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Review: 'The Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood' at the Arnolfini

The Arnolfini's latest exhibition is a multi-faceted depiction of motherhood in all its stripped back, unpolished truth: from the tender highs to the gut-wrenching lows.

By Elinor Cole, Third Year, History

In the vast open area of its downstairs exhibition space, the clothing of a small child hangs, as if it is about to be laid out the day before school. This is an image we are all too familiar with - the joyful innocence of childhood. Yet, upon further inspection, this clothing tells us another story. Knitted out of bullet-proof material, this uniform is the creation of Cassie Arnold, a Texan mother and artist, who portrays the anxiety and fears of school shootings amongst parents in the United States.

The Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol demonstrates an in-depth examination of the complexities of motherhood. Showcasing the works of sixty artists, this exhibition offers an alternative to previous artistic portrayals of ‘perfect’ mothers, demonstrating that despite motherhood’s rewards, it is still a role that bears feelings of resentment, frustration and sadness.

The downstairs of the building appears bright and open, with a constructed ‘kitchen’ at the back. Its centralised ‘kitchen table’ and descended ‘washing-line’ act as a physical indicator of the role domestic spaces play for feminist activists and mothers. Women not only utilise these spaces for their daily activities, but they also gather there, to make art and discuss political and social change. 

Image courtesy of Elinor Cole

Before entering ‘the kitchen’, I was immediately drawn to Carrie Mae Weem’s photographs, titled the ‘Kitchen Table Series’. Unlike the previous representations, Weem’s work depicts the kitchen table space as central to the successes and difficulties of women’s lives. With one woman appearing repeatedly throughout, the nine photographs from this series present to us all-too-familiar scenes. Here, motherhood is shown through two avenues. Whilst the reoccurring female figure helps her young child with their homework in one image, she is shown having her hair brushed by her own, older mother in another. The series highlights the fact that motherhood is a multi-generational, life-long commitment.

Unlike the bright lighting of the downstairs, the upstairs of the Arnolfini exhibition tells a much more moody and melancholic story. Producing an honest portrayal of early motherhood, Tabitha Soren positioned a camera above her bed for an entire year and utilised multiple exposure images to ‘illustrate the broken nights and repetitive tasks involved in caring for a young child.’ These four artworks (chosen out of a total of four hundred) bear titles such as ‘The Month the Panic Attacks Started’ and ‘The Month the Baby Slept Through the Night.’ Here we are given an insight into the chaos and difficulties of early motherhood.

Image courtesy of Elinor Cole

As well as exploring the lives of mothers and their families, this exhibition also succeeds in highlighting loss. Whilst we may immediately think of loss in motherhood as experiencing the death of one’s children, restrictions on reproductive rights are also noted. After all, it is not just the loss of a child that a woman or non-binary person may experience; in many parts of the world, they have also lost their right to choose whether to have a child at all.

Whilst Elina Brotherus documents her difficulties with IVF, Nancy Willis presents the longing she had for a baby after she agreed to sterilisation. Whilst I am not a mother and do not necessarily want to become one, I felt immensely moved by the anguish and pain of these women in relation to their own struggle with their maternal identity.

My experience at The Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood exhibition was as uplifting as it was at times harrowing, as women and non-binary people are represented in real, unapologetic terms. Strong and resilient, overwhelmed and tired, this exhibition depicts the raw, honest complexities of mothers and their lived experiences. Overall, it is extremely worthy of a visit.

Featured Image: Elinor Cole

Will you be visiting 'The Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood' at the Arnolfini?