This is the last chance to see the Mother Art Prize 2020, now at its third edition. Other exhibitions in the past year have explored the evolving, ongoing and undeniably complex condition of motherhood, from Birth at TJ Boulting (2019), Matrescence (2019) and Maternality (2020) at Richard Saltoun, to Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media at the Foundling Museum (2020). The Mother Art Prize 2020 not only explores the facets of motherhood but also wider themes of bodily constructions, identities, sexualities and gender, reproductive technologies, civil rights and politics. Its participation is limited to women who are mothers and carers.
In Jude (2020), Helen Benigson explores the traumatised maternity and the subsequent transformation of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi’s wife into a single, non-binary person coming to terms with parenthood, religion, sexuality and gender. Through a rising beat of drums one follows Jude’s memories and impressions of themselves into the family they were born into, the family they formed and the subsequent fight to get out of both, ultimately looking for freedom.
Eileen Anastasia Reynolds and Violet Costello are the other winners of this year’s edition. The panel looked at over 650 anonymous applications from which 20 were chosen for the exhibition. The stop-motion animation by Eileen Anastasia Reynolds investigates bioethics, the pharmaceutical industry and the struggle of living. Violet Costello’s Touch Him (‘Bringing Home Baby’ Series) (2018) depicts a bluish, terrifying creature, a new born in all its vulnerability and wonder. The painting seems to hold these tensions at the threshold of panic and utter desperation, feelings also felt in the heart-breaking Badland (2020) by Marta Stysiak.
This work is a video recording of the telephone conversations between a mother and a daughter. The latter, only a teenager, had her son taken away from her two weeks after his birth; depriving her of the right of motherhood and introducing a life-long separation. Her son was placed in a foster family while she was put in a psychiatric ward, unable to connect with her motherhood nor with anyone else in the ward.
Rights to freedom are also the topic of Michelle Hartney’s Mother’s Right (2015) a performance, installation and video about the US high maternal mortality rate. Along with local midwives, doulas, and volunteers, the artist sewed 1,200 hospital gowns, one for every mother who died in childbirth in America in 2013. Death also forms part of Sabba Syal Elahi’s embroideries the suspect is my son (2018), which commemorates the names of women and children killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.
Amongst these works with dense topics, the lightness of Sadie Hennessy’s The Boyfriend Auditions strikes an odd note. The artist poses on a stand on a pebble beach ready to interview the candidates, which are nowhere to be seen. With irony Hennessy addresses single parenthood, a challenge and source of independence. All works tap into a specific domain and the show grouped a wide variety of medias and themes. While receiving entries from 45 countries, the 19 finalists are somehow restricted geographically and conceptually to an Anglo-American context. Now at its third iteration, the prize, which wants to retain anonymity in entries and selection, faces the challenge to represent the geopolitical diversity it is situated in.
The Mother Art Prize started in 2017 as part of the Procreate Project, founded in 2013 by Dyana Gravina who was aware of “the shocking reality of lack of support and representation that force women outside of the creative industries”. What Gravina thought was needed was affordable childcare, a supporting network and a couple of opportunities to develop work. She was joined by Paola Lucente, a dynamic and passionate curator, who was also sensitive to the difficulties that artists encountered when they had children. Procreate now supports events, publications, sales, a prize, and soon the Mother House Studios, due to open in south London in 2021, with integrated and affordable childcare.
Being part of a support structure and offering mentorship and a network, the Procreate Project and the Mother Art Prize is a unique endeavour in the UK. Similar initiatives exist elsewhere, such as Mothers in Arts in the Netherlands and ARIM (Artists in Motherhood) in the US. Empowering and inspiring artists who are also mothers and carers is important in fostering local arts communities. A friend observed that the most prestigious artist residencies exclude families from attending and so they exclude many artists who have enduring care responsibilities and the Mother Art Prize addresses this as part of a wider programme.
Ilaria Puri Purini
Curator of Programmes
Cromwell Place, 4 Cromwell Place, London, SW7 2JE. Open Wednesday-Saturday 10.00-18.00, Sunday 12.00-16.00. Exhibition continues until 30 October 2020. www.cromwellplace.com