Recent studies show that only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. This statistic is troubling, given that women comprise 80% of BFA graduates, and 60% of MFA graduates. In this series, The Sisterhood aims to shed light on this staggering gender skew in the art world. We will be interviewing different female artists, in order to discuss the way they navigate gender, sexuality, religion, family, and politics in their life and work.
An art teacher once told me, offhandedly, that art always suffers once the artist has children. She was only talking about female artists of course, and was in the midst of rolling her eyes as she showed us a series of work by a female photographer who had dressed her two young kids in different home-made animal costumes. We looked at it condescendingly, pityingly. Actually, to be more accurate, we didn’t really look at it at all. “Oh — another woman became a mom.” Over it. Now pass me some of the good, intelligent stuff.
The implication of this, that there is nothing interesting or valuable in the experience of being a mother, is a norm in the art world. And it is a dangerous one. Essentially, what it says is: women, especially mothers, have nothing real to say. Leave the art to the men.
Enter in Shira Richter — an Israeli artist who, since birthing twins 13 years ago, has made work exclusively, and unabashedly, about her experience as a mother.
Her body of work, which has changed form quite dramatically over time, is a complicated negotiation between stasis and movement. In it, a fundamental fight occurs between the rhythm of story and the stillness of image. This makes sense, as Richter herself feels trapped within that fight— a trained film-maker, she now works in still images and text because it is the only kind of work she is capable of making as a mother. She calls it “fragmented film”: the story, meaning, and visuals of cinema are all there, but in a different timescape. In a mother’s timescape.
In her most recent series, “Invisible Invaluables,” Richter sets her lens on the minutiae of her surroundings— pacifiers, baby bottles, diaper bags — in an attempt to endow them with a significance that they are rarely afforded. These every-day objects, which recall the eerie and stifling banality of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s yellow wallpapered room, are turned on their head by light and water, and, when viewed through Richter’s slow eye, appear majestic. Window panes are speckled like oil paintings, rubber nipples shine like amber glass. As you look at them, you can feel the woman, the mother, caught for a moment, while she changes a diaper or prepares a lunch, as she must have looked at them— with exhaustion, longing, desire. The hope of being transported, the ache for beauty.
Her visual art is always accompanied by conversations, which she calls Visual Performance Lectures, and she tours Universities around the world giving them. She focuses, among many things, on the lack of economic and psychological support that mothers are given by their peers and the state. Her bold work forces us to re-examine our conceptions of motherhood and its impact on the value we place on women’s lives, experiences, and voices.
I got to sit down with Richter, via Skype, and talk with her about the difficulty of being an artist and a mother, how her art has helped her learn to value her experiences, and the danger of a culture that ignores the voices of its’ mothers.
You were trained in film, yet you no longer make movies. How come?
After becoming a mother, I could no longer continue doing film. And this is important, because it happens a lot. I am not the first, or only, person who was forced to leave the film-making world because I became a mother. There is a huge drop out that occurs. Female freelance workers have it the worst of all workers. The economic situation of someone like me, who wasn’t a known filmmaker and had no benefits or economic rights, or even real paid maternity leave — it was like, what am I? I’m nothing. I’m having twins and there’s absolutely no assistance from the state economically, and I have no energy to work on films, because pregnancy itself is so exhausting. I remember that my friend told me about an interview with a filmmaker that said something that infuriated me, but is kind of true. She said, “if you haven’t made yourself a name in the cinema world before you’re a mother, forget it. It’s a lost cause.”
Why do you think this drop out, after motherhood, happens?
Motherhood is extremely demanding. If we think of ourselves like a battery, with a limited supply of energy, then becoming a mother requires all the energy and resources of our body, mind, soul, heart, and time. Artists are very committed to their work. We want to be doing it all the time — it is what makes us feel most ourselves. So once a child comes along, it becomes a competition, like a tug of war, because there is such a tie between the two things — the demanding body and soul time of being a mother, and the practice of being an artist.
For many people, their kids are their art. Their kids are their big love and passion. And all their creativity, which usually isn’t encouraged in the corporate world, goes into their children. With artists, we want our creativity for our work, so its kind of a totality: between the two identities.
What can also happen, for artists, is that, once you have a child, being a mother can quickly start to feel bigger and more important than anything else. I’ve seen many times, when, after having kids, art starts to seem unimportant or irrelevant to the mother. And, in the art world, you aren’t allowed to make art about being a mother. It is seen as this sticky pink kind of experience, looked down upon as a legitimate experience to research and explore. The ultimate taboo.
Can you tell me about your new art process, and how it relates to your film-training?
I think of my process as a form of “dissected film” — stories told through images, but not in an ongoing way, like film is. Film is a function of time and motion, and motherhood made my time totally fractionalized, so my cinema became fractionalized. Which is why quilts are such a female thing, you do a little patch here, when you have a minute, and then another here. That’s how I worked on my projects — whenever I had a few minutes, scattered throughout the day. I don’t feel comfortable saying I’m a photographer, because each image is a scene and I tell stories about each image and I cannot dissect the image from the story I want to tell.
How did you start working on “The Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit?”
After giving birth to twins, I had a lot of leftover skin — something that nobody had told me would happen. Nobody talks about the truth of this skin that’s left on the body after pregnancy. It is usually either operated on or hidden. At the beginning, I thought also that it was awful. But, because of all the great feminists who went before me, who told me that my experience was worth valuing and examining — I had the courage to put my lens to what I was going through. I focused my camera on the remains of my body after having the twins. And, there was a moment, when I woke up and I really had the guts to look at what disgusted me, and there was this shift from being disgusted to thinking, wow this is beautiful, this is what I see on the airplane! The way this skin is folding, this is what earth looks like! And I was thinking — everyone’s fighting about Mother Earth, but this is Mother Earth. This tear, this experience, bringing pain and life into the world. This is Mother Earth! So I started mapping my body, and I used the leftover skin that was scarred and ugly to communicate many stories and thoughts and feelings about the transition to motherhood.
What are some of the thoughts that you were communicating with your skin?
In the Bible, pregnancy is taught to us as the curse that occurred after Eve transgressed. In Israel, when we become pregnant, we have that quote in our head, so loud, in the language of the bible.
In Jewish culture, we celebrate transitions. That’s what we do — bar mitzvah, wedding, death. Yet, the biggest transition of all, of becoming a mother, there is absolutely no ceremony to celebrate it. Or even acknowledge it. Once you give birth, you will never in your life be the person you were before. You are now responsible for another human being. I called the work “The Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit,” because I was yearning for respect and honor, for a blessing and not for a curse. This project was my celebration: it was honoring the meaning and the real death that goes into it — the death of the person I was before, of my body that I had, of my identity, the filmmaker…so many deaths go into the new life. But there is no representation of that reality with all of the balloons and pink and baby showers. The only person who gets to feel it is the woman, and you are all alone in feeling it.
I made the images as big as I could afford. I did this because, we are expected to hide and be ashamed of our bodies and our experience — so I wanted to flip it, and make it as big to the viewer as it was to me.
Why do you think it is so hard for women to feel that their experiences, and their voices, are worthwhile?
In Hebrew, the word for female, nikayvah, means a hole, that’s what you are. And, the Hebrew for man is zachar, which means “to remember”.
Men tell each other “stop being such a nikayvah” all the time — calling someone else a woman is a curse word in our culture. Even women use it against women. It’s so ingrained in us that we don’t even notice that were doing it. I can stop here and say, no wonder we don’t really value ourselves. We don’t want to be that women. That nikayvah. I remember most of my life, not wanting to be “like her” because being “like her” was never something good. Whenever you compliment a woman you say, “oh she’s such a man, she knows what she wants, she’s out there, assertive, she wears the pants in the family.” Being a man — that’s the compliment.
Can you tell me about your most recent project, “Invisible Invaluables,” and the story you are telling with those images?
“Invisible Invaluables” emerged out of the many years of being in my house, taking care of twins, during the second Intifada. Many women call this experience being in jail. While I was taking care of the kids, I would notice, in a split second, that an image would meet the light, or meet water, and it would suddenly transform into something else. A lot of the images are of the mundane every day paraphernalia of motherhood — nickels or bottles or pacifiers — in these certain moments where the sun meets them, and transforms them into something beautiful, valuable. It was like my soul was needing to search for the images of hope. I always hear mothers saying, I deserve a medal for all the hard work I’m doing — and so, these were my medals. The exhibition space was set up to look like a very exclusive jewelry store, and the images hung on the walls, each one named after an expensive gem. Tied into the duality of the images, is the political reality: the fact that the international global economy does not count this work as valuable, does not include it in the GDP. In Israel, the formal name for managing a house and taking care of the children is “not working”. The hardest work in the world is called “not working” by the institutions that decide everything about our life. My goal is for people to realize that the culture does not value their mothering skills, and to get them to value themselves, from a very deep place.
Hannah Rubin is a writer and artist living in Oakland, California