The M/Other Project: Creativity, Procreation, and Contemporary Art (Freigeist Fellowship)

Project: Research

Project participants


Since the early 2000s, motherhood has emerged as an urgent and pervasive theme in contemporary culture. Artists many of whom are, for the first time in modern history, themselves mothers have begun to question the distinction between artistic creation and other kinds of making, including that of generating and sustaining human life. Varying dramatically in materials and subject matter, these works challenge dominant narratives of motherhood as a site of repression, impossible expectations, and sociopolitical shame as the very opposite of the innovative, forward-looking subject praised by Western society's creative imperative (Donath 2017, Rose 2019).

Rejecting such paternal definitions of both creativity and motherhood, artists and theorists reconceive the maternal as a collective horizon, engendering visions of cooperation, repair, and futurity. In these works, the maternal becomes a threshold figure that challenges binaries in language linguistics, literature, and psychoanalysis), knowledge (philosophy, sociology, and critical theory), and representation (art history and cultural studies), thereby questioning Western dualisms of self and other.

Situated at the intersection of these disciplines, this project seeks to define and analyze this boundary-defying figure through a comparative focus on contemporary art in Europe, the US, and Latin America. What implications does this "maternal turn" hold for normative definitions of artistic making as ontologically different than other kinds of making. indeed for Otherness and alterity as foundational dilemmas of representation itself? Is this new vision of creativity, which takes recourse to a wide spectrum of Otherness from the ancient to artificial intelligence, a potential paradigm shift, or is it simply a retreat during a backlash of neo-conservativism, neo-nationalism, and neo-paternalism? Do we see varying visual epistemologies of the Mother across Western and non-Western cultural contexts, or is there a dominant representational approach that spans these differences?

By reconstructing a genealogy of maternal creation, I propose that such works suspend the taboo against figuring the maternal as a progenitor of intellectual creativity. I explore this hypothesis through an analysis of visual and textual materials, dialogues with contemporary artists and curators, and archival research into one of the most invisible and undervalued of social roles. I also examine how these works respond to competing counter-models of the maternal, from the protesting mothers of Black Lives Matter to academia's new focus on "care" to the child as a face of climate action. Such artworks, I argue, reimagine motherhood as both a creative desire and a social-reproductive imperative, with far-reaching implications for how we define what it means to "be creative."

The project is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation through a Freigeist Fellowship.
Short titleThe M/Other Project