Young Mums, the Arts Ecology, and 'Being Radical'

Lana Lopesi on being an artist and being a mother, and those who won't let the two meet.

Lana Lopesi on being an artist and being a mother, and those who won’t let the two meet.

My mum and dad always had parties with my aunties and uncles and Dad’s league friends in the weekends. They would play UB40 and I would hang out with them until I got bored, then I would go to bed. At primary school I used to look down at all my friends’ 30–40 year old parents, and wonder why they were so old.

I’m the daughter of teen parents and high school drop outs. I was brought up told that I had to go to university, because they didn’t. The rags to riches story belonged to my parents, and so they did everything they could to make sure it wasn’t a part of my own. I made it through university, but only just. My daughter was born four months after the Elam School of Fine Art Graduate show. Another young, brown mum. At least I had the paper though.

As much as we like to place ourselves above and beyond stereotypes, we still have negative connotations of the young mother. And being a young mother within the arts is no easy task.

This idea of the child-as-obstacle-to-progression hangs over any mother in a serious profession. She is still encouraged to be reasonable, to be practical – to ask herself, can she really have it all? Cast your mind back as recently as 2011, when embattled (and soon to resign) Employers Association boss Alasdair Thompson, confronted with questions about the gender pay divide, gave this spiel: “… once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do, they have children they have to take time off to go home and take leave off… it’s a fact of life.” Charming, and evidence of a very common school of thought.

The median age for New Zealand women to have their first child is 28. For many mums, that can provide the opportunity to establish a career path way before needing to take maternity leave. Art, however, is about simultaneous obsession and presence. There’s no time off from that.

While it might not be surprising to hear someone like Thompson give the ultimatum – have the career, or have the kid – it hit harder for me to hear it from Tracey Emin, who has positioned herself as a beacon for women making progressive art. Emin has been outspoken that she could not have pursued her career if she was also a mother, telling Red Magazine in 2014: “I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. I would have been either 100 percent mother or 100 percent artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise.” Emin continued to say that there are good artists who are also parents. “Of course there are. They’re called men.”

People like Emin are why I’ve never written about being a mother. I’ve used the odd punch line here and there, but ‘motherhood’ as a topic has always seemed boring, too womanly. Weak, even.

Motherhood has given me somewhat of a chip on my shoulder. A vendetta, maybe, against the Emins of the art world. I have this burning desire to party with the big boys. I had a job interview three days after giving birth. I returned to my part-time gallery assistant role at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki when my daughter was a month old, then moved on to a full time position at 5 months postpartum, all while exhibiting and publishing. Amongst all of that, being a new mother was something I disclosed to people with reservation because I knew that they would get all goo-eyed and soppy, giving me unsolicited advice and opinions. My daughter involved hours of physical and emotional energy, often in relative solitiude. When I was around adults, I wanted to talk about art, not babies.

I like to tell myself that in retrospect, I would take more time off in a future pregnancy, but it’s a line I use mostly to defend myself against the judgement of full-time mums. But the truth is (to Emin’s disbelief, if she could see me) that I am both 100 percent mother and 100 percent artist, obsessed equally with both art and family with no compromise. Me going back to work had little to do with gender roles and money issues, and more to do with an obsession that meant I needed to be back doing something within the arts. At seven months postpartum I did a fortnight long project in another city away from my daughter. Since then I have done another fortnight long project in another city, a month long research trip in China and I’m currently on residency in Taipei.

I get a lot of admiration. I get thinly-concealed disgust as well. Either way, the sense of being an exception to a rule shows me how little we have come in terms of traditional family roles. For many people, the most interesting part of the conversation is that fact that her dad is the ‘poor one’ at home while I get to gallivant around the place for art’s sake. It does take two to tango.

A little closer to home, I recently trawled through Artspace’s records from the past ten years (2006 to 2016) trying to find a solo exhibition by a young mother. In 2013 there was Right of Way by Janet Lilo, whose 2 sons, I’m guessing, would have been under five at the time. She would fit the internet definition of being a young mother as being under thirty, but I’m not sure if Right of Way was considered a solo exhibition. In 2007, et al. had a solo exhibition, but her daughter would have easily been in her twenties. Bekah Carran had her solo exhibition in 2006, and with a bit of internet deduction I feel confident to say that she too was a young mother.

So, assuming I’m right, three mums and two of them young mothers. Better than I thought.

I related these findings to a once tutor, now artist friend, who is also mother to a young child. She responded that for obvious reasons, mums aren’t usually as social as non-mums, and that art is a social game. She was right.

The Emins of this world aren’t necessarily backward thinking. In fact, they are responding to an arts ecology of the present – built for the single person, the egocentric, competitive individual. The residency, the opening, the obsessive studio practice – it’s all designed for the childless. The nature of this ecology isn’t so unique, once you start to consider all the professional environments that are not designed for children (i.e. most offices). The key with art is that it is built on obsession over a need for steady employment, and with that comes an untraditional and unstable working environment. It’s easier to play the starving artist (and sentimentalise it) when you’re childless. Maybe there’s a correlation to why so many mothers also wind up as arts administrators.

I’ve always thought there was something really romantic and brave about the international artist who travels from place to place and makes work. Something really beautiful about being alone, and the isolation that comes with that. I’ve wanted to be this type of artist or writer as a counter to both the artist mother and the Pacific young mum and the connotations that go along with both of those (the key one being ‘career failure’). But now that I have that chance, I can’t help but think it’s sad.

The other night, I sat in a park until 3am, drinking Taiwan Beer with some local successful street artists and blasting ’90s hip hop from a cellphone. As it does when we all have smartphones, it got to a point where everyone was showing around photos of their dogs. Most clucked over their animals the same way people look at children, and I don’t think it was just the beer. It was the closest I got to seeing something which resembled a parental relationship in my peers here. As much as they love their dogs, I know children aren’t even a consideration for any of those artists.

There is no key way to be a mum or an artist – if you want them, there are countless think pieces on both out there. Even thinking about it like that is completely reductive – with the former, it brings us back to the core issues of feminism and gender equity. With the latter, it ultimately hinges on an arts ecology that is built for the single person.

The thing is, my work ethic and ambition come solely from parenting. Parenting has taught me to work harder and smarter, and not give a shit about anyone else around me. I see myself as a competitive individual, yes – but it’s a drive which has come directly from the nurturing nature of motherhood.

Operating within this arts ecology with a baby on my hip is a radical place to be. Artist mothers and young ones shouldn’t need to compartmentalise their lives for the comfort of the Emins, and I’m glad I haven’t.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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