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Picturing Motherhood Now

Contemporary views of a time-honored theme
Emily Liebert, Curator of Contemporary Art
August 25, 2021

Las Talaveritas 2015. Aliza Nisenbaum (Mexican American, b. 1977). Oil on linen; 162.6 x 144.8 cm. © Aliza Nisenbaum. Valeria and Gregorio Napoleone Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

There is a long history of picturing motherhood. That history illuminates the culture from which it springs. What, then, do contemporary pictures of motherhood say about our own time? As scholars of contemporary art and mothers ourselves, this question is deeply engaging to us. In creating Picturing Motherhood Now, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s first large-scale contemporary group exhibition in many years, we have had the opportunity to explore this genre. 

The exhibition brings together work by 34 diverse contemporary artists who reimagine the possibilities for representing motherhood. Working across media, and drawing on a range of feminisms, they challenge familiar archetypes, construing motherhood as a term with many meanings. The artists use motherhood as a lens through which to examine contemporary social issues—the changing definitions of family and gender, the histories and afterlives of slavery, the legacies of migration, and the preservation of matrilineal Indigenous cultures. Picturing Motherhood Now focuses on art made in the past two decades, while integrating work by significant pioneers to narrate an intergenerational and evolving story. 

Building on the work of Alice Neel, whose portraits from the 1960s and 1970s radically challenged the conventions of representing motherhood, Aliza Nisenbaum demonstrates a commitment to figurative representation that reveals bodies, lives, and experiences often overlooked. Nisenbaum’s Las Talaveritas (2015) belongs to a series of portraits of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whom the Mexican-born artist became acquainted with by teaching English at the Immigrant Movement International in Queens. The painting shows a mother and her daughter (the latter shown twice to represent two moments in time); they have become regular subjects in Nisenbaum’s work. Here, as in many of her paintings, the artist depicts individuals who are not often the subjects of portraiture; in the case of undocumented immigrants, the stakes of visibility are especially poignant. 

Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens 2021. Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Nigerian American, b. 1983). Acrylic, transfers, color pencil, and collage on paper; 243.8 x 274.3 cm. © Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner. Photo: Jeff Mclane

Njideka Akunyili Crosby places herself at the center of her painting Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens (2021). Made through her signature photographic transfer process, the work depicts the artist holding her one-year-old son in a verdant and peaceful domestic setting. According to Akunyili Crosby, her motivation for creating this work is to offer an alternative to the negative images of Black motherhood ubiquitous in mass media. 

Not My Burden 2019. Titus Kaphar (American, b. 1976). Oil on canvas; 167.7 x 153 cm. © Titus Kaphar. Image courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Collection of Ellen Sussman, Houston, Texas. Photo: Rob McKeever

Also addressing Black motherhood, Titus Kaphar’s Not My Burden (2019) depicts two Black women sitting with young children on their laps in a domestic interior. While the women are rendered in detail, the children are merely silhouettes, their forms cut out, revealing the white wall behind the canvas (and even the stretcher bars that support it). One interpretation of the missing children is that they stand for the lives of young Black men and women tragically lost in the United States right before their mothers’ eyes; another is that these silhouettes represent the white children who have long been in Black women’s care. At stake for Kaphar in both interpretations is the psychic and social life of motherhood. 

Ode to My Mother 1995. Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911–2010). Published by Editions du Solstice (United States). Etching and drypoint; sheet: 29.8 x 29.9 cm; platemark: 25.1 x 10.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Dr. Gerard and Phyllis Seltzer Fund, 1999.118. © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Alongside figurative representation, abstract treatments of motherhood abound in this exhibition. From the 1940s until her death in 2010, Louise Bourgeois used the figure of the spider to represent the complexities of her relationship with her own mother. While spiders are at once creative, delicate, and protective, when Bourgeois renders them oversize—sometimes monumental—they become fierce, even menacing. Throughout Picturing Motherhood Now, similarly multifaceted portraits of mothers and children emerge. 

The Nest 1994. Louise Bourgeois. Steel; 256.5 x 480.1 x 401.3 cm. Collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Purchase through the Agnes E. Meyer and Elise S. Haas Fund and the gifts of Doris and Donald Fisher, Helen and Charles Schwab, and Vicki and Kent Logan, 98.193.A–E. © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel

In addition to painting and sculpture, visitors to this exhibition will encounter photography, video, textile, and collage by artists including LaToya Ruby Frazier, M. Carmen Lane, Senga Nengudi, Catherine Opie, Alison and Betye Saar, and Carrie Mae Weems. 

The accompanying richly illustrated catalogue includes six scholarly essays by the exhibition’s curators as well as Rosalyn Deutsche, professor of art history at Barnard College; Naima J. Keith, vice president of education and public programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Thomas J. Lax, curator of performance and media at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Laura Wexler, professor of American studies, film and media studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies as well as director of the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale University. Their contributions enlarge our understanding of motherhood in contemporary culture. The catalogue also includes a roundtable discussion among artists and thinkers that animates the themes of the exhibition in a dynamic, real-time exchange. 

There is no better home for this exhibition than the Cleveland Museum of Art. We are privileged to present contemporary views of a time-honored theme in the context of the CMA’s historical collections. We hope visitors will relish the conversations that Picturing Motherhood Now initiates between the art of our time and the histories to which that art responds.