Affirmation as a set of questions – is it appropriate to affirm mother figures today?
Mothering as affirmation of everyday life.
Queerness as the mother of all subversive care practices.
The mother of daily change. Care cargo containers.
“The subject is composed of two different and inseparable sides: the personal (for an expression of the vital) and the extra personal (vital force itself)”
Sue Rolnick, 2020
On the indissolubility of experiences and non-linear events leading to conception
Sometime between March and December 2021, I submit my idea for organizing the Carer’s Plenary as part of Arsenał Gallery’s “Gallery as a common space” open call. Like most artistic or cultural projects in 2020-2021, this one is also bogged down by successive postponements of deadlines and budgets (there are few resources available, as most are allocated to saving hospitals, programmes aiding the financial situation in every other sector of the economy, strengthening the position of institutions safeguarding national values, and government’s protections on the border).
So, together with those invited to join the Plenum, we set up a working group, and we meet each month (oh, how regular are these natural rhythms and cycles) to talk about mothering, the labour of care, our being in the world, and the system as mothers and carers.
Also in the first half of 2021, on 24 March, one of the world’s largest container ships, the Ever Given, spectacularly blocks the Suez Canal, and deprives the Western world of 12% of global orders for material goods from China.
In November 2021, I am asked to write this essay – I try to weave my/our modus operandi into this text. Around 20 December 2021, after nine months, my first meme (top right) is born. It is the resultant of memories, my love for memes, and the inspiration found in the text “Maybe, not now, later, other-wise” by Alina Lupu.1 The Dutch artist of Romanian origin describes her work and the project “Producing one another,” in which she focuses on the broadly-understood relationship with the mother: the biological mother, the mother she feels within, even though she has no children, and finally – with the construct of the mother figure – its collective image, its political and sociological significance. An extension of Alina’s work is leading the Mother/hood/ing reading group (since July 2021).
I am open about the constant intellectual and emotional exchange with the working group (mothers Dorota Walentynowicz, Ula Zerek, Anna Jankojć, Gabi Skrzypczak, Ali, sometimes also Kinga Michalska, Ada Rączka, Kacper and Stewunia, Robert Sochacki and Cura2). With my biological children, born by emergency caesarean sections in 2016 and 2018. With Alina Lupu, my astral sister discovered recently, in 2020, during an online artist residency. With Anna Steller, with whom I have been talking since 2019 about the bodily and mental distractions faced by those working as artists and mothers. Anna’s work, Rozwidlenie [Fork II] illustrates this essay. With Julia Sokolnicka, she and I looked after each other in person and in writing during the time of a pandemic suspension.3 With Anka Herbut, who teaches me – both directly and indirectly – about the importance of including movement and body in discourse of subversive care practices. With Anna Witkowska, with whom we talked about how much of one’s own child one can include in an artistic video, giving rise to our thinking about the Carer’s Pleneary.4 And with Egle Oddo, who illustrates her experience of being a mother, woman, and artist by working with plants that are difficult to cultivate at home.
Egle said about this photo: “(Here) you can see moss growing on rotten and dirty surfaces as a form of artistic response to the collapse. It is difficult to grow moss at home, sometimes it exhibits extremophile behaviour. I don’t know if I am more into the domestication of wild plants, or rather anticipate that my home will become a part of a future, wild environment. I can see many links between the current political debates and the female body.”
This list of people who are so important when it comes to my writing, working, and living in general is – at least from the point of view of the theme of this essay, i.e., care – very important, because all this does not take place in a vacuum nor in a mother-child relation. It takes place within a vast rhizome of experiences, beliefs, stereotypes, patterns, prejudices, within the state system, the politics of deformed capitalism and post-colonialism, at a time of crisis. Among a whirlwind of people, avatars, memes and recipes, guides, treatises, and text messages. Going back to Sue Rolnick, quoted at the beginning of this essay: internal experience is always linked to the external, it constitutes both the obverse and the reverse of the same; the subject of the Self is constructed from the indissoluble flanks of intra- and extra-personal experience.
We are tired of being distracted: not being ‘here and now’ enough, redirecting our attention, creating secure bonds, forming coherent thoughts, and making dinner. We are tired of the voices imposing standards that are utterly incongruous with our own conditions and abilities. We are often – quietly or unintentionally – excluded from the art world: because of our children, our age, the inability to clearly define ourselves, our aversion for the existing structures, a lack or surplus of experience. We are being silenced, just like our children who cry and get hungry at times deemed inappropriate within our culture, art, and society. We would like to have some time to talk: about ourselves, about us, about us and you, about those who need support, about what human and non-human persons create, together with us, a network and the announcement of a new normality. We will try to turn our distraction into dispersion; a slow expansion of range related to our own evolution.
I would like, and we would like, to examine the concept of the mother as artists and activists – people who have physically given birth and are raising children, as well as those who look after spaces for queer children, express fluid identities, and care for the expansion of non-binary spaces. We would like to turn into an essay the exchange of thoughts resulting from meeting these people and our research method – research through dialogue, as the most horizontal and inclusive form of creating content that we have everywhere anyway in abundance.
A piece of paper with a triangle collecting my thoughts around the text with a drawing of a figure according to my son, back of the Autoportret magazine [Self-portrait] with the text of Jolanta Brach-Czaina and my notes, pirate flag.
On becoming a mother, serving as a container, and the invisible masks of mothering
“Regardless of whether we are mothers, whether we have a mother, whether we feel the lack of a mother, whether we would like to become mothers or not, or we think about our partners who are mothers, we move within this subject and what it means for our lives.”
I. Dryburgh, A. Lupu, from the description of Mother/hood/ing
Since I began this essay with a container ship, the Ever Given, and its nine-month incubation within our collective imagination, let us now enter the container which, according to the forefather of developmental psychology and the then progressive psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, is the best depiction of a mother.
The mother-(parent) container is a mother who holds their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, and, simultaneously, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviours of the child. What is more, a mother-container is able to contain everything that the child directs towards them; all the pleasant and unpleasant reactions, acting out, tantrums, rebellions, hugs, biting, mocking, testing boundaries, crying, boundless sadness, and hormonal ups and downs.
To follow this trope: a mother-container can contain an infinite amount; they can calmly accept it and do not repay for it “in kind.” They just are, they keep it all inside, and, like a skilled therapist, will reflect the child’s behaviour (“I can see that you furrow your eyebrows”, “I hear when you say that your leg hurts”).
From a socio-political perspective, the mother-container is a store of all ideals, criticisms, tips on how to be a mother, and guidelines from different kinds of experts, even if the latter contradicts each other. For generations, immersed in the comphet5 universe, clearly delineating what is “male” and what is “female”, socialised to take on the role of a carer, economically dependent on the patriarchal partner or state, the mother-container smiles gently and just stores it all.
And yet, the Ever Given got stuck, the container ship blocked the canal, world production held its breath, the people froze. But for a number of years, in many small clusters, stubbornly and fearlessly, small excavators of change have been trying to transform the narrative: by unblocking the canal in which the container with care is moving, we also try to heal the way in which loading, unloading, and route-planning takes place. Carers think collectively, concurrently and efficiently; hence, every few years, the topics of CARE, TENDERNESS, MOTHERHOOD, SISTERHOOD, HEALING return to academic and artistic discourse. Becoming a mother figure has recently been very clearly visible in queer activism, dance choreographies, and in the performing arts.
Note on the act of becoming a mother in a catalogue from a theatre event, my son’s artwork/cut-out.
It seems to me that this is the result of change that is already present within us, but also serves as a response to the mechanisms of global capitalism. The creation of artificial needs in order to drive the supply, and above all: lowering costs in order to increase profits – the historical context of hierarchization is a formula for the degradation of the concept of labour – including reproductive and care labour, without which it is impossible today to reflect on ideas of care and mothering.6
A fully-loaded container ship becomes recognisable, and thus – invisible. Just like housework, taking care of children, and low-paid work of babysitters, kindergarten teachers, cleaners, nurses are to us obvious and invisible.
Let’s continue this line of thinking: people living beyond the hetero-normative border (apart from a few large cities during the parades in June) and people living beyond the political perimeter that designates the “West” have also been invisible for years. Migrant workers often provide services for us – the richer, permanent residents of a given country. These workers – doing babysitting, hospital, and cleaning jobs – become invisible in a twofold way: first, because of their status of culturally-invisible strangers, and second, because they disappear for hours, working away from their own family or community. In addition to the systemic violence of hetero-patriarchy and market rules, we – in the privileged, white and rich world – are also caught up in elitism.
To quote the late bell hooks: “in a world where women are fast becoming the majority of our nation’s poor, where single mothers are pathologised, where no state aid is available to help the needy and indigent, where most females of all ages have no access to basic health care. Yet given these dire realities, visionary feminist discourse is increasingly only talked about in the corridors of the educated elite. If it remains there, the feminist message will not be hears and ultimately the feminist movement will end” (Preface to the New Edition… 2015, Routledge).7
Being located between “biological terror and social sanctions”: as mothers, queers, and people.8 It is impossible to be a container bursting with care for the Other when there is no space. No change will arise unless care work is appreciated and goods are redistributed. Of course, I do not want to propose any kind of general “appeal to–”, such letters speaking to the conscience of the ruling class have long lost their meaning.
I will only emphasise that another important aspect seems to be the care for intergenerational memory: currently suggested changes or lively discussions are not “starting from scratch”, the Plenum of Carers is not an innovative idea. The struggle has been going on since the 1970s, especially around intersectional feminism and decolonisation movements, or the Black Radical Tradition. Remembering that a lot has already been done, looking for connections, discovering what we already have, and instigating. Not in academic writing, but everyday gestures. This is how I understand queer mothering, mameering.
Just as different containers have similar shapes and sizes, the external image of the mother – the caregiver – has been universalised. It has to be nice (!), warm, tender, pastel-coloured and rather dull. If it’s red, the colour should suggest the heart, rather than menstrual or placental red; if it’s black, the blackness should suggest a quiet night rather than the icy abyss of post-partum depression. Meanwhile, to paraphrase the words of Verena Kettner, a queer-feminist political scientist, we are all queer once we start having children.9 There is no single correct way of caring for others; both the carer and the cared for constantly change – every day they have different needs, interests, and abilities. In mothering, everything passes through one’s own experience, over and over again – what we give is very often what we did or did not receive in the past. What we look like does not depend on us; it is even more evident for queer people: how we look like is independent of how and who we might feel like. When it comes to mother-artists, queerness (understood as an incompatibility, an integrated strangeness) occurs at the intersection of the needs of being a carer, the need to be an artist, the need to be cared for, and the need to be independent.
This is only possible in a good world.
In a bad world, there’s no good life (a different version of this sentence comes up at every meeting of our working group). How often do we experience the good life and can express ourselves exactly how we want, without the need to mask our true self? Without endless (auto)correction?
Collage including a quote, meme and a print screen, with Word autocorrect.
Masking one’s identity is very common among carers. The long-term process of hiding oneself “for someone else” does not go unnoticed in our body: with time, it becomes increasingly difficult to express one’s otherness, inconsistency with a given picture. Emotional, intellectual, and physical costs emerge – long-term fatigue, feelings of emptiness, burnout, numbness. More broadly, this seems to explain why people socialised to the role of caregivers experience impostor syndrome more often than others. The mask eventually makes it difficult to recognise one’s own boundaries and competences. One may even begin to feel ashamed that they still have and “other” self, and associated needs and expectations.
But simultaneously, for many in our society, the ability to mask is a significant resource, allowing them to survive or find their own reference group. This is a mental strategy that, while costly, pays off. How else can you function differently when most of the work (effort, energy) is enclosed in a circle every day?
(Replace “feeding” with the kind of care you provide to others – I created my diagram in 2018 while I was breastfeeding).
On questions that are affirmation
What if we came to the conclusion that right now, we do not need a container, but rather an eco-friendly, reusable grocery bag, woven from a stretchy net that allow the experiences and thoughts to flow “from” and “to” the mother?
Hopefully, every time a rigid belief about care and mothering breaks down, a different, new belief about the caregiver is created – one that includes beings, needs, and experiences that so far were shunned, disregarded, dismissed, and ridiculed, and is covered with the glitter of new means of communicating and integrating gender fluidity, the bizarre aesthetics of post-humanism, and the discourses of non-human persons.
Would that be enough?
What will happen to female artist-mothers and curator-mothers when we begin to really incorporate new types of care into, not just into personal, but also institutional narratives?
When will this oppressive system – against which we assemble and scheme – finally implode?
Are we ready for the Plenum of Carers to become a reality, a model for action?
How will this all affect the art market, profoundly embedded in capitalist production, supply and demand structures, sympathetic to the egos of artists?
Will day to day-to-day care become labour, just like art – or will the labour of care become a common practice?
And you, how are you feeling?
we are repeating each other
knowing there is nothing new, only that which we already know rearranged
we are repeating each other
knowing there is something new in that which we already know rearranged
we are repeating each other
knowing not what is there but that something needs to be changed
Hannah Meleokaiao Ayasse. Statement re-write for Grand Re-Union project, December 2020.
1 Available: https://www.tubelight.nl/maybe-not-now-later-otherwise/ [accessed on 10.12.2021].
2 An essay by Ada Rączka is also included in this issue, in the Art Channel section.
3 PL/NL – notatki z domu do domu” [PL/NL – notes from home to home], Pomiędzy publishing house, wyd. Goyki 3 Art Inkubator, 2020 ?
4 There is, of course, no one right answer to this question, although many art critics and renowned artists [Trans: in the original, the author notes that her use of masculine form of the word ‘artist’ is intentional] would happily erase this real-life aspect of the mother-artist’s experience in the world of art. Ania Witkowska’s video “Wanderlust” was shown in the summer of 2021 in two Polish galleries, in each part of the series, Ania’s son, Ignacy, played an important and visible part. An interesting comment related to this phenomenon of depreciation of art created by mothers can be found in Agata Araszkiewicz’s book, “Zapomniana Rewolucja” [Forgotten Revolution] (Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, 2014), which, among other things, describes the process of degradation of the work of female writers of the interwar period by male literary critics. For example, a description of childbirth in one novel was considered too realistic, thus depriving the work of the right to be considered a novel. [Thanks to Ada Rączka for bringing this to my attention].
5 Comphet: compulsory heterosexuality; a term taken from an essay by Adrienne Rich, describing the phenomenon of “heterosexual culture” as ideal, and consistent with the broadly understood norm (in the sense of social, political, personal, gender norms, etc.).
6 Dr Bogna Hall proposes an extended reflection on migration and families in crisis in political terms, e.g., in Le Monde Diplomatique: https://monde-diplomatique.pl/graniczny-spektakl-wrogosci/ [accessed on 13 December 2021].
7  bell hooks Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Routledge, 2015.
8 I am using a quote summarizing the third session of the group Mother/hood/ing, led by Alina Lupu and referring to the book by Orne Donath, Regretting motherhood.
9 I refer to the text “We are all queer when we are kids” about the Codomestication performance, published in TQW Magazine: https://tqw.at/en/als-kinder-sind-wir-alle-queer/ [accessed on 1.12.2021].