Motherhood has always been a taboo in art history. But why, actually? An interview with conceptual artist Hannah Cooke, who questions the systems, regulations and role concepts in our society.

Aside from depictions of Madonna & Child, motherhood, and all it entails – from getting pregnant to giving birth to raising children – has been pretty much a taboo topic for most of art history. On the occasion of our comprehensive retrospective of the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker, who was one of the few artists to address motherhood early on, we sat down with five contemporary artists – Hannah Cooke, Najja Moon, Clarity Haynes, Lenka Clayton, and Laxmi Hussain – to talk about about their perspective on motherhood as a topic in their work. First up is Berlin-based, conceptual artist Hannah Cooke whose research-based works often deal with institutional and hierarchical critique, the infiltration of systems, as well as the questioning of standards, regulations, and role concepts.

Hannah Cooke, Photo: Lilly Urbat

Could you tell us a little bit more about the „Ada vs.“ project and your art practice in general?

With the two-part video work „Ada vs Emin“ and „Ada vs Abramović“ I’m trying to make a positive counter argument to the unfortunately still ongoing believe of incomparability of motherhood and an art career. It all started in 2017 when I got pregnant, I started to wonder what would happen to me as an artist. I started to search for role models who could help me point the way. Unfortunately, during that research, most of the time I found that motherhood and art are incompatible, that it is impossible for these two worlds to coexist equally. I read way too many horror stories from galleries canceling contracts and exhibitions of pregnant artists to total termination of employments. All these alpha-male-genius stories on the other side of the spectrum didn’t surprise me at all. The final draw was when I read statements from two female art icons [Tracy Emin and Marina Abramović] on this topic, and it made me really angry! Why would other female artists backstab their colleagues like that? Where is the solidarity?  Every woman can of course decide if and when she wants to have children, but we don’t have to hold on to that old fashioned artist as a genius image. Why should fathers be artists and mothers shouldn’t?  

Tracy Emin and Marina Abramović are two very important artists to me personally whose influence has shaped my art practice. I had to react to their prominent and provocative comments on the impossibility of motherhood and an art career. In former works I commented on systemic problems in the art world, on errors in power structures and gender roles. It was only a logical next step for me to challenge such a blatant example of inequality that touches me personally. On the one hand I wanted to counter all these negative stories with a strong positive one and on the other it was important to not leave Emin’s and Abramović’s statements uncommented.

I can see that, it is very disappointing when someone who influenced you, that you admired kind of leaves you in the dust. So, after getting engaged with the topic of motherhood, how did that influence your work?

Pregnancy as well as motherhood acted as a magnifier. I realized obstacles that I had never noticed before in my privileged situation. I never thought I would create something for this topic. In hindsight, I’m not surprised anymore since the imbalance of power structures have always been a part of my work. The romanticized “mother and child” angle on motherhood was only interesting to me as a vehicle to counter comment on Emin and Abramović.

Makes sense! Paula Modersohn-Becker was one of the first artists that systematically explored the motif of motherhood, painting pregnancy as well as mothers and children at the turn of the twentieth century. Is motherhood still a taboo topic in the arts today? 

Motherhood is still not equal to the other major topics in the arts. The male perspective on existential themes such as life, death, sorrow, love, and hope have been admired and celebrated in the art world. All these experiences are part of birth and raising a child, as well as an existential part of our society. Why is the female perspective on this world not as important and accepted? It just doesn’t make sense to me! I’m fed up of seeing exhibitions attributing “strong women” and then just to see a long list of artists that we would love to see as part of more conventional exhibitions and collections alongside their male counterparts. It still seems imperative to use labels for women, but I’m still hoping this will be a practice of the past soon and we will think back to these older times and ask ourselves why we were so blind and ignorant. Also, I really hope that more fathers, queer people with “caring responsibilities,” and people of color get space for their perspectives since we’re currently still lacking in role models from these communities. This topic isn’t a female-only one, you know!     

Agreed! Do you have a personal connection to Paula Modersohn-Becker and her work?

I only learned about Paula Modersohn-Becker after I started my research into motherhood in the arts. But I started to wonder, why I haven’t heard about her in art class in school or during my studies at the university. Her paintings are so impactful and direct at the same time. I can find myself in her pieces. I was especially blown away by the scope of her oeuvre that she created in only 31 years. Maybe, if only she had more time, she would’ve been part of art history and focus of our attention.

That’s true! I learned about her while living in Bremen for a while, but I still didn’t know she died so young and left such a large body of work behind. Very impressive. Has including motifs of motherhood changed the art world’s perspective of you as an artist?

Going into the public eye with my video works almost felt like an outing. I new I had to create these videos, but at the same time I feared I would sideline myself. Looking back, everything felt very existential for me, though the hormones might have played a part in this as well. Surprisingly, these works have opened a new access to the art world, have opened new doors for me. Colleagues reached out to tell me their stories, I was able to build a strong network that is interested in the same questions of equality and support for one another. Through these works, my personal perspective on what is important as well as my art practice was strengthened. And still, I’m worried of getting the “mother artist” stamp and losing my underlying, critical view of current systems in the process. I’m not saying that my role as a “person that cares for an other” won’t be part of future pieces, but in general I’m interested in questions and topics that are critical of society as it is.    

Hannah Cooke, ADA VS. ABRAMOVIĆ, 2018, Courtesy the artist

When you think of motherhood in the arts who comes to mind, any artists you would like to give a shoutout to or that inspired you?

In the past three to four years, I got to know a lot of fantastic female artists that are interested in these topics. They do exist, they’re here, they’re active, and are still creating art. They come together, organize themselves, and change the art world. One artist I’m especially excited about is Madeline Donahue. In her works, she focuses specifically on motherhood, creating images that are beautiful, touching, and fresh at the same time. Her perspective on the complex day-to-day with children, making it all look so easy and complicated at the same time, is fascinating to me. I really love that she throws herself fully into the topic and pulls all the way through. I’m constantly surprised by the different images she is able to find.

Paula Modersohn-Becker

8 October 2021 – 6 February 2022

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