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Upcoming UAlberta exhibition challenges the public’s idea of motherhood and ‘the maternal’ with unique and provocative artwork

Let’s play a game. Picture a mother. Not necessarily your mother; just a mother. The mother. The eternal personification of what a mother is and should be.

What do you picture?

Is she glowing? Is she serene, a babe at each breast, flowing hair conveniently hiding both contentious nipples from sight? Or impossibly, perfectly chic and trim, in a white sundress, smiling down at her newborn?

Now think about your own mother. Does this paint a realistic picture?

Has it ever? Will it ever?

These are just a few of the questions about the social construction of motherhood that University of Alberta art and design professor Natalie Loveless is hoping people will explore during an upcoming exhibition in FAB Gallery.

newmaternalismsexhibitNew Maternalisms Redux, running May 12–June 4, is the third and final exhibition in the national New Maternalisms series curated by Loveless.

Between the glass ceiling and the maternal wall, women have been fighting prejudice and stereotypes for centuries. But, you say, weren’t women liberated way back in the ‘70s? Bras were burned, pants were donned. Generation Now is so much more enlightened! Every day, we have transnational conversations about equality and justice via Twitter.

It may be true that people are generally more socially conscious, and according to Loveless, who has focused her research on the maternal since 2012, public conversation about motherhood and the realities of women in the workforce hasn’t always been at the forefront – until recently.

“The maternal is an important feminist issue, but it took a backseat to gender and labour equality in the mainstream discourse,” says Loveless. “At the start of the 20th century, it started to re-emerge—now it’s a hot-button issue  in contemporary feminist art and theory, and rightly so.”

Loveless says that from her viewpoint, to be a mother is to live in a paradox. Good mothers are nurturing and empathetic, which translates to “sentimental” and “soft” in the workplace, she explains. Good mothers are happy and fulfilled, not frustrated, tired or angry—never angry.

“We’re supposed to tell the pretty stories—we’re definitely not supposed to talk about the feelings of isolation, disappointment or rage that come with the daily practice of motherhood,” she notes wryly. “Motherhood is a lot of work and there are a lot of ‘taboo’ emotions associated with it.”

It’s the injustice of these constructs she hopes can be highlighted by the five artists participating in New Maternalisms Redux. “These artists are trying to get us to take a look at the realistic aspects of a mother’s life and consider the socially unsanctioned emotions they experience.”

One of those artists is the internationally acclaimed Jess Dobkin. She’ll be bringing her provocative performance art piece, The Lactation Station, to life at the exhibition’s opening reception May 12.

As part of the event, Dobkin will invite audiences to taste samples of pasteurized human breast milk donated by six lactating new mothers, in an effort to spark a dialogue about the challenges breastfeeding moms face.

“It’s pasteurized, so it’s completely safe. And yet the idea of pasteurized human milk is seen as taboo, whereas pasteurized cow milk is not,” notes Loveless. “We’ve decided as a society this is somehow gross, icky and taboo—but this isn’t about partaking. It’s about coming and experiencing and thinking about the social construct of why we feel this way.” 

For Loveless, a mother herself, the entire exhibition is about coming together to acknowledge the prejudice, the social injustice, the inequalities and the realities – good and bad – of motherhood.

Like many mothers, Loveless has experienced some of these firsthand. 

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“I was told I couldn’t do a dissertation while having a baby. I’ve been asked to leave an academic conference because I had a baby with me. I’ve been advised that women should hide their pregnancy if they’re on the job market,” she rattles off. “Then, by talking to people and reaching out, I found many feminist artists and academics and other women who were also dealing with this. It’s happening today; it just happens differently.”

Other elements of the exhibition include a presentation by Jill Miller on her popular Milk Truck project, which reached tens of thousands of people around the world via social media and publications, along with her latest project, 24 Hour Family Portraits. 

New Maternalisms Redux is part of a broader three-day colloquium hosted in the Arts Based Research Studio at the University of Alberta called Mapping the Maternal: Art, Ethics, and the Anthropocene – co-organized by Faculte St Jean prof Dr. Sheena Wilson. It’s the first first event of the new, KIAS funded, Research-Creation and Social Justice CoLABoratory.

The colloquium will see researchers and artists come together to discuss feminist art and the maternal, and will include a free film screening at the Garneau Theatre and an open-mic literary salon at Remedy Café.

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