Kinsee Morlan

Modern mothers resist being swept under the rug
“Home Affairs” keeps the state of contemporary motherhood a cogent topic of conversation

The first few months of motherhood are rough. A new mom’s former identity is quickly overshadowed by diapers, breastfeeding, bottles, burping, spit-up, sleepless nights, anxiety and never-ending neediness. Yes, it’s also life-changing in many positive and wondrous ways, but for most women there are moments when we feel as if things will never return to normal. The former careerist or artist inside seems to be slipping away. It can be terrifying.

When artist Arzu Ozkal gave birth to her baby boy, she was overjoyed but also shocked by how much she missed her freedom and independence. She reached out to fellow artist and collaborator Nanette Yannuzzi, sometimes in tears, wondering aloud, “What’s going to happen to me?” Yannuzzi, herself a mother of two older children, comforted Ozkal, coaxing her to start making art again as soon as she possibly could.

Ozkal’s son was just a few weeks old when she put on a fox mask, sat down to breastfeed and had her sister take a picture. Ozkal turned the photo into a poster-sized screen print, overlaying it with the text, "Does your Gallery, Museum Conference Center or Festival provide Child Care?" The sentence references an experience Ozkal had while pregnant—she was asked to give up a prestigious artist residency because the dates of the resulting exhibition were too close to her due date and it made the organizers nervous. Ozkal’s riveting self portrait became part of the inspiration for “Home Affairs,” an ongoing collaboration with Yannuzzi that started in 2011 as a way to challenge mainstream representations and misinterpretations of motherhood. Ozkal and Yannuzzi reached out to other artist-mothers to include in a series of similar screen prints that blend provocative text with photographic portraits. The collection was recently exhibited at Art Produce Gallery in San Diego from May 10 through June 7, 2015.

Like many of the compelling images in the exhibition, Yannuzzi’s self portrait—a close-up of her face covered in a pair of pantyhose stuffed with a razor, teddy bear and more of her kids’ belongings with the overlaid text, “circa 21st Century, What has been, What will be and What remains”—is a bold reminder that the mask of motherhood remains one that can shroud women from being seen as anything else. Motherhood, especially in the art world, can be viewed as a weight carried by women who are incorrectly labeled as mere hobbyists unable to dedicate enough time, energy and passion to the all-consuming task of making serious art. When Ozkal approached me to be photographed for a piece in the show, I was just a few months into new motherhood. Still on maternity leave, I was seriously questioning my ability to leave my new baby in the care of others so I could return to work as an arts journalist. The choice wasn’t easy, but ultimately I knew that too much of my personal identity was tied to my work. Giving up my career to be a fulltime mom would’ve been like turning my back on a big part of my personality and the wider community I’d built around myself. These sorts of complex personal conflicts aren’t at all new for women who become mothers. Ozkal and Yannuzzi readily acknowledge that the topic of contemporary motherhood has been addressed in art time and time again. Yet they feel the redundancy is necessary in order to continue pushing the excruciatingly slow-but-steady pace of progress, particularly in the art world where recent studies show the gender gaps are still desperately in need of narrowing.

“This issue has to keep being addressed,” Ozkal says. “You have to keep fighting. You have to keep reminding people that, no, there aren't enough really good successful examples of mothers who are able to work and raise their children the way they want. It’s important to keep it going as a conversation.” Being an accomplished artist and a good mother, in other words, is no easy feat for women who are too often more impacted by parenthood than their male counterparts. “Home Affairs” is both an attempt to aesthetically capture the current struggle and state of motherhood while also challenging the art world’s gender-biased institutions. The collection of work forces galleries, museums and curators to acknowledge a mother’s role as a caregiver and asked them to question whether their own policies, procedures and programs are indeed inclusive. Art-making doesn’t have to be antithetical to childrearing, but it often is in an art world that refuses to make simple accommodations for artists who also happen to be mothers.

“Basically, the takeaway is that mothers are awesome and they are still functioning once they do become mothers,” Ozkal says. “They just need to be given opportunities.”