Sarah Welsh: Giving birth in art

Sarah Welsh

Why is the subject of birth rarely engaged with in contemporary art? This is what Birth Rite’s collection “Birth in Contemporary Art,” questioned at a symposium on 11 June. Held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the event also took place in Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery on 9 June.

In today’s free thinking art world, there are so many taboo subjects that are challenged and addressed through artwork. However, birth still remains on the side line.

Arguably THE major event in one’s life, birth is something that happens to every single one of us. We are all born. Yet, how much do we acknowledge our place of beginning? Do mothers have enough say in the birth of their child? And why is the representation less “at home” in the art world than other controversial subjects, such as death?

Birth Rites is an ongoing art exhibition that explores the practices and politics of childbirth with artwork. A pioneering collaboration between artists and childbirth professionals, curator Helen Knowles says “the collection explores the social, cultural, spiritual, and political implications of giving birth.”

Founded by Knowles in 2006, the innovative collection is housed between Salford University midwifery department and the Royal College of Gynaecology and Obstetricians in London. Historically, there has been little art representing childbirth. Michelangelo’s “The creation of Adam” in 1511, shows the finger of God giving life to the first man on Earth. The absence of a maternal figure here highlights the philosophy and religion of the time.

Nonetheless, things have gone a long way since Michelangelo.

Cindy Sherman’s feminist art (1992) is just one example of the ways in which art has been used to challenge the role and representation of women in society.

In terms of pregnancy and childbirth, today’s society is much more understanding and welcoming around the subject than it has ever been before. The “foetal celebrity” exists, acknowledging the social and civil rights of the foetus. The unborn child is understood as a subject in this sense, with pro life politics providing a voice, and high tech imaging available to picture the soon to be child. There is even a trend for parents to create facebook pages for their child in the womb.

Equally, there is the “pregnant celebrity” fashion, whereby famous women show off their beauty and sexy body shape. Demi Moore led the way, when in 1991, she posed nude with her bump, on the cover of Vanity Fair. The image caused global public debate. However, 20 years later, thousands of celebrity women have followed suite. Pregnant photography, however, is not always a great thing. Despite offering a new freedom for mothers-to-be, allowing them to wear clingy clothes and embrace their body changes, it can often conceal the staggering complexities of motherhood. It may also make women feel undermined and unattractive if their body is not like those of pregnant celebrities.

The Channel 4 series, “One born every minute,” gives an insight into the realities of giving birth. Popular and educational, the programme exposes real-life births in a hospital setting.

Furthermore, a trend to film childbirth has grown tremendously. There are a surprising number of women who have posted their experiences on YouTube for the whole world to share. The audience may find this liberating, educational, erotic, or even repulsive. It is perhaps somewhat of a historical psycho-social shift with regards to childbirth.

Even so, there remains plenty of taboo around the representation of giving birth. The area of most social prohibition is that of crowning, the point at which the baby’s head has pushed through the cervix and is about to enter the birth canal. The artists of Birth Rites address these social reservations and question the politics surrounding childbirth. The collection includes photography, documentary film, sculpture, painting, wallpaper, drawing, and new media.
Eti Wade, artist and academic, explores maternal subjectivity in her photography. Reflecting on the birth of her sons, Eti describes the relationship between mother and child as “the most meaningful connection between two individuals.” She links her own experience of post-natal depression to the culturally prevalent idealised mother, which she feels inhibits the genuine emotions of motherhood.

Jonathan Waller, one of the few male artists brave enough to venture into childbirth art, had his work denied by certain art galleries due to its controversial display of birth, including that of crowning babies emerging from the vagina. Waller acknowledges today’s expectation of men to be present at the birth. His graphic artwork includes large mix media images of pregnant and birthing women. He suggested a counsellor be present at the viewings of his work.

Another interesting yet controversial art piece is that of Liv Pennington’s. Her work in the collection “Private View” 2006 is a composite image which documents forty different women’s pregnancy tests. The images are combined with text written by the women as they were waiting for the test result, for example: “this could seriously go either way…” The work accompanies a performance, which has taken place in London, Poitiers, Oslo, and Manchester. On the night of a private view every woman who came to use the toilets was asked if they would take a pregnancy test. The results were relayed live in real time above the bar.

Birth Rites artwork conveys the array of emotions involved with childbirth, an exciting, absorbing, sexual, and beautiful thing. Hermione Wiltshire, artist and senior lecturer at the Royal College of Art, compared the swollen abdomen of pregnancy with that of a male erection- something visible and emerging that acknowledges the sexually active being. Through dispute and discussion, the work of Birth Rites raises issues of “bio-politics” and seeks to prevent the abjection of the maternal body.

Despite the feminine appeal perhaps more inviting to a mother audience, the collection increases awareness around childbirth and continues to spark debate. It highlights the real need to shift from mortality to natality. After all, birth comes first.

Sarah Welsh is the Clegg Scholar, BMJ