Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich once wrote, “We need fully to understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture” (Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 1976). This is what comes to mind after listening to these two artist moms: Csilla, a mother of a 18-moth-old boy and Cecilia, a mother of a 23 month-old girl. They are two of the current resident artists of “Mothers in Arts” that is based in Amsterdam.
April 16, 2017 @ GOLEB, AMSTERDAM
HEE-SEUNG: How about a short introduction to “Mothers in Arts?”
CSILLA: I launched “Mothers in Arts” in September last year. It is a residency that invites female artists with children in the early parenthood. The idea is to have four artists: three invited artists and myself. During the residency, four artists share the responsibility of caring children in an arranged schedule. Ideally, two artists stay in day care, which is my home, for a day looking after children while the other two work in the studio, then swap. With this idea, I made an open call for the residency with the intention of having Dutch artists. But then it went viral. I received applications from around the world. With lots of interest shown, it seemed to make more sense to invite artists outside the Netherlands as well. Then I found Goleb from which I’m renting two studios. This is a trial residency, basically. This is the first time. I’m using the stipend for emerging artists that I received from the Mondrian fonds for running this residency.
H: Wow, it’s a big decision to run a residency using your own stipend, isn’t it?
CSILLA: Yes, it is. Cecilia is from Brazil and she will be staying here for three months with her daughter, Dora. Much more challenging than we expected.
CECILIA: Yes, much more!
H: Once a year, during my Christmas holiday, I at times volunteer to babysit my nieces, so my brother and my sister-in-law can have a date night. You play games, running around…I basically play a clown. You also try to give them equal attention. I probably overdo it since I don’t see them often. All I know is that playing with toddlers can get quite exhausting after a while.
CECILIA: Especially when you try to do something else besides taking care of the baby. My daughter is one year and 11 month-old.
H: You have to be attentive all the time, right?
CECILIA: Yes. In my case, the most challenging thing is to stay positive. I want to be a nice mom, but babies throw things and they do all sorts of things, experimenting. You can’t be only saying “no.”
CSILLA: You have to be so patient. Finding a good balance is difficult.
H: Wait. How old are you guys?
CECILIA: I’m 33.
CSILLA: I’m 31.
CECILIA: Difficult. Even taking a shower has been a big deal as my daughter doesn’t like it. The point is that I also need to do my own work. You go with the flow, hoping that you would have some time to yourself. You have to negotiate a lot. In the meantime—we have four kids now—there is a fever, there is a virus and…
CSILLA: And chickenpox. My son got chickenpox.
CECILIA: The amazing thing is that my daughter hasn’t gotten sick here. Not really. Now, I’m afraid that I would get sick, so I’m very careful. At the moment, Dora’s father is here visiting, so it’s been helpful.
H: Did you guys plan your pregnancy?
CSILLA: Both yes and no. We were thinking about it, but then it actually happened. It happened a bit too soon. I felt that I was too young. Also, it seems to be that having a baby before 35 is considered “early” in the art world here in the Netherlands. I think it changes the whole game as an artist.
CECILIA: My pregnancy wasn’t planned, but I was really wanting to have a baby. My partner is much older than me, so I couldn’t imagine having a child much later. We have an age difference of 26 years.
H: What? He doesn’t look 58 at all!
CSILLA: I think you have to be in a good shape if you want to be a father to a small child, especially when you are nearly 60.
H: You are damn right. Is he also an artist?
CECILIA: No, he is a literature professor.
H: Csilla, are you with an artist?
CSILLA: No, he is an app designer. He is the main breadwinner.
H: When you have a new born baby, what else? Let’s talk about work, Cecilia?
CECILIA: Things changed after Dora, so I can talk about it in terms of before-baby and after-baby. I used to make installations that combine mirrors, plants, pictures and text, approaching melancholia as a loss of nature/ land. I was interested in reviewing Freud’s ideas. During my pregnancy, things started shifting. My interest in the relationship between man and nature was still there, but I started looking at it in a cosmopolitical way. While pregnant, I made a guerrilla book about extinct animals. It was commissioned by my philosopher friend Juliana Fausto.
CECILIA: Juliana was then working on the Sixth extinction (Holocene extinction) and I related that to other layers of destruction due to urbanization. In Rio de Janeiro, there is a part of the city that is built artificially.
H: You mean, reclaimed land?
CECILIA: Yes, poor people from this certain part of the city were removed to a remote place. They have vanished from the center of the city. In the same city, there is a huge avenue that emerged on the land with hidden artefacts. So then, Juliana and I talked about different layers of the city, including colonisation. We talked about how lots of animals and people were killed over the time. The book is about extinct animals that could still be seen or existed if this rebuilding of the city had not taken place. The book has three parts, and it starts with Juliana’s reflection on the extinction of species as she requested. It has been placed in several important municipal archives including National Museum, Library Park and National Library. The book is called Empty Mirror.
H: In Portuguese?
CECILIA: Espelho Vazio.
H: I’m not gonna try to repeat it, but it sounds beautiful.
CECILIA: Juliana has done lots of work on animals. She wants to do more work together. Since this book, I’ve looked into the work of Elizabeth Povinelli, a filmmaker and anthropologist. But I won’t be doing any work relating to that for this residency.
H: So while you were waiting to give birth to a new life, you were making a work on extinct animals.
CSILLA: Best time to work on extinct animals.
CECILIA: At the moment, what interests me is what’s invisible among visible things—attitude and perception—in an ecological and economical way. I feel that there is a difference between being a woman and being a mother. Let’s say you are in your 30’s. As a single woman, you can act like a man… Put on a masculine facade. You can also drink like a man. You can smoke like a man. You are also still in that—I would say—”f***able” category.
H: Oh, my.
CECILIA: When you are a mother of a toddler, it’s different. People talk about discrimination against minorities, which is just not acceptable, but there’s no discussion about discrimination against mothers. I’m talking about deliberate discrimination!
H: You think this is going on in the art world.
CECILIA: Yes, yes! I think it’s great that Csilla is doing this residency project. It also opens a conversation about this.
CSILIA: I think this is also one of the reasons why women have to choose whether to have a child or to postpone having a child. Approach to you can change. There are enough cases and…I’ve also read many articles about some galleries treating you differently because you have a baby. They don’t treat you seriously.
CSILLA: You also make a choice as an artist. Do you incorporate the fact that you have a baby in your own work or not? For me, I had no choice. My partner and I are both immigrants. We have no family to help us with our child and day care is expensive. I have to stay at home with my son. The only time I am able to work is when he is sleeping. Usually, it’s about an hour or half an hour. So I started making a nap time series. I have always been interested in the idea of balance, both mental and physical balance. What I started doing was to use my home as my studio for the time he sleeps. I quietly push things aside, make room and build balancing sculptures. In total, there are about 100. It became like a meditation. I was also very concentrated. But there was a danger of the installation collapsing. If it happens, it would also wake the baby. I was playing with the whole idea of space, time; and a balance between my artistic practice and my motherhood.
H: What happened to those sculptures?
CSILLA: I call them 30-minute sculptures. After taking pictures, it’s gone.
H: So you build it, take a photo, then disassemble.
CSILLA: Yes. In the end, they were a series of photographs.
H: What kind of materials did you use for those sculptures?
CSILLA: I used daily objects in the house—whatever I had in the house—like tables, chairs, glasses, even a couch. A lot of times, I was also part of the sculpture.
CECILIA: In some ways, I think, by not avoiding your motherhood and not putting it against you, your work can become stronger.
CSILLA: Yes, of course. On the other hand, I also question whether it’s a niche thing to do—whether the art world is interested in this.
H: But I don’t think the way you incorporated your motherhood in your work would be perceived that way. I wouldn’t have known its connection to the motherhood if you had not explained the nap time aspect of it. Conceptually it was there—perhaps more motivational—but the outcome wasn’t about that.
CSILLA: No. It was important for me. I didn’t include a crib or baby bottles in the sculpture.
H: In a way, it was your escape. So why would you bring that element again in that precious window of time? Makes total sense. This whole conversation is interesting. I’ve also never thought about possible discrimination toward artists with babies.
CECILIA: Yes, there is. A lot. I can give you an example. I even heard that in discussing “Mothers in Arts,” someone made a comment like “What’s the point? I wouldn’t date a mother!”
H: What? Why would you even think about dating?
CECILIA: I know. Why? You are an artist. You are this sensitive person.
H: Clearly not. Is that a locker room talk as someone would say? What is that?
CECILIA: That’s what I’m talking about.
H: In any case, I think, for you, it must have taken lots of courage to travel so far with your baby.
CSILLA: I was also really amazed and thought, ‘Wow, she’s coming to a place where she has to rely on people she doesn’t know. ‘
H: For three months! It’s a big commitment. What did your husband, boyfriend or partner say about doing this residency?
CECILIA: My partner. At the beginning, he was a bit afraid to be so far away from us. But it’s always good when your application goes through. When I was pregnant, I couldn’t do it. Then I did my PhD interview when Dora was 10 month-old. When I found out about the residency, I thought, ‘ I can have this time for me.’ I thought, with this day care combination, it would be possible. If I had received the response about the residency earlier, it might have been possible for my partner to come with me and do his work alongside me… But it’s ok.
H: How does this work with your PhD?
CECILIA: Things had to be arranged with my sponsors and the program. The school was actually supportive of it. Yes, the whole separating was hard, but I also felt the need of it.
H: How about you, Csilla? How long have you been living in the Netherlands?
CSILLA: I’ve been here for nine years. I went to Willem de Kooning Academie in Roterdam, then I did a residency in Korea. I didn’t do the second phase because I got pregnant.
H: Do you want to do a master’s?
CSILLA: I still want to do the second phase.
H: What keeps you busy these days?
CSILLA: I’m busy with Mothers in Arts, organizing events. I’m also part of the residency, so I’m working on my own stuff. We have a final exhibition.
H: Is it nice to have a couple of people who are also artists and in the same boat as you? A good mental support system?
CSILLA: That’s what it is. Nice to have a community of women supporting each other mentally and also practically.
H: How is the schedule working out for you guys?
CSILLA: We had to make some changes, especially for the first month. When my son got chickenpox, one of the artists was out for almost three weeks because she didn’t want her son to catch chickenpox. For children, it also takes time—transition and adaptation.
H: I’m curious what triggered you to do this residency program.
CSILLA: I was working on my grant application and really had to think about what I wanted to do this year. I was in a dilemma: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include my struggle in the application or not. This whole motherhood had a huge impact on me—first six months was really heavy on me—and I thought, ‘I can’t be the only one with this struggle,’ so I decided to make it part of my application for the grant. It was Mothers in Arts. I got the grant and I had to do it.
H: When is the final exhibition?
CSILLA: It’s in June.
CECILIA: At the beginning of June. Everyone will present new work.