A unique university collection of artwork dealing with childbirth has been expanded and relaunched.
Curator Helen Knowles is herself an artist who has drawn on her experiences of giving birth to two children, one by Caesarean section and the second at home. In 2008, she organised an exhibition called Birth Rites that involved five artists collaborating with midwives, obstetricians and birth professionals.
The results were shown at both the Glasgow Science Centre and the Manchester Museum. They were then taken in by the University of Salford and form the basis for the Birth Rites Collection, which claims to be the world’s “first and only collection of contemporary artwork dedicated to the subject of childbirth”. It is housed at the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Care in the Mary Seacole Building, originally on the floor devoted to midwifery.
The collection relies on donations and now consists of about 70 works in a variety of media, dealing with the whole process from conception through to breastfeeding as well as the themes of infertility and miscarriage.
Liv Pennington’s Private View, for example, was created by going to a nightclub and asking women to pee on to a pregnancy test. The results are all displayed in a geometric format along with comments such as “I’m scared of being pregnant even though I’m not having sex”, “I’d better not be or I’m Buggered” and “Jo dared me to do this – the beer was a bonus”. There were cases where women were startled to discover that they were pregnant during the project.
Although Ms Knowles stresses that it is “an art collection, not a collection of educational tools”, she also notes that “the midwives see its potential in stimulating discussion”, leading to an impact on teaching and even social policy.
Issues raised by the work, according to the BRC website, include “the shift towards medical intervention in birth”, “how free women are to give birth in a way they want” and “who controls the process of childbirth and why”.
“There is so much work on this subject and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” argued Ms Knowles, because images of childbirth “still feel incredibly taboo”.
Hermione Wiltshire’s digital print, Unmedicated, first time mother (Terese experiencing birth ecstasy) from Ina May Gaskin's archive, captures the moment of “crowning” – and had to be moved away from the entrance doorway when it was first shown in the Birth Rites exhibition.
The collection has now moved to a more prominent place within the Mary Seacole Building and is being relaunched this week with additional work by 11 new artists.
Ana Casas Broda’s Kinderwunsch consists of a series of photographs and prints documenting her fertility treatment. Bella Milroy’s Sharing the Gift from Eleanor (Woven Arms) shows the artist’s mother holding a stillborn child. And Billie Bond’s A Link With the Past is a stoneware and ceramic sculptural group of a pregnant and a breastfeeding woman in an ancient Egyptian style.
The opening will be marked by talks, performance and a “twerkshop” by PhD student Fannie Sosa, who once told an interviewer that she “twerk[ed] to remember my roots; my foremothers that danced with their ass since the dawn of humanity and mastered their fertility outside of phallic towers of control like the state and the church. Twerking is intrinsically linked with women in control of their bodies and their wombs.”