Danielle Smelter presents an artists essay for her series MOTHER, alongside an insight into her personal feminisms.
What Is Contemporary Feminism to you? What should current feminisms constitute?
To me feminism is a modality for healing the schisms in society. The disempowerment I personally encountered during the birth process and early parenting really emphasised a need for feminism to advocate for a multiplicity of voices in these spaces. Stepping away from the paid workforce for a time subsequently led me to the view that current feminisms should address personal and structural barriers to people contributing meaningfully to society in multiple ways. I want feminism to make motherhood an honourable undertaking rather than a shameful aside to be snuck in between study and a career with children kept quietly out of sight and mind.
If at all, in which ways does feminism play a role in your art practice?
I don’t consciously set out to create work under the banner of feminism. But as someone who subscribes to egalitarian ideals that obviously permeates my personal engagement with the world and will resonate within my work. I think feminism has a much more overt influence on my parenting and as my art reflects where I am at right now - very much immersed in parenting two young children - feminism is subsequently very evident in the issues I am engaging. In this current series of photographs I am certainly hoping to generate empathy through narrative.
MOTHER examines public and private spaces in which women who are mothers encounter judgment and controlling attitudes. The series utilises hazard tape as a motif for the restrictions the women encounter, each one appears physically and metaphorically bound in her role. Some images are easily read while others are more nuanced. My audience is able to build their own narrative or commentary around the woman’s experience based upon the visual information they are given.
The production of the works is equally bound by my own role as a mother. Produced in a domestic space with children underfoot the images, although staged, are gritty and honest moments hastily captured. I work in consultation with my models who share with me an aspect of mothering in which they feel judged or controlled and we try to convey something of that visually. I discuss the issue with them during the photoshoot, waiting for a moment to emerge in which they seem to embody their personal battle.
When I first began thinking about this project I jotted down the following words: fragmentation, contamination and marginalisation. Nobody warns you how you will be torn apart to the point you need to rebuild yourself once you’ve had a baby. Probably because you don’t really understand until you experience it. But I do think it’s a conversation we should try to have regardless.
The term contamination holds the most power for me. A while back I read an article about the notion of contaminated time and how, as mothers, all of our time is contaminated. We are rarely, if ever afforded a space to focus on a single task without something mentally or literally tugging us away. This resonated strongly for me, particularly the way I now grasp for moments in which to be creative.
But there are more sinister forms of contamination too. Professional contamination is a significant idea I am hoping to address in this project. I am also drawn to the idea of bodily contamination, literally by means of a foetus with its parasitic relationship with the mother’s body, but also conceptually through the way society views and values a woman’s body.
The unifying idea behind the project is that a woman’s status as a mother contaminates her experience of the world and the way that she, her body and choices are received in public and private spaces. I want to convey a sense of this experience of contamination, how the moment of conception is also the moment in which women’s right to autonomy begins to be undermined. There are positive forces of contamination at play in motherhood as well, but I feel I need to face my demons right now.
The word hazard also emerged, reminding me of the coloured tape used to warn members of the public to take care in hazardous situations. I want to spark thinking around the way in which motherhood becomes a hazardous identity for a women to take on. Different aspects of mothering elicit differing levels of judgment and different tapes convey warning levels, akin to a fire danger warning system that goes from low to extreme.
Recent media hype on the topic of breastfeeding older children sparked heated debates, often portraying women who feed to term as dangerous, deviant and to be publicly shamed. For this reason the first mother featured in my project is wrapped in DANGER tape breastfeeding her toddler.
The second image in the series addresses a woman’s relationship with her post baby body. There are undertones of pressures in reclaiming our sexuality and simultaneously being judged for being too sexual as mothers. We are also shamed for any bodily imperfections we inflict upon others as though we exist purely for the viewing pleasure of others. The devaluing, control and shaming of mothers urgently needs to be addressed and feminism is a central vehicle through which to achieve this aim.
Image four reflects failings within the protection system, through which women are silenced by fears for their children and/or loss of access. I do not know the full story as the mother withdrew at the last minute due to her concerns and I was left to depict an absent mother. There are a myriad of structural, economic and cultural forces at work in controlling and passing judgment upon mothers and dismantling them will take time.
Returning to my earlier musings on marginalisation, we’re well past getting women out of the home and into the workforce, but resultant shifts in how our families and communities operate (and dysfunction) currently require strong advocacy for the value of caring duties so we no longer hear the common embarrassed disclaimer, ‘oh… I’m just a stay at home mother’. The third and fifth images in the series provide different but interconnected experiences of societal dysfunction impacting mothers across professional and domestic spheres.
Right now I would settle for a world in which children didn’t need to be hidden from the workplace, along with the elderly and all those who are othered in any way via their abilities or identities. If we could begin with accepting that people’s lives need to be integrated with earning a living I’d be significantly more optimistic. A boardroom able to giggle at a child’s antics in a corner rather than a parent absent and judged would certainly help.
Words and images by Danielle Smelter