Skip to content

May we suggest

Features / May 12, 2016

8 Questions about Art, Motherhood and the Anthropocene

There’s discourse about art and motherhood, art and the Anthropocene, motherhood and climate change. In Edmonton this week, these topics finally intersect.
Jess Dobkin's <em>The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar</em> (2006) is one of the works in "New Maternalisms Redux" opening May 12 at the the University of Alberta's FAB Gallery in Edmonton. Photo: David Hawe. Jess Dobkin's The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar (2006) is one of the works in "New Maternalisms Redux" opening May 12 at the the University of Alberta's FAB Gallery in Edmonton. Photo: David Hawe.

The Anthropocene—it might be an unwieldy, academic-sounding term, but it’s gaining ground in pop culture.

Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal are currently working on a film about the Anthropocene—namely, a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems—and the term has its own topic thread on the VICE News website.

But how do aspects of art and motherhood intersect with theories around the Anthropocene?

This is an issue that is less well-documented—and one that will be taken up in a series of events at the University of Alberta in Edmonton this week.

“Mapping the Maternal: Art, Ethics and Anthropocene” is a colloquium that runs May 12 to 14, housed in an art installation titled Mothernism by Lise Haller Baggesen at the university’s Arts Based Research Studio. “New Maternalisms Redux” is an exhibition that opens May 12 at the FAB Gallery. In related events, famed art historian Griselda Pollock will give a keynote lecture on May 14 as well, and there will be a screening May 13.

Here, “Mapping the Maternal” co-organizer and “New Maternalisms Redux” curator Natalie S. Loveless discusses some key questions around this constellation of topics and events.

1) How do the recent Fort McMurray fires change conversations about art, the maternal and the Anthropocene?

“What’s happening up north is not unexpected,” says Loveless. “We are living in a moment geologically where due to global climate change…this is the new normal.”

Loveless says she has “no doubt” that the recent events in Fort McMurray, just three hundred kilometres north of her events’ site in Edmonton, are going to “colour the topics that are brought up in the colloquium.”

Already, the University of Alberta campus—where the colloquium is taking place—is housing people who were evacuated from their homes up north due to the fire threat.

“What it’s doing most strongly is bringing the urgency of the problem home,” Loveless says. “What this does is remind us…in this particular geographic region, this is how it’s happening. It’s not a tsunami that might come, it’s a forest fire…. That’s what we inherit given global climate change in this situated geographic location.”

Loveless says she suspects the fires “will help underscore the urgency of the questions” to be discussed in relation to art, the maternal and the Anthropocene in the next few days.

2) Why is it important to have a conversation that brings together ideas about art, the maternal and the Anthropocene?

Since 2010, Loveless has, and artist and a scholar, been working on themes of the maternal, and attending an increasing number of events on the topic.

“One thing that a number of us noticed was that we were travelling in circles where maternal ethics and maternal politics were being discussed in contemporary art, as well as in others and where Anthropocene and global climate-change issues were being dealt with in contemporary art—but they weren’t being brought together,” says Loveless.

So Loveless decided to hold a crossover conversation timed to coincide with her latest “New Maternalisms” exhibition, already scheduled as the third in a series of three exhibitions she has done on the theme.

The “New Maternalisms” show opening this week “focuses on five performance-based artists who I think most strongly represent ways of working with maternal affect and maternal labour” in art, says Loveless. For instance, Toronto artist Jess Dobkin’s Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar offers breastmilk donated by new mothers for tasting, with Dobkin acting as sommelier. And Ohio artist Courtney Kessel performs with her daughter, Chloé Cash Clevenger, on a see-saw, attempting to balance out their respective weights using personal effects.

While those five artists themselves don’t take up the Anthropocenic explicitly in their exhibited art pieces, Loveless hopes the maternal ethics and labour they work with can spark new conversations on Anthropocenic discourse.

“The colloquium brings a set of thinkers, scholars, artists, makers from around the world together to inhabit the exhibition and to hopefully expand the thinking,” Loveless explains. “What do these modes of maternal ethics, collaboration, participation and care that we are talking about as a political feminist issue in the exhibition help us do differently in Anthropocenic discourse?”

3) How is the discourse around the Anthropocene sexist or exclusive?

“Mapping the Maternal: Art, Ethics and the Anthropocene” has been co-organized by Loveless and colleague Sheena Wilson, who works on global climate change, energy transition and the role of feminist and maternal voices in that.

“We’ve been reflecting on how a lot of the ‘art in the Anthropocene’ circuit—the conferences, the events, the publications—are largely male dominated,” says Loveless. “There’s a really strong sort of white male theoretical dominant language in the Anthropocenic discourse in the humanities.”

“And what is emerging in reaction to that,” Loveless continues, “is a number of new events this year and last year with titles like Decolonizing the Anthropocene, Hacking the Anthropocene, Feminizing the Anthropocene.”

“There are a number of critiques of anthropogenic discourse and the way that it names the human in general as the problem,” says Loveless. “It’s like, ‘Humans in general are doing this.’ And all of these other critical voices are saying, ‘No, it’s not.’ So it’s not just humans in general that are doing this,” Loveless says. “It’s a particular way of doing humanity that is tied to advanced capitalist structures, to a colonial discourse and to a whole mode of hegemonic practices.”

4) How can ideas of the maternal be expanded to go beyond people who are only biologically or self-identified mothers?

“The maternal isn’t just [a relation between] a biologically human mother and biologically human child,” Loveless emphasizes, “but can extend to all kinds of multispecies relations.”

“The way I’m thinking of the maternal is really informed by feminist philosopher named Sarah Ruddick, who, in the ’80s, started writing about maternal thinking and the politics of peace.”

In one book, Ruddick “argues for the maternal not as an identity linked to a biological body and to a biologically structured act of giving birth. [Rather] it’s a practice and a role that anyone can inhabit.”

“Self-identified men can ‘mother’ and perform the labour of mothering just as easily as a biologically coded or self-identified woman,” Loveless argues, aiming to “de-essentialize…so we are thinking about the maternal as something anyone can inhabit.”

Loveless is also working on an essay about artists who apply “the new maternalist mode to other species as well.”

5) What might be some important aspects of maternal ethics and politics?

Maternal ethics, Loveless suggests, are “structured by collaboration and care” in a way that “isn’t just human to human, but is deeply ecological and is responsive to multispecies collaboration and engagement.”

Maternal ethics and politics, Loveless writes in her exhibition essay for “New Maternalisms,” also might invite us “to think with responsive care networks and with the urgency, interruption and responsivity of those early maternal care years at the forefront of our minds.”

In this respect, the future is not something that can be foreseen or planned, Loveless writes, but rather is something (borrowing from Bracha Ettinger) matrixial, something that “we must feel our way into, together, without clear scripts…that demands generative, expansive, creative re-imaginings of some of our most cherished figures.”

At the same time, though, Loveless argues that the maternal itself must be recognized as having limits.

“With both Edelman and Ettinger in my ears I say: fuck the earth as mother and fuck all that never-ending, giving tree nonsense,” Loveless writes. “The maternal, taken seriously as a politics and ethics, is no endless font of plenitude. It is a finite, responsive relation that both gives and needs care, especially care demanding creativity and experiment.”

6) What would a “maternally” or “ecologically” curated exhibition or symposium look like?

Loveless says that the structure of this exhibition and colloquium—one open to interruption, disruption and multiple foci, not to mention “little humans”—is designed to be more open than academic events usually are towards a maternal or ecological structure.

For one, the colloquium takes place in a multimodal installation called Mothernism designed by Chicago artist Lise Haller Baggesen.

And the exhibition is designed to allow works and attentions to infiltrate each other.

Loveless says this choice was sparked by her own experience of the academic sphere after she had a child.

“I was a trained feminist art historian and theorist and academic, and I thought of myself as quite aware and politicized,” Loveless recalls. “And then I gestated and birthed a little human, and I was seriously taken aback by the lack of capacity of the professional spheres that I was inhabiting to allow for me to remain participating.”

“I know that for some people it might feel better, and sometimes it feels better for me, too, to leave the little person at home,” Loveless admits, “and sometimes it feels better to be able to focus a mono-attention on something. But in those early years, I still very much wanted to participate in my social world, and I wanted to just throw Orion on my back and be involved.”

Yet the structures of art and academia did not seem amenable to Loveless’s new existence as a maternal, as well as professional, figure.

“What I felt very strongly [in academic settings] was resistance to interruption and resistance of flexibility,” says Loveless. She realized “we are so used to doing the academy in this very hermetically sealed way that I cannot help but feel shame if I walk in with Orion…if he is noisy, I feel I have to be apologetic, and hide, make him watch the iPad now, or leave the room when he cries.”

So when Loveless curates events, she says, “I invite interruption. Look, obviously, if someone is being very, very, very loud, you might want to go to the side or go outside. But we are adults here and we actually have amazing capacity to concentrate, and as any mother knows, we can have a little person doing something over there and concentrate very well on a conversation over here. And that capacity is something that we need to nurture and foreground.”

As a result, at “Mapping the Maternal,” Loveless says, “if a little person runs across the stage while we are talking, that’s OK. We want to manage the space, but there is no shame here, there is no problem here, we can handle disruption, we can handle accommodation. That is the guiding principle for all the events.”

Likewise, the exhibition is curated as “an immersive ecological situation,” Loveless says. “So the cleanness and the introspection of the normal white cube is radically disrupted by movements and sounds. In one space you’re dealing with an artwork, and then suddenly you hear a scream or a cry from one of the other videos or performances, and you will be pulled dynamically in a number of directions, so you have a kind of dispersed attention.”

“We are hoping to create a [exhibition] space that is structurally like early maternal labour,” says Loveless, “where you are constantly one eye over here and one eye over here, pulled back and forth and around the space.”

7) What role might creativity play in preparing our children for an uncertain future?

Loveless says that although she is capable, as a scholar, of “geeking out” over theories around the Anthropocene, the realities of climate change present significant anxiety to her as a mother and to many of her colleagues who are also parents.

“Even though we are critical of the historic role where women are the bearers of the social and moral good in a given society,” says Loveless, “here we are here caring for and training and nurturing our little humans. And what are we supposed to do? Train them to hunt? Train them to farm?”

“How does the question of ‘What do I want to do when I grow up?’ shift when you take seriously the proximity of states of emergencies like the forest fires up north that can hit and will continue to hit unpredictably, and more and more frequently?” asks Loveless. “How do we responsibly turn our children into such an uncertain future?”

Loveless says her main hope lies in “creativity, and interdisciplinary collaboration.”

“If I’m doing to train Orion in anything,” she says, “it will be hopefully be in having a nimbleness and ability to respond to the unexpected. This is what I would hope for him—an ability to be creative in the face of unexpected challenges. And to then work interdisciplinarily and collaboratively with others, because the world that I grew up in, that my parents brought me up in—you find your single lane, you get good at something—it’s not going to help us.”

8) What does it mean to talk about art, the maternal and the Anthropocene in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital and the largest city proximal to the oilsands?

“I feel like proximity matters,” says Loveless, who grew up in Montreal and was trained in California, arriving in Edmonton in 2012. “I feel the weight of being 300 kilometres south of the oil sands. I feel that petro-culture is just part of the the social architecture in northern Alberta.”

“And so it makes sense that…a number of scholars across campus are working on petro-culture in one way or another,” notes Loveless.

For instance, one of the films that “Mapping the Maternal” is screening this week is a short called Petro-Mama, created by Edmonton resident and colloquium co-organizer Sheena Wilson.

Petro-Mama “shows the story of this mother and her child rushing to the doctor because the child is having a respiratory disorder and on the phone, the doctor is saying all of this stuff that implies that the child’s respiratory disorder is the mother’s responsibility—it’s this neoliberal idea that if the mother would only be a better mother, her child would be fine. But this moment is happening against the backdrop of all the refineries which are the hidden backdrop of our lives here.”

The “New Maternalisms Redux” exhibition opens tonight (May 12) at the FAB Gallery at the University of Alberta, while the colloquium “Mapping the Maternal: Art, Ethics and Anthropocene” takes place until May 14 at the university’s Arts Based Research Studio. For more information, visit

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via