“My wife would find this very interesting.”
This is one of the most common responses Irene Lusztig received while working on “The Motherhood Archives,” a film about the histories of maternal practice and education. Her approach to the assertion that this topic is only meant for a niche audience — specifically mothers, feminists, or women — is to complicate and challenge this stereotypical view of motherhood.
A new Sesnon Gallery exhibit, “Complicated Labors” explores the intersections between maternity, feminism, creative practice and theory. Curated by Lusztig, who teaches in the Film and Digital Media department, the exhibit grew out of her personal frustration with the lack of conversation around maternity.
“Everyone has a relationship to motherhood, but in both the art world and the literary world, it has always been considered irrelevant, indulgent, sentimental, narrow, domestic, not of any universal importance or not a serious topic for thought,” Lusztig said. “There’s very little public space to talk about maternity in a way that’s complicated, ambivalent and messy.”
Many of the exhibit’s preoccupations were formed by the often overlooked practice of maternal art, which has its roots in conceptual artist Mary Kelly’s influential 1976 work “Post-Partum Document.” This exhibit, which reflected on issues of maternity and feminism, is considered one of the major works in the lineage of maternal art practice.
Kelly herself provided the keynote address for the symposium event accompanying the opening of “Complicated Labors,” which took place on Feb. 5. Connecting Freudian psychoanalysis with theoretical notes on the 1970s, the women’s movement and the tensions between history and the present, Kelly’s intellectual parsing of academic and artistic theory acted as the introduction to the exhibit’s themes.
“I’d like to reconsider the question of maternal subjectivity,” Kelly said, “in the social-sexual division of labor in the contexts of artistic production, more than 40 years since it was first posed by the women’s movement in the 1970s.”
Bringing together visual artists, writers, theorists and various other academics, the symposium spoke to the interdisciplinary aspect of the work.
“I think there’s a sense of common experience and purpose, and it’s useful to think about that across disciplines,” Lusztig said. “Part of the problem with the way motherhood works is that women are isolated when they have children. There isn’t good institutional support. It’s important and useful to learn that writers and other academics are dealing with same problems and questions that visual artists are.”
Several people involved in the exhibit, including professor Micah Perks, head of the Creative Writing department, elaborated on the question of maternal subjectivity in their own work, explaining why a topic like motherhood doesn’t often receive the credit it deserves.
“I think it’s trivialized or over-looked because it’s not considered one of the great, heroic themes — like romantic love and war — and at the same time our ideas about the way women should feel about maternity are very rigid,” Perks said via email. “There’s no room for complicated feelings or ambivalence.”
Lusztig said that historically, a female artist’s maternal life and artistic life were conceived as two separate realms, which she and other artists find problematic.
“A lot of women artists often didn’t have kids or thought that having kids would ruin their careers,” Lusztig said. “Most of the artists involved in ‘Complicated Labors’ are thinking about how their creative work intersects with their lives as mothers, instead of thinking that those two things have to be in opposition to each other.”
As for the space itself, the Sesnon gallery provides a small yet intimate glimpse into these artists’ work. From the 1970s collective “Mother Art” and their clothesline fabric pieces, to Jill Miller’s series of photos displaying her and her son in symmetrical poses around their house, to Natalie Loveless’ video diaries detailing various activities she performs with her child, the space celebrates each artist’s thematic preoccupations across markedly different mediums.
Luzstig said she wanted to put certain pieces of work in conversation with each other throughout the space. By having work from the 70s placed beside more contemporary work, the exhibit fosters a sense of intergenerational dialogue.
“Conversation was a central part of the 70s feminist project,” Lusztig said, “especially with the idea of the consciousness-raising groups — women sitting around and talking about the conditions of their lives … I think a lot of that collective conversation spirit has been lost between the 70s and now. I think we do a lot less getting together and talking now, and I hope to reclaim that idea.”
As an ongoing reflection on the ways modern feminists and mothers are learning from history, “Complicated Labors” thrives as a space of contestation that blurs the boundaries between present and past, academic and artistic, personal and political.
“I got angry that there wasn’t a space for these conversations,” Lusztig said. “Motherhood is still the site of regressive and problematic thinking, so I think rage is a generative space. Maybe motherhood is the last punk rock frontier for thinking about women.”