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Hettie Judah is the curator behind Acts Of Creation: On Art And Motherhood, an exhibition which opens at Birmingham’s Midlands Arts Centre next month. Presented by Hayward Gallery Touring, this major show brings together over 100 works of art by mothers - from the feminist avant-garde to the present day - and touches on the themes of creation, maintenance and loss.

What’s On recently caught up with Hettie to find out more about her highly anticipated show...

A new exhibition, curated by Hettie Judah and touring to Birmingham’s Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) next month, explores the joys and heartaches, mess, myths and mishaps of motherhood.

Under the title Acts Of Creation: On Art And Motherhood, the exhibition approaches motherhood as a creative enterprise, albeit one which at times is tempered by ambivalence, exhaustion or grief. It’s also designed to be a welcoming space, with colourful galleries and an area where visitors are invited to sit at a kitchen table and respond to the art around them.

The inspiration behind the exhibition came in 2019, when Hettie was researching the impact of motherhood on artists’ careers. The project was commissioned by Dr Kate McMillan of the Freelands Foundation, who was in turn researching representation of women in the art world.

During her research, Hettie interviewed over 50 artists, and began to realise that the relationship between art and motherhood was largely uncelebrated. She started to consider how that could be rectified.

“A couple of things came out which really set my mind working as to how I might change the picture,” Hettie explains. “One was the fact that very often when people were at art school or were starting out in careers, they received this really strong message that motherhood was incompatible with being an artist, and that motherhood wasn’t a good subject for art.”

Hettie experienced this message first-hand, studying in the early to mid-1990s. Acts Of Creation now seeks to bring the experiences of artist mothers into the limelight.

“The two things that I wanted to do with this show were to make a case for motherhood being an important subject for art - that it’s potentially a subject for really good art - and to highlight that there are artists who have successfully combined motherhood and art making, and to make them visible.”

Hettie was keen to collect works from earlier generations of artists who had engaged with the subject of motherhood. Each work in the show can be seen to approach the topic in a unique way.

“What was really striking, when you start to look historically, is that the same works are being remade over and over again. There was very little awareness of artists who had made work in previous generations. It goes back to the point about motherhood not being seen as a particularly legitimate subject, and even within feminist art history, not necessarily being embraced.

“Overall I’ve been trying to build up a very complex and diverse picture of the experience of motherhood.”

The exhibition has three themes which address these diverse experiences: Creation, which looks at conception, pregnancy, birth and nursing; Maintenance, which explores motherhood and caregiving in the day-to-day; and Loss, which touches on miscarriage and involuntary childlessness, as well as reproductive rights.

“Ever since I’ve been thinking about this exhibition, I’ve been thinking about doing a progression all the way from conception, and issues around fertility and infertility, right through to addressing maternal grief. That shape has always been part of my conception of the exhibition. There is a fourth section, which is The Temple - a big gallery that is full of self-portraits, in each of which the artist portrays themselves in relation to motherhood.”

The remaining section of the exhibition addresses an experience of motherhood which is perhaps most common but most overlooked...

“It was really important to me to have Maintenance as part of the show, because in general, when we think about motherhood in art, we tend to think about the Madonna and Child, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and really tiny children. I wanted to highlight the fact that motherhood doesn’t finish when a child is one year old; it’s something that continues for the rest of your life. Maintenance really addresses motherhood in the day to day; that ongoing labour of motherhood that’s maybe less visible but still dominates people’s lives.”

Alongside the exhibition are related attractions, such as a gig theatre event from The Queer Motherhood Project, and a season of film screenings entitled Bad Mums: Motherhood In Cinema.

MAC is also hosting in-tandem exhibitions: Hidden Mothers by Tereza Buskova, and Who Cares?, produced by the venue in collaboration with Kaye Winwood and Balsall Heath CATS - an organisation supporting families who care for disabled children and young people.

The programme also holds space to explore more sensitive topics within the theme.

“MAC are really brilliantly going to be hosting a symposium in September, which particularly addresses maternal loss and infertility. They’re going to dedicate an entire day to that, in the context of the exhibition.”

The symposium takes place on Thursday 12 September, with presentations by artists, writers and art historians who will be sharing their research and personal work around the subject.

On the evening of the same day, an ‘in conversation with’ panel discussion will  feature artists Felicity Allen, Jai Chuhan and Su Richardson. The panel is chaired by Hettie herself, who is certainly enthusiastic about the lively public schedule which MAC is programming to coincide with her exhibition.

“It’s a real dream for me. That idea of having a really engaging public face has been central to how I’ve planned the show. I couldn’t be more thrilled that MAC have taken that idea and run with it, with this very strong public programming strand.”

Many of the events programmed around Acts Of Creation - and of course the exhibition itself - are free to enter. MAC’s standing as a cultural hub for the local community is something that Hettie wants to celebrate.

“It’s not like a big, ticketed, blockbuster exhibition where you’ve got your one-hour time slot when you need to be in and out…There’ll be lots and lots to look at and read, but it should all be quite inviting. I’m really happy that people feel they can drop in for about 15 minutes, and come back on another day to revisit their favourite works. My dearest wish is that the community around MAC makes it their own.”

Acts Of Creation: On Art And Motherhood shows at MAC from Saturday 22 June to Sunday 29 September Acts Of Creation: Symposium & Panel Discussion take place on Thursday 12 September. Tereza Buskova: Hidden Mothers runs from Saturday 1 June to Sunday 29 September Who Cares? runs from Thursday 6 June to Sunday 22 September

By Jessica Clixby