocative artwork, including her cross-stitch embroidery. One piece, entitled “Vellesa_Bellesa (Old Age Beauty)” is embroidered with “I will not hide the gifts that time has given to my body.” This work is beautiful, both in its message and in its visual appeal.
In the second section, “Family Practices,” the authors look at the difficulty of combining traditional motherhood with an artistic career. These mothers knock down the barriers between their domestic and creative lives, and they use their families and womanhood as inspiration. Marni Kotak created “Raising Baby X,” a performance art project that documents her son’s development through photos, sculptures, journals, and videos. Alicia Harris, a PhD candidate who researches indigenous kinships and art, discusses the importance of maternal creation myths in Native American art. She explains, “Central to Iroquoian narratives and creation myths, Atahensic fell from the sky and gave birth to the first woman, thus becoming the grandmother of the Iroquois nation.” She sees some contemporary female Native American artists resurrecting this beautiful story and weaving it into their work and exhibitions, as a way to honor and highlight “community, family, home, and heritage.”
Terri Hawkes, a member of the “sisterhood-of-the-traveling-mother-artists-activists,” interviews artists on their adaptations for combining work and motherhood. One is Anna Ehnold-Danailov, London theater artistic director of “Prams in the Hall.” This is a “mother-centered theatre company” that creates “new ways to combine motherhood and artistic work . . . conceiving rehearsals, studios, collectives, and institutions in a way that considers life situations and artistic needs.” These women bring their children to rehearsals and make their productions accessible to families. The results are beneficial to the artists and to their audiences.
Further in this segment of the compilation, other artists redefine the parameters of motherhood and marriage. Reeve’s interview with Jess Dobkin delves into the rigid views of traditional motherhood. Dobkin is an artist, activist, and teacher who created a surprising “breast milk tasting bar” that has been staged in various locations to demystify the act of nursing babies. Another of her performance pieces has “destabilized and reconstructed” the traditional notions of “heteronormative” marriage and parenting. It is an “all-night” performance to consider the “invisible and marginalized voices and experiences of people who occupy the night—including shift workers, street workers . . . and new parents.” Dobkin explains that her “self-identity as a lesbian” led her to question the traditional “social norms and conventions” of domestic relations. This interview brings to light the mothers who are often left out of the discussion. In his Afterword, Reeve goes back to these questions and inequities. He sees that “we need to measure the gaps caused by difference; we need to set calibrated targets to overcome those gaps; and we need to integrate into that process some thinking about how we change systems.”
In the third section, “By Design,” the writers “question the design of spaces, objects, and practices” that make the maternal body feel “inappropriate.” The authors propose some novel ideas that provide hope and inclusion for mothers. Epp Buller describes Ruchika Wason Singh’s Archive for Mapping Mother Artists in Asia (AMMAA) which is a virtual platform for connecting mother artists throughout Asia. Wason Singh views AMMAA as “an empowerment project” which fosters virtual “creative spaces” and online events. It also offers in-person residencies and physical work spaces for the unique needs of mother artists. This provides connections for women who otherwise have no access to these resources.
As a variation on design, Epp Buller returns to the old-fashioned exchange of handwritten letters. She initiates correspondence with two other women artists in a “round-robin format.” The reader will enjoy these insightful and very personal conversations, which honor a long, women’s tradition of artistry in letters and diaries. This slow process of mail (as opposed to social media communication) reflects “the rhythms and routines of family life.” The women discuss daily thoughts and activities, while reflecting on raising children, domestic responsibilities, and the creative process. For instance, one mother talks about the slow, daily walk to school with her daughter. In those walks, she finds joy in keen observation and “repetition,” which are both valuable for artistic contemplation.
This lovely collection of writings and illustrations, skillfully edited by Epp Buller and Reeve, critiques the status of mother artists in mainstream cultural institutions. These women are fighting back and gaining ground through their activism, collaboration, and family-centered work. They provide hope for all mothers who aim for inclusion and work-life balance. They are a mosaic of age, race, ethnicity, marital status, disability, and economic background. This important and enlightening book bravely shares their visions and voices.