Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Interview: Mintio and Kabul



Mintio (Samantha Tio) and Kabul (Budi Agung Kuswara) are internationally exhibited artists whose work has shifted profoundly since becoming parents. As the sexism and privilege of the art world presented new barriers, the two artists merged their separate practices into multimedia collaborations, including “The Wax on Our Fingers” and “The Current/s We Call Home.” They also founded Ketemu Project, a socially-engaged arts organization in Bali that allows them to operate beyond the commercial art world. Ketemu uses art to engage marginalized groups in the community, address environmental concerns, and support the work of fellow artists through a new family-in-residence program. When we spoke, the two parents were separated by the pandemic, with borders closed: Mintio working from home in Singapore with their 8-year old daughter, Ning, and Kabul in Indonesia, where Ketemu is based.

Cultural ReProducers is pleased to share a series of conversations with artists parenting in Singapore. This interview is part of a creative exchange between Cultural ReProducers and the artist-run gallery CommaSpace. This partnership began in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when connecting with artists meant juggling online conversations while caring for e-learning children at home. We’re so thankful for these conversations, which raise critical questions about support, culture, and creativity.
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Cultural ReProducers: Mintio, you grew up in Singapore and Kabul in Bali, and you typically travel between the two when you’re not grounded by a pandemic. How has this shaped the culture of your family and your creative community?


Kabul: I’m not a typical Balinese: my mom is Javanese and my dad is Balinese. I grew up in this mixed culture environment, so when I was younger my family from my mother’s side, when I visited Java they brought me to a mosque to pray. And when I come here to Bali I would go to the Hindu temple to pray. Traditional Balinese they are really connected with daily cultural activities. When I went to JogJakarta for 13 years - to study, and I had my studio based there – I felt comfortable because I had 24 hours my time to manage on my own. So when I met Mintio in Jogja, I don’t see it as much different in terms of cultural background. But when I visited Singapore, I had … a challenge to fit.  Everything’s really efficient in Singapore, but my work as an artist is not a “profession” there.

Mintio & Kabul, image from "The Wax On Our
Fingers" series, cyanotype and wax on cotton.

Mintio: We are facing transnational issues in terms of Visas, and I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve been working out the entire of our parenting and family life. Reflecting on my own cultural identity, I see myself very much of an outcome of migration. I’m born to an immigrant family of Southern Chinese and, you know, this is not my land. Whereas in Bali, Kabul has his ancestral hall, and all the lineages and histories attached to the land. I’m this kind of floating entity. Kabul really has that status as a third-culture child, by having mixed parentage. So I’m wondering what’s gonna be in it for [our daughter] Ning, as a third-culture kid.

In a sense, what we want to establish for our child is that you can be at home anywhere. You can be anything you define yourself to be. But of course that also involves a lot of scaffolding – it has to be very conscious and aware. So even as a very young child I talked to her about “What’s the difference between your cultural identity, your nationality? What does it mean? Who are you?” Because these questions get thrown to her a lot in school here: in Singapore you are believed to have this very singular identity: you’re either Malay, Indian, Chinese, or “Other.”
 
What grounds us culturally is art. We see art as that binding force in our family. That allows us to exist anywhere as a family – being nomadic, you know, we build our own kind of network as a family, creative community around the world. Kabul and I have a practice that, whatever we make, it has to fit into our luggage. Or it could be rolled or folded. That constraint gives a certain kind of liberty to where we can show – it has shaped the medium of our works. Ever since that we work a lot with tapestry, textiles, anything that can be folded. It could even be something that you could wear onto the flight, you know, like a really big jacket. The installation was about 100 meters square, but we fit everything into a self-bought bag that Kabul could take onto the flight.

Mintio and Kabul, installation view of "The Current/s We Call Home," mixed media with sound

CR: This cultural complexity informs your collaborative work. I know you work both separately and also together. Could you talk about that?

Mintio: We have our joint practice and we have our individual practices, and they are quite different. When we come together, we quite naturally turn to address the issues we are facing together. I think my own work is quite acultural because it’s quite technical. But Kabul… recently it’s become more cultural, but previously it focused more on socio-political issues.
 
Kabul: Yes, because my situation here also relates to… cultural consequences. Because my mother is Javanese and my father is Balinese from a certain caste, things happened to me as a child that didn’t allow me to carry that caste. So when I am younger, this gives me a different treatment. For example, I can’t share a cup with my family. In the beginning I see this treatment as something that really makes me sad. But after studying in university I moved to Jogjakarta, and I come to see this as a kind of freedom. I was able to see Bali more clearly, looking back. I start to learn about history, how Balinese culture formed. When I’m in Jogja I’m exploring social issues. Now that I’m back, I work closely with historical material and cultural practices that I tweak with my own understanding. For traditional Balinese they can’t do this, because it’s against their beliefs.

Mintio:
Together we run an art organization called Ketemu Project in Bali. Ketemu means “to meet,” so basically what we are doing is we are meeting each other. Katemu is this… other thing, so it’s everyday work that people can connect to in Indonesia.

In our residency program, we have a family-in-residence, where we create the infrastructure to support entire families. That came from our experience being in residence at Bamboo Curtain Studios in Taiwan. We were invited as a family, so that was wonderful. Other than everybody being very welcoming, there were things like high chairs, open spaces for her to run around. Being with a child wasn’t a taboo conversation. We would bring her to all our shows, all our workshops - she was always there. So it didn’t seem like our parenting lives were separate from us throughout the entire residency.

Budi Agung Kuswara (Kabul), "The
Grateful Society," cyanotype and ink
on cotton paper

We realized that ever since we became parents, we’d been cut off from many residency opportunities. Most residencies expect you to go alone for extended periods of time. You cannot bring a spouse – you definitely cannot bring a child. We find that framework really challenging for artists holding caregiving identities, and it defines artists in a really narrow way. So we were inspired and motivated to further support families through our own residency program, to support artists more holistically. 


CR: How did your practice change when you had a child?

Kabul: For me, what had to change is having to adjust to the idea of being a parent in Singapore. I never worked in an office, or worked for other people before. Luckily, my in-laws slowly accept me, but in the beginning, they asked me to find a job [there]. I tried to do that. I spent two years for experiment. I didn’t come up with artwork that was final or ready. Sometimes I can say this artwork is “done,” just to make myself happy – but I realized this is not maximal. This was a really important process as a step to develop my work now.

The biggest thing after having kids is, What art really can do, beyond the object? To achieve this we can’t work alone. Ketemu is the infrastructure to support this vision. And what art can do, especially in this pandemic situation… the challenge in Bali is that the largest industries are shut down and no tourists can come, so what can we do? When we talk about art and creativity, it’s becoming more and more relevant to social challenges. Ketemu can be a tool and it can also be a legacy. I adjust as someone who has to take care of other people outside of myself. I enjoy parenting very much. Since our daughter was born until she is 3, 4 years, I’m the one who gives her bath every day. Because that’s how, here in Bali, parents take care. It was really rare for my circle here to have helpers to take care of their kids. But I think it will be different for Mintio.

"Instead of having this tangible end product, we think about how we can actually shape society."


Mintio photographing batik artisans for "The Wax on Our Fingers"
Mintio:
I think parenthood really changed a lot. Prior to having our child, I was very much a career artist – I would do shows pretty regularly, I could draw regular income from my work. But that work was also very physically strenuous. The conditions of production, even on a logistical basis, are so different. I still have not managed to resolve it.

I photograph predominantly with the large format [camera], so I had all this really huge gear and I’d walk for hours, work alone for days at a time, with very little human interaction. Through my pregnancy I sustained a bad back injury that I’m still dealing with now, and I had to hire an assistant to carry my gear for me. It became very clear that this mode of production might not be able to sustain itself. The cost of hiring an assistant long term, and of production itself, was so high that I started to have that mindset of comparing the sheets of film that I will use to diaper money or milk powder money. And that held back... I didn’t have that same degree of experimentation that I had while being single. It became a mental block.

So what was continuing to drive my work was collaborations with Kabul. There were times when we would fight, and I would wish I could just go back to my own personal practice. But there’s also many wonderful, magical things that came out of it. We were able to travel together as a family, like the Bamboo Curtain residency. That was where the art community recognized our joint practice, and were able to give us opportunities based on that.

In Singapore I face a lot of discrimination for being an artist and a mother at the same time. When I was expecting, I applied for a scholarship to pursue my Masters. Having higher education beyond a Bachelors has always been my dream. I got good responses from the University, and got scholarships on the other end, but I needed scholarship here. The final round of interviewing came one, two weeks after I gave birth to her. I remember that day. It was pouring rain, I had to leave Kabul and Ning at home and went for my interview. The interview was scheduled to be around 3pm, and it ran late… it didn’t begin until 6pm, and I didn’t pump enough milk for her. When I got home, he was carrying her around and she was just crying. I was in tears, it was raining, it was really bad.

But what added to the whole negativity of my experience was that the whole interview became about my motherhood. When I came in, everybody clapped. And I was like “Why are you clapping?” And they said “You just gave birth, didn’t you?” And I was like “Yes…but what does that have to do with this interview?” (laughter) I was pretty anxious already, having left Kabul and Ning alone for so long. Lets get right to it. This male panelist said, “You just gave birth. What makes you think you can study?” Another male panelist was just sitting across from me doing this the whole time (leans on hand with a troubled expression, shaking her head). What they just couldn’t figure out was, how could you go do your Masters when you just had a child? It wasn’t information I gave in the application. I wasn’t being evaluated for my ability as an artist - more on the disability that I would face. I couldn’t believe that half the time of the interview I had to defend that.  In the end I didn’t get the scholarship. I’ve always been quite stimulated by the academic setting – it’s a place I want to be. But I don’t even think that I could go beyond a Bachelors now, with all the challenges.

CR: It’s a little shocking how many people still assume a woman will stop her career once she becomes a mother, even if you’re actively parenting together with a partner.

Mintio: I’m very fortunate that my earlier works have still been circulating, going around to shows, globally. But I have not managed to make anything new, besides our joint works. There’s always this pressure as an artist that you need to constantly make new work to validate yourself. But only now, in the case of the pandemic, do I tell myself “It’s okay not to make work! It’s okay to take a pause. It doesn’t mean you won’t make work in the future.” There’s the anxiety of being forgotten by your collectors, that the art world will think you’re not active anymore and hence exclude you from any opportunities.

Shortly after the interview, I was at a festival opening, the Singapore International Photography Festival. There was a curator there that I really respected. He introduced me to some other guy as “This is Mintio, but she’s not very active now because she just had a child.” I didn’t know what to say. All these microagressions, they ate into my self-esteem as an artist. When I was awarded a commission, I questioned myself. All my negotiations felt asymmetrical, and it became really unhealthy. It doesn’t seem to impact male artists in this way. They wouldn’t go up to a male artist and say “oh this is so and so, but he just had a kid, so of course he hasn’t been producing work.”

Kabul and team molding banana fibers with Mintio's photographic
prints into sail forms for "The Currents We Call Home."

CR: Are there any artists you’ve been able to look to, examples of how to make it work as artists and parents?

Mintio:
I did a lot of research, actually. I went to a lot of symposiums where mothers talked about what could be done. There was one artist who said “bring your child to work,” and there were all these tips being dropped. But the ability to do all of that comes with a lot of privilege. Our family is quite modest financially. We can’t afford a caregiver or a helper, which I’m actually very thankful for. All these mothers being able to incorporate their kids, to have it all, there’s all this privilege that you don’t see. Maybe they have a hedge fund, or they draw rental income (laughter). So as much as earlier on there were parenting artists I want to emulate, in the end my earlier models were like “pffft” [makes a gesture of something going up in smoke]. 


Kabul:
After we had Ning, we have been doing much more community-based work. We actually take care of many, many more people. So for me, it’s been about activating my instincts of taking care. Maybe it will mean adding additional staff that I will have to deal with, but when I look at it as a life, something that I just enjoy – our lives have this perspective by seeing what I can do, and I can learn from other artists in the same way. For me this is all natural. I don’t actually compare them. I really learn a lot, taking care of more people after we have kids.



Mintio: Instead of having this tangible end product, we think about how we can actually shape society in a certain way. It’s all about changing mindsets and perspectives. Our recent project has been about disability and mental health. It was not a physical work that we could sell -- the work was about how we could impact our own communities. I don’t know if you feel this way, but being a parent makes us aware of our own mortality. Like, what’s going to happen to Ning if I die? And it also makes us think about our legacies: What do I want to leave behind? For a lot of families in Singapore it would be like, I want to leave behind excess: a house, some money for my children… but for us it is quite clear that we don’t want to leave behind all that. So very clearly our work now is that we want to be able to leave behind a society that Ning could thrive in, where she can be herself and feel accepted. 




Friday, January 8, 2021

Interview: Susie Wong

Susie Wong (photo credit: Tamares Goh)
Susie Wong’s current work contemplates memory, mass media, and the consumption of circulated images. Active as an artist and arts writer since the 1980s, she forged her own path in Singapore’s art scene. Her practice has been enhanced by curatorial projects and her work as an educator at LASALLE College of the Arts. She has contributed art criticism for the Straits Times as well as features for magazines including ID and d+a in architecture and design, among many others. Recent projects include a multimedia installation for Objectifs gallery, and a site-specific video projected on the windows of her HDB flat as part of the National Gallery of Singapore’s series, out of isolation: artists respond to covid-19.


Cultural ReProducers is pleased to share four conversations with parenting artists in Singapore, begun during a residency there where connecting with fellow artists often meant meeting online, because of the pandemic. This interview is part of a creative exchange between Cultural ReProducers and the artist-run gallery CommaSpace


Susie with Anmari, at her 1993 solo exhibition Portraits & 
Places, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

Cultural ReProducers: Did motherhood change your relationship with the art community in Singapore? If you could, what might you change to create a more supportive environment there?




Susie Wong: During that time, in the 90’s and early 2000s, even being an “artist” was quite a new phenomenon in Singapore, in terms of numbers. I experienced the art community as an inclusive place. I felt – as a single parent – like I belonged. Perhaps it was a less structured place, and I can make it effective for myself and my child by including her in most activities. In retrospect, the art community had been fluid and accepting.  By art community I include as well the institutions I worked with along the way – I brought her everywhere - meetings, events, workshops - and I have not encountered any exclusion. It could be on account that I work with more women than men who led the projects. 

As for the wider community of Singapore–being an artist, let alone a single parent/artist, does attract more prejudices, as one can expect—culturally, traditionally. Today perhaps, there is greater acceptance of artist as a profession, a career, than before. Being a single parent, particularly a woman, still attracts a stigma. There is a national idea of “family”– traditional mould– that is being heavily rooted, and endorsed politically, and therefore societally, as the conservative segment of our society holds to gendered stereotypes in a family. So if I were to promote changes for inclusivity, I will propose new “family” models, alongside other forms of diversity. Examples of discriminatory policies are the lack of subsidized care or support for single women/parent with “illegitimate” offspring, in public housing, and in childcare. There do seem to be some changes, at least, support from various NGOs.



CR: Could you tell us a little bit about your daughter? 



Susie:
Anmari is precocious, an independent spirit. She is now very involved in the arts, an arts manager

Susie and Anmari at Susie's 1997 exhibition Soul & Flesh
Valentine Willie Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

in the F&B industry, also a curator, writer. She has always been assisting me, recording or documenting my work.  She just shared with me a picture of us at the opening of an exhibition at The Substation in the 1990s. in it, she was holding a voice recorder, looking all serious, and recording our speeches.

Cultural ReProducers: How did parenthood shift your creative practice? Were there changes in the work itself?

Susie Wong:
Anmari was born in 1989. Prior to her birth, I was already searching for my artistic practice and voice; I had spent one or two years teaching art, and had participated in small group exhibitions. My daughter was born at a time when my marriage was breaking down. Around that time, I was in Indonesia, in a kind of artist space/studio/residence in which I had made paintings, drawings, and connected with other artists there. In 1990 I returned to Singapore with her.

My practice still continued to be paintings, and I had some solo exhibitions. Painting is a very solitary practice, a space of solitude; in terms of time and space, it was a manageable way of juggling baby/child minding and art. The most difficult part was obviously the income that I needed to cover my living expenses. Selling my work had not made me financially independent. I had to resort to writing, editing and teaching; I have been a freelancer since those days. 

I think motherhood has provoked a certain interest and questioning of my place as a woman / single parent in society; this can be seen in several exhibitions and works. Being isolated in terms of my freelancing work— not fully connected in the conventional sense — meant that my work tends to take on more domestic perspectives and family situations. The frequently flailing empowerment in a society that presumes women as equal resulted in a new awareness. This became an important source from which ideas flowed. From the 1990s and on, collective engagements were important for my artistic growth.

Being a single parent and being an artist both involve… a lot of constraints. But I think the separation of two - being a parent and being an artist - there’s not very clear demarcation in these roles for me. She is really a part of my work. And today what is really lovely is that we bounce a lot of ideas off each other. She is very interested in the arts, inevitably, right? It’s her destiny. [laughs] Throughout the 30 years that she’s been around, she’s been exposed to a lot of artistic practices. So it’s – what is the word for it? It’s synergistic.

video stills from dancing alone, 2020, Objectifs, Singapore


















 

 

CR: What advice would you pass on to a new parent struggling to balance parenthood, paid work, and an artistic practice? 


Susie:
I think of life and art as quite seamless. I always thought of the child as precious, placed as foremost in my sights. Once that is so, the struggle to balance becomes less acute. As for paid work, such a necessity, I live simply, and do what I can. Looking back, those must have been difficult years (maybe even depressive years), but I learn to live literally day-to-day, perhaps hand-to-mouth. I have been a part-time or freelancer for decades, and I actually believed for the longest time that this is the future model of work. The wonderful thing is that all this extra work - writing, workshops, teaching, curating - revolves around art as well, so I rarely need to step outside the field. It is at the emotional level that the child has played an important role in my life. You learn utmost patience, in growing slowly, and savoring the world.



Saturday, December 12, 2020

Artist Alisha B. Wormsley Launches Residency for Black Mothers

A Sybils Shrine meeting takes place over Zoom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

When she first learned she was pregnant, artist Alisha Wormsley found herself excluded from artist residency opportunities she had already been awarded. Now she's turning that experience into a new program supporting black artist mothers in the Pittsburgh area. Cultural ReProducers looks forward to following up on this project and the artists involved as it gets underway in the new year, but in the meantime, we're sharing this lovely article, which first appeared on the Carnegie Mellon University news.

by Heidi Opdyke

 Alisha B. Wormsley built her career as an artist around residencies, which provide opportunities to live and produce work in different environments, including in places like Houston and Cuba. Then came her first pregnancy.

"I had two years of residencies lined up," recalled Wormsley, who is a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in art at Carnegie Mellon University. "I reached out to the organizations and they were all like, 'I guess you're not coming.'"

The experience was eye opening, and provided the inspiration for Sibyls Shrine, which gives residency opportunities to Black women who are mothers and identify as artists, creatives and/or activists. Wormsley founded the organization in collaboration with Naomi Chambers and CMU alumna Jessica Gaynelle Moss.


"For these women, the challenges of parenting in combination with systemic racism and sexism often make the barriers to entry into the art world insurmountable," Wormsley said.

Named after the priestesses of the Black goddess Mami Wata, Sibyls Shrine is motivated by a similar goal: helping Black mothers with opportunities for self-care, childcare, space and support so they can further develop their craft and create a sustainable arts practice.

"As soon as Alisha told me about the project, I was in love," said Chambers, who was selected for a Community Liaison Residency for Sibyls Shrine. "Being an artist in Pittsburgh, and being a Black mother, there's not a lot of opportunities that you get to take advantage of to still be a really good artist and maintain your practice while also trying to be a really good mom."

As part of her role, Chambers, who is a painter and assemblage artist, will be creating a marketplace for artists while working on her own art. She and her husband previously ran the Flower House in Wilkinsburg, which served as a community art studio.

"We all look at art making as problem solving and world building. It's just one of the ways that I've been able to survive and figure out things in my life," Chambers said. As a community liaison, she's looking to understand how to help people find resources they might not have known were available as well as develop her own identity as a leader. "I'm learning more about what my skills and strengths are to understand how that can align with how to help those who need help," she said. "I'm excited by the opportunity."

Sibyls Shrine includes three additional residency programs and is funded by the Just Arts program of The Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and Opportunity Fund. Additional financial support has been provided by the Mattress Factory Museum and Silver Eye Center for Photography. Along with the Community Liaison, the Visiting Artist and Home residencies will begin Jan. 1, 2021.

"There's nothing else like this," Wormsley said. "Our goal is that this is not only successful for us but we want to create a model that can be replicated around the country. That's part of our mission."
Sibyls Shrine is a new artist residency program for Black women. The organization is named after priestesses of the Black goddess Mami Wata. The term, which predates Greek history, was used to name the guardians of the Matriarchy.

SIBYLS SHRINE VISITING ARTIST RESIDENCY

A deliberate force in the landscape of contemporary American art for the last three decades, Renee Cox is an internationally renowned photographer and mixed media artist. Cox frames her self-portraits as poignant arguments on race, desire, religion, feminism and visual and cultural aesthetics. Cox will begin her yearlong residency in January 2021. As visiting artist-in-residence, she will be supported for one year with an unrestricted honorarium, material and supply budget, travel and residential accommodations. While in Pittsburgh, she will have access to the facilities and support of multiple arts organizations and institutions, ultimately resulting in an exhibition with additional members of the Sibyls Shrine team. Cox will participate in public programming throughout the city and will serve as a mentor to the three Sibyls Shrine Home Residents over the duration of her residency.


SIBYLS SHRINE HOME RESIDENCY

The Home Residency will support three Pittsburgh-based artists, Mary Martin, LaKeisha Wolf and sarah huny young, with professional and personal development, space, connectivity, mutual aid, financial and creative support, mentorship and exhibition opportunities. The artists will remain in their own homes, but will be supported with relief from some of their day-to-day tasks of homecare, childcare, cleaning, and grocery purchasing and shopping in order to provide them with the time, space and resources to support their creative practices. Other Black creative mothers and working professionals from the Pittsburgh area will be hired to provide support and assistance.

Martin is a high school visual arts instructor at Winchester Thurston School and a member of Women of Visions, Inc., an arts collective of Black female artists. She exhibits nationally and collaborates on educational programming for various cultural institutions.

Wolf is an artisan and owner of Ujamaa Collective, a micro-enterprise centered on making and wellness. She has grown her skills working to uplift and center her

own healing, as well as other Black women and the Africana community, using nature, arts and culture. Wolf's resources are stones and natural elements, symbols and affirmations.

Young is an award-winning visual artist primarily documenting and exalting Black womanhood and queer communities through portraiture and video. Framing her muses as collaborators, she often shoots on-location across the country in personal, intimate spaces of the subject's choosing. Her work has been featured in Pittsburgh City Paper, New York Magazine and The New York Times.

At the conclusion of visiting artist and home residencies, a final group exhibition will be held at the Mattress Factory Contemporary Museum.

PANDEMIC PIVOT

When Sibyls Shrine was first conceived, Wormsley had added travel and networking costs into her team's budget. COVID-19 changed those plans.

"We were like, well, we have this money, we can't travel, and moms need support. Let's create a network where we can," Wormsley said.

The Network Residency was born. Cohorts of 30 participants meet virtually for eight-week sessions. Each participant receives a stipend for joining as well as an honorarium for presenting on a topic of their choice. So far, 60 mothers have gone through the program. About 75 percent are from the Pittsburgh area. Wormsley said presenters provided information on everything from gardening, website tutorials, budgeting to discussing their artistic practices or doctoral research."I'm so happy. It's actually the right thing for right now," Wormsley said.


While Sibyls Shrine grew out of Wormsley's own experience, it continues to feed her art as she constantly explores ways to engage and create community. At CMU, her research fellowship is focused on the resurgence of practices in Black communities such as herbalism, plant medicine and midwifery. Skills, which Wormsley said, allow Black women to be sustainable in their communities.

Monday, May 18, 2020

CR Favorites List: Pandemic Edition Part I

Christa Donner, Two Interiors (installation view), 2014
Sheltering in place with the complex dramas of young children doesn’t exactly lend itself to thoughtful article-writing or transcribing interviews. But there are so many great projects coming out now that are relevant to this community, we wanted to collect some of them together in one place. Whether you’re looking for inspiration, or just something that’s interesting to watch with the kids in your life, we hope there’s something on this list you’ll like. We'll keep 'em coming. And if you’re on Facebook, please join the Cultural ReProducers Network, where parenting artists are actively skillsharing and posting great things like these from around the world all the time.

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Experiment 120: A Playlist of Short, Experimental Films for Kids
Looking for something interesting to watch with your kids besides Netflix cartoons? Look no further than this great playlist. After watching, introduce your kids to one of the many free stop-motion apps out there, and see what they come up with while you dedicate some time toward a short creative project of your own.

Labor: Motherhood in Art 
Joey Fauerso, “You Destroy Every Special Thing I Make” (2017-2019),
installation view, Labor: Motherhood & Art 2020 (images by Trey Broomfield
courtesy of New Mexico State University Art Museum)
I think most of us would agree that it's tough to replicate the experience of a physical exhibition online.
However, there are some advantages, including the chance to see (and document!) a show you might never otherwise know of or travel to see in person. So perhaps it is in everyone's best interest that this exhibition, co-curated by museum director Marisa Sage and artist Laurel Nakadate, has been meticulously documented, reviewed, and shared virtually. The show features an outstanding collection that includes pieces by Yoko Ono, Patty Chang, Amy Cutler, Hồng-Ân Tru’o’ng & Hu'o’ng Ngô, Wendy Red Star, and many others.

The exhibition also features two smaller exhibitions: one collecting of Mexican mother-and-child Retablos organized two curatorial studies MA candidates, and a gallery dedicated to the creative output of MFA students Katrina Chandler and Maggie Day. The two mothers applied and participated in Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood, thanks in part to childcare support offered through the museum to support the development of new work, artists statements, and bios to support their studio practices.

Artist Residency in Motherhood
Speaking of which... maybe now's a great time to apply? This generous and generative ongoing project grew from artist Lenka Clayton's own struggles to reshape a professional identity and creative practice as she entered into motherhood (twice), and has built an active and international community of exchange between mothers, using the challenges of life at home with children as a creative prompt.

Parenting Artists Singapore #2: Meetup with Christa Donner on May 22
Parenting Artists SG is a new group generating conversations about caregiving and creative community in Singapore. On Friday, May 22nd, Cultural ReProducers founder Christa Donner will present to the group about the work she’s been doing at home as an Artist-in-Residence at Yale-NUS in Singapore with her family, as well as the strategies of other artist parents and family residency experiences she’s learned from along the way. Depending on where you are in the world, be sure to check your time zones before signing up (Singapore is roughly 13 hours ahead of Chicago). Registration will be capped at 30 participants.

Shaun Leonardo and Mckendree Key paint on tree bark with their children
in Vermont during quarantine. (photo courtesy Mckendree Key)
During Pandemic, Artist-Parents Reflect and Get Creative with their Kids
Hyperallergic is posting all kinds of interesting things about artist-parents these days. This article features in-progress work by parenting artists Edgar Arceneaux, Shaun Leonard, Mckendree Key, and others getting creative with their kids during the Pandemic. They also shared a great Mother’s Day review of the book “Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity.



 
A Mother Uses Art to Ease Her Sons' Pandemic Fears

If you could use something inspiring and hopeful, take a minute to watch this beautiful New Yorker video about photographer Elisabetta Zavoli, and the work she’s been making with her two sons in the garden at night, as a way to work through their collective anxieties during Italy's quarantine, and an opportunity to reconnect with them in the process. The NY Times recently shared this photo essay by conflict photographer Paolo Pellegrin on the choice to stick with his family instead of covering the pandemic, and the work that has resulted. And if you haven't yet, take a look at our recent interview with Amber Dohrenwend, who developed her creative practice during time spent in the apartment with her small children in Tokyo.


Saturday, May 9, 2020

Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity

Reviewed by Chrissy LaMaster

Rachel Epp Buller begins her introduction in "Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity" by posing a question to readers: is maternity appropriate? The answer (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here) is both yes and no. “Maternity is both a cultural ideal and a cultural taboo, both appropriate and inappropriate” she writes as she goes on to explain how she and co-editor Charles Reeve went about deciding upon the overarching theme for their book. The result of their effort, 20 texts by practicing artists, designers, curators and academic scholars, is an amazing collection of both essays and conversations and an invaluable addition to the field of maternal studies.

Divided into the three sections of “Body Politics,” “Family Practices,” and “By Design,” one finds scholarly essays interspersed with personal testaments, conversations and interviews. Contributors seek to “examine maternity’s centrality as a defining term of female identity” for all women, regardless of whether or not they have chosen to have children. In addition to Epp Buller herself, featured are many artists, writers, and collectives familiar to the Cultural ReProducers community: Courtney Kessel, Lena Simic, Irene Perez, Jill Miller, Lise Haller Baggesen, Miriam Schaer, and many others. These contributions are significant, thought provoking, and at times inspiring. One piece that stood out to me was a a conversation between the curator, artist, and scholar Natalie Loveless  and "mamactavists" Martina Mullaney (Enemies of Good Art), Christa Donner (Cultural ReProducers), and collaborators Andrea Francke and Kim Dhillon (Invisible Spaces of Parenthood). Many things have changed since that initial conversation, which took place in 2016, from the “#MeToo" movement to the global pandemic that has thrown the complex expectations of working mothers into sharper focus. It is interesting to reflect on the shifts that have taken place and what they may (or may not) mean for mother's rights, mother's bodies, mother artists, maternal studies, and mothers in general. I also appreciate the exchange of letters between Rachel Epp-Buller, Lena Simic and Emily Underwood-Lee for many of the same reasons. "Discussions" like these are rare in most books on maternal art, but it is this collective approach that makes the book engaging to a range of readers, from those seeking scholarly documentation of maternal art practices to any creative person thinking through their own dual labor as artists and caregivers, and perhaps seeking solidarity.

Lise Haller Baggesen, Mothernism, 2013-ongoing. Audio
Installation. Copyright Lise Haller Baggesen
As a feminist and an artist who is interested in a more authentic representation of motherhood within both contemporary art and society in general, I found the book particularly relevant. Although several excellent texts concerning the maternal in contemporary art have been published in recent years, "Inappropriate Bodies" has quickly become my favorite. It is a wonderfully diverse combination of critical theory and personal perspectives. Intentional in its design, it is at once academic and approachable, which allows it to be accessible (and I feel more useful) to anyone interested in issues surrounding the maternal in art. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  * 
Doreen Balabanoff, Birthing Room conceptual model, bird's
eye view, 2016. courtesy of the artist
"Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity" is published by Demeter Press,
an independent feminist press committed to publishing peer-reviewed scholarly work, fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction on mothering, reproduction, sexuality and family.

Chrissy LaMaster is an artist currently living in Billings, Montana. Chrissy holds an MFA in Photography and Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from Illinois State University and an MA in Studio Art from Bradley University. Her primary areas of interest and research include the history of photography, gender studies, historical and contemporary representations of motherhood, and the history and theory of craft. Chrissy has experience in teaching, curating, and programming in a variety of arts related settings. Her work has been exhibited internationally, and can be found in both public and private collections.


   








Friday, April 17, 2020

Interview: Amber Dohrenwend

Amber at work in her home / studio. photo: Yuki Sato

 
Amber Dohrenwend
is an educator and self-taught artist who grew up in the US and is now based in Tokyo. We first met Amber through a shared interest in Adventure Playgrounds: open-ended spaces where children shape their own environments using repurposed materials. Amber’s artistic practice – which developed in her small apartment with kids at home, using simple tools and recycled cardboard to make amazing things – feels especially relevant right now, as so many parenting artists find ourselves working to restructure creative time at home with what limited privacy and supplies we can manage.

This interview is the second in a series of conversations organized through Cultural ReProducers Tokyo, thoughtfully conducted by artist, art researcher, curator, and CR Tokyo organizer Catherine Harrington. These conversations explore some of the culturally-specific challenges of working as an artist-parent in Japan, and the fundamental questions we are all working to sort out together.


Cultural ReProducers Tokyo: To start, tell us a bit about you and your daughters.
 

Amber Dohrenwend: I am originally from Michigan in the U.S. and I grew up on a farm there. In 2018, my husband and I moved to Japan. Previously we were working in Egypt and Pakistan. My two daughters were born here (now nearly 8 and 10 years old.) We all have been deeply influenced by our time living in Japan. My daughters go to Japanese schools, and are really rooted in this place. I still feel like a foreigner, but Japan has also come to feel very familiar to me.

CR Tokyo: First as a parent and then as an artist, how did you begin to find community and connection here in Japan?

Amber:
My husband teaches science here, so when we came there was a community of foreigners, but I was one of the few women at the time who was not working a day to day job, and was at home as a caregiver. This was a difficult time because I lost my identity as a professional. I really felt that because I wasn’t “making money” in many ways I was invisible. I had to build a new identity for myself from the ground up.

Amber working on a sculpture with her daughter. Photo: Peter Dohrenwend
I started studying Japanese at a nearby community center, then I started to make some Japanese friends through some of the early learning programs for children, and also by going to local adventure playgrounds. There were usually always a few people that spoke English, and would very generously help me navigate difficulties. It has taken a long time to build the patchwork community that I have here, and it’s very special to me. I know and spend time with a very diverse group of people.

In terms of the art community, I am a self-taught artist and I am still trying to find my place in the art world here. I mostly began my art practice in isolation, and until recently didn’t think I would be able to easily connect with artists in Japan because of the language barrier, but I am just now realizing it might be easier than I had thought. I’m excited about meeting people through Cultural ReProducers.

 CR Tokyo: During our conversation today, you said your journey into art practice began after you became a parent.  Can you tell us more about this journey, and how your art practice emerged in the midst of parenting?

Amber:
I started working with cardboard as a material because it was easy to collect. I would just ride my bike around on recycling day and find interesting pieces of cardboard that other people in my neighborhood had put out. I didn’t need many tools or much space to work, and we lived in a small apartment. Even now I mostly work on the floor in my tatami room with just a pair of roofing shears and a stapler. It took me about 6 or 7 years of engaging with the material to get enough skill to be able to communicate my ideas.

When my children were very small, I was immersed in their worlds. We spent a lot of time playing together, and it was this time of engaging in the act of play again that really ignited a spark in me. As they grew and played, I played too. The play turned into making things for them, and then making things for myself, which became my current art practice.

CR Tokyo:  How do you manage to find a balance between your art practice and parenting? Do you schedule time to make artworks?

Amber:
When my children were younger it was more of a struggle to work. I was mostly just exploring the material, but nevertheless I needed time to concentrate. I remember at one time I got a pair of overalls, and would try to wear them so that everyone in my family knew that when I was wearing the overalls, they couldn’t disturb me... but it didn’t really work. Sometimes there were times when my husband would take the kids to the park, or my children were napping that I could work, but mostly I had to wait until they entered school to have more time. Because I don’t have a studio, I wear headphones and listen to music when I work and my family is present, and sometimes I put the doors on the tatami room so I have more privacy. I sometimes even wear headphones at home without music when I am by myself, because I guess I have conditioned myself to know that’s a time to focus.

Detail from cardboard installation. Photo: Amber Dohrenwend
CR Tokyo: You mentioned that cardboard was a medium that was easy to come across in your area, and also that it was an easy medium to use in a small apartment space. Can you say more about why cardboard has continued to be a key part of your practice?  Has this medium taken on new meanings for you?

Amber:
As I have reflected on my practice, I realize that collecting cardboard; foraging for it, makes me feel human. It takes me back to my childhood cutting willow branches and weaving them. I feel more connected to nature in this way than actually going to the park and walking through the forest.  Honestly, it’s a real puzzle to me, and I always wonder why green space doesn’t do more because I feel so intrinsically connected to nature. Collecting and making, and particularly communicating something  sculpturally through the use of a found material, it just feels good to me.

…I also feel very connected to the ephemeral nature of making things with cardboard. I don’t have a desire to make something that would physically outlast, me, in fact just the opposite. I am very devoted to the idea of impermanence, of making things that can be recycled and then made into something else; more paper, soil, staples that can be melted again, art, and on and on. Cardboard is a byproduct of consumerism, so I also think it is particularly interesting to show work in a consumer context, both subverting and promoting it at the same time. That tension feels very interesting to me.

I love that when you hold cardboard and shape it with your hands, you are actually leaving marks on the cardboard with your fingertips, much like when working with clay. This is something I find infinitely interesting; what cardboard looks like in this bent and twisted, softened state. This is the way I like to work with cardboard, and how I hope to keep making discoveries, and playing with this material.
"At one time I got a pair of overalls, and would try to wear them so that everyone in my family knew that when I was wearing the overalls, they couldn’t disturb me... Because I don’t have a studio, I wear headphones and listen to music when I work and my family is present"

CR Tokyo: How did you begin exhibiting your artwork in Japan?
Amber:
Before showing my work, all along I was hosting pop-up cardboard play days, and teaching classes about working with cardboard. Before I started my current work, I was an elementary school teacher. Teaching is also about communicating ideas and engaging with people, so I’m sure that teaching people, making things and “playing” with others will always be a part of my practice.

 Through teaching, I got to know the designers Mike and Yuri Abelson who own Postalco, a Tokyo-based business and they really encouraged me. They asked me to do a workshop at their shop and then, later, create an installation for a window display. After that, I started to get some commercial work and the opportunity to do exhibitions and workshops.

Builders of all ages at Adventure Building Camp.
Image credit: Amber Dohrenwend
CR Tokyo:  You run a summer camp in Michigan and you run workshops on using tools for very young children.  Can you tell us more about these projects and practices?

Amber:
Adventure Building Camp is a program I run in Michigan in the summer. It came about from spending time working with Gever Tulley who helped start a small educational movement in California, out of his experiences working in Silicon Valley.

His project, Tinkering School, was focused on an approach where children would learn tools in context through tinkering and experimentation rather than a step-by step: learn this, and then you can do that approach that we mostly find in education today. It’s very much process-based. When you need a tool, that’s when you learn how to use it. It was a counterpoint to technology and high stakes education and all of the simulation that kids face in learning, where they don’t actually get the experience to really do things, make things, try things out, make adjustments, and keep working. Tinkering School is a lot about removing the barriers that children face, so they can see for themselves if their ideas work. This is what inspired me to create Adventure Building Camp, which is based on the same philosophies as well as some of the guiding principles from Adventure Playgrounds where I have spent a lot of time here in Tokyo.

Working with kids in this way really surprised me, and also inspired my art practice. Teaching a 6-year-old to use a power drill and start building something out of wood and screws that they sketched, is a truly wonderful experience.

CR Tokyo:  When we talked earlier, it seemed that “tools” themselves have special significance for you.  I wonder if you could say more about this.

Amber:
Yes, I love tools, I love really good tools. They are usually at the forefront of overcoming barriers. I could talk about this for a long time, but let me say that, one day when I was taking a shower, I had a kind of light bulb moment when a lot of the things that I had been thinking about and wondering about for many years came together, as a kind of unifying idea, and that idea was about understanding “barriers to making.” That has really become my “question,” even though it’s not really a question. I don’t know if many other people experience this, but I can’t really get away from the fact that most of what I do is always about engaging with this idea of thinking about barriers and how to remove them, both for myself and others, in all kinds of contexts.

So tools have this significance for me because they are often the things that I turn to when confronting barriers. For example, when I work with children, the main barrier they face is getting access to tools and materials because parents think the tools are too dangerous, or the kids can’t handle them. So I give them tools and materials, and I am there, and we slowly and safely work together and amazing things start happening.

This is also what I experienced working with cardboard, developing a relationship with tools so I could communicate my ideas. I think it’s about making space for the ideas and the connections.

CR Tokyo: Have you had any role models for artist-parenting/parent-artisting?

Amber:
Images of Ruth Asawa weaving wire sculptures with her children at her feet have definitely been an inspiration to me.

CR Tokyo: What advice would you share with other artists struggling to be both a parent and an artist?

Amber:
Parenting is a season of your life.
Do what you can. If you can’t make the art you want to make right now, put as many ideas down, and leave as many bread crumbs as you can for later. Live in the moment with your children and learn to play again.

If you are afraid of losing your career, or your identity, or of facing discrimination in the art world as a parent, all those things, I would say are very real. But, if we can make art we can make a new culture too, and there are more side roads in, and fewer gatekeepers now than there have been in the past. I want to be a part of changing the culture for parents making art and I hope you will too.

Amber introducing her work to the next generation. Photo: Minoru Nomura



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Interview: Natsumi Sakamoto

Natsumi Sakamoto in her studio in Glasgow, UK
Natsumi Sakamoto is an artist exploring the relationships between memory, history, and mythology through a range of media including video installation, painting, and animation. Her work has been exhibited in London, Tokyo, Seoul and beyond - including shows at PlaceMAK, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the 13th Gunma Biennale for Young Artists. Sakamoto is also a member of the feminism-focused artist collective Back and Forth Collective

This interview is the first in a brand new series from Cultural ReProducers Tokyo, thoughtfully conducted and translated by artist, art researcher, curator, and CR Tokyo organizer Catherine Harrington. These conversations explore some of the culturally-specific challenges of working as an artist-parent in Japan, and the fundamental questions we are all working to sort out together.



Catherine Harrington (CR Tokyo): To start, tell us a bit about you and your son. 

Natsumi Sakamoto: I’m an artist, mainly working with multi media. Focusing on untold histories such as individual’s and women’s histories, and everyday customs and beliefs, my aim is to examine the possibility of preserving the ephemeral, as a way to recover a loss. One of the documentary films I made in 2014 took me to places in Japan and the UK that were connected with my grandmother’s significant, personal memories.  I have been developing this project in my more recent work, and in 2019 I am going to start a new project in Scotland about Scottish superstitions and witch hunts.

My son’s now four years old and he’s very active and inquisitive - curious about everything.  Now, at his age, he asks why, why about everything. That was something I was really looking forward to. I wanted to answer those questions, even if they are sometimes silly questions, or really huge questions. For example he asks, “Why do you see the moon everyday?” and I try to be respectful to him as a person and I try to answer everything, even the little questions.  Sometimes I need to Google them.  He’s opened up a new world for me and made me more curious. Life has become richer than before, I would say. On the other hand, he’s stubborn.  He doesn’t easily change his opinions.
 
CH: What kind of identity shift did you experience when you first became an artist-parent?

NS:
I didn’t really have a clear shift because I was working all the time.  When I came back to Japan from the UK, I was pregnant and I really wanted a chance to network and show my work again in Japan. I kind of knew that it is going to be difficult to do an exhibition for maybe another year once our little one had arrived. So I thought I should plan something in advance, and decided to curate a group show just before the baby arrived. That was my first experience organizing an exhibition by myself – from getting the funding to finding a venue, and it took over a year and a half. The exhibition title was Everyday Fiction, and included work by artists from Japan and the UK dealing with two different worlds: reality and fiction, and the flexible boundaries between them.

I applied for several open calls and funding applications a few months after the baby was born - I was trying to keep on doing as much as I could in my spare time such as during the baby’s nap times. It was very tough! I probably did that purposely so as not to make a clear transition point between being an artist and being an artist-parent. It was thanks to support from my parents, my partner, my friends, and temporary childcare that I was able to do it. 

I tried not to change my everyday schedule and attitude to life.  You physically change and you psychologically feel that you have to be a good mother. It’s not like I became someone else, but more like I have a mother-identity and my artist-identity, and I shift between them, instead of trying to combine both. So, I don’t think about art when I spend time with my son; I become just a mother.  If I can switch easily between these two identities in a given moment, I can enjoy them. But sometimes it doesn't work and it becomes a bit of a mess. Exhibition time is very stressful because sometimes the switch doesn't work, and I’m always thinking about art while I’m talking to my son.

Natsumi Sakamoto, still from Rowan Wards off Witches, 2019


CH: With that in mind, do you feel that parenthood changed your art practice in some way?


NS: 
Before becoming a mother, my art practice was all about me and the environment around me. But after becoming a mother, I started to see the structure of society and the mother’s position in society. I guess I started to be interested in feminism more, and began to think about these questions through my art practice. I wouldn’t have been able to think this way without the experience of being physically incapable of certain things while being pregnant and while looking after a small child. You suddenly become so powerless in society. This was probably my first experience of becoming seriously aware of gender equality issues in real life.

In that first year I had this very concentrated time of being with my son twenty-four hours a day. I went to parks or the jidokan* with my son almost every day. It was a happy time, but when I saw other parents in those places, I started to become more aware of this unequal situation.

Note: *Jidokan(s) 児童館 and hiroba(s) 広場 are playgroups or play spaces where children and parents can play or socialize with other children and parents.  These spaces or groups can also involve organized singing or play activities.

At jidokan, I rarely saw fathers and mostly saw mothers, because the fathers were working on weekdays. Most of the mothers I met were unable to get a place for their child at a nursery. We talked with each other about how difficult it is to get a place in a nursery, how to make a successful application, and how hopeless our future careers would be if we couldn’t get a full-time nursery place for another few years. I actually met a mother who was thinking of a ‘temporary divorce’ from her partner so she could change her condition from ‘married’ to ‘single mother’ and strengthen her nursery application. The situation is so desperate. I hardly ever met fathers who had taken paternity leave, and whose partner had gone straight back to work after their child’s birth.

I was disappointed and angry about this situation. Japan has a declining birthrate, which is a big social problem, and the Japanese government encourages couples to have children as well as encouraging women to work more to help with economic growth. This is a contradiction: how can you encourage women to work without offering child care? There were many women who felt the same at this time and took part in protests. All this made me really aware of the issue of gender inequality. I felt I should do something – so I started to work with a few of my artist friends as part of a group we call the Back and Forth Collective.

CH:  Yes! The practice of the Back and Forth Collective is really important and valuable, and I hope you can continue to pursue this project.  When did you form the Back and Forth Collective?

NS:
We met at a workshop called Feminism for Everyone at Kosaten* in Tokyo around two years ago. I met Asako Taki and Mei Homma there. We all graduated from the same art university in London, but at different times. So we had known each other, but this was the first time we actually met altogether. We hit it off at that meeting, and started to talk about working as a collective.

Note: Kosaten* is an intersectional community space in Tokyo. Events such as discussions, conversations and workshops are held there with people from different backgrounds, and for instance; of different nationalities, ethnic identities, religions, sexualities, genders and (dis)abilities.


The core members are three artists at the moment, but we often collaborate with different artists and researchers. Each artist has a different area of interest but our common interest is feminism, so we started by working on this topic together. We’ve held workshops, exhibitions, and had a meeting with invited female artists. Last summer we had an exhibition at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum called Quiet Dialogue – Invisible Existences and Us.  Artists from Japan, Austria, Turkey and Indonesia showed work responding to the theme. The topics explored included Japanese women’s suffrage, the history of home economics, immigrants and minority ethnic groups, witch hunts, the issue of female labor and sex trafficking in East and South East Asia including Japanese girls serving as sex workers called Karayuki-san, and so on. To show the wide range of each artists’ research, we made a library in the exhibition space, which also functioned as an open space to talk.

If I didn’t have that intensive first year as a mother, I might not have joined.  I’m not sure how to put this, but I think that experience I had has given me stronger opinions about solving these problems.

 filming on the Isle of Bute, UK
CH: Did your experience with the art community shift when you became an artist-parent?  What kind of changes would you like to see in the art world?

NS:
Tokyo is quite big and there are many galleries and museums. It’s also an expensive place to live, so it is not easy for artists to have a studio in the city. I always feel that working in a local artists community has a good energy, with a lot of encouragement and exchange of ideas. But there are a lot of artists like me, working with digital media or small-scale work, who work from home. There are groups organizing events and meetings for artists and curators such as artist talks, screenings or discussions, and reading events. I met quite a few people through those events, and we often ended up doing projects together.

There is a certain difficulty to taking kids to art events. I’ve never tried. I would probably leave the room every time he gets fussy or cries. I just always think, “oh, I have to find somebody to look after my son.” My partner is very helpful and supportive with what I want to do, and always looks after my son so well. I need that help. But I feel bad every time I do this.

There are some changes recently: I’ve seen more and more baby-friendly event descriptions, including childcare services, on museum websites etc. This is a great improvement, but it is still not enough at all. If I go to events in the evening, everyone always asks me “What is your son doing?  Who is looking after your son?” I’m just thinking, if any fathers go to these events, probably not everybody is going to ask them this.  Probably they think that the mother is looking after their child.

Natsumi Sakamoto, still from unforgettable landscape (ROWAN TREE), 2014
CH: Have you had any role models for artist-parenting?

NS:
I don’t think so, no, because those stories are quite hidden, I don't know anybody personally.  Most of the successful female-artists I know are either single or they don't have a child.  Maybe the situation is different in the UK or other countries, so I hope I can meet some more artist-parents there.

CH: One issue that has been raised a lot in Japan – which is also a wider issue - is that of childcare. You had that first year when you were with your son for 24 hours a day.  After that, did you continue working alongside your son at home, or did you use childcare?  What was the next step?

NS:
The first year I didn't get childcare, so I had to wait another year.  From two years old, he went to nursery. He goes five days a week, so I could work on my art as well as working at my part-time job. I became more financially stable and I have a lot more freedom now than in the first two years.

In Japan you can only apply for the nursery if you have a job. It’s very competitive. So I was teaching two days a week. For those two days [before getting a nursery place], my mum helped out by looking after my son. That was such a big help. I put my condition down as freelance artist, editor, teacher and translator, working two days outside, and three days at home. I made a schedule with all the details such as who I work with, what kind of project it is, and where the funding comes from.

Basically I tried to combine all the types of ‘work’ I do – no matter if it’s paid or not – to fill up my working schedule. Other mothers were working full time, five days a week, and more than 40 hours a day. I needed to make my schedule equivalent to this, even though my work schedule isn’t a fixed one. The reality is that I often worked in the middle of the night and between nap times, so it was almost impossible to count how many hours I actually worked.


CH: So you found another way to apply for a nursery place ‘as an artist’?

NS:
Yeah, I was trying to find a solution. But I know it is not easy for everyone – another artist-mother friend gave up applying to nursery. She was making her artwork at home every day when she had time, and didn’t have a part-time job. She was a full-time mother-artist. The reality is that an application from someone working from home or as self-employed isn’t as strong as one made by a full-time company employee. So for her, there was almost no hope of getting a nursery place. From the government’s perspective, the occupation ‘artist’ isn’t as reliable as other occupations. I presume they don’t want to provide childcare for people who don’t make money, so it might be a bit different if an artist is only working on commissions. But the reality is that not a lot of artists actually make their living from only art!

Under these circumstances, being an artist-mother is very difficult in many ways, and it makes us feel guilty to work on our artwork. And when the baby is small, you have so much housework to do … there’s so much invisible labour that needs to be done. 

CH: This issue of what counts as labour and how different forms of labour are perceived is directly related to being an artist-parent in the art world.  And with all this invisible labour to deal with - how did you find time for your practice? What was your strategy in those first two years?

NS:
Before getting nursery care five days a week, I just had no time.  But I had this group show, so I had to make time.  So I got up super early in the morning every day.  Morning was the best time for me, before the baby woke up. If anyone else wakes up then a mess appears, or some other work - it becomes difficult to keep working or doing.  So I decided to wake up really early in morning, sometimes 4am, in the dark, and I just had to make a deadline for every little thing.  For example, “this writing has to be done in the next hour”, or something like that.  I made a super tight schedule.  And then when the baby cries I have to go and pick him up.  I’m like an athlete… running.

Natsumi Sakamoto, The Interview with a Witch, 2019.  Installation view at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

CH: So how did you deal with sleep deprivation?

NS:
Yeah, I can’t remember.  I think I went to sleep early with my child.  I often used social networks, just to show or prove that I’d done something. At the time I felt I was invisible in society.  I couldn't go to see my friends because I had to be in the house.  I wanted to connect to somebody.  As an everyday routine, I would make one small drawing and post it to Instagram – like a diary – it works, you see the progress every day.  You make a little bit day by day.

CH: I recently read about a parent and child- friendly studio residency at the Washington Project for the Arts in the US, where the children can stay in the studio while the parents work.  Would this kind of initiative be helpful here?  If this kind of studio programme existed near you, would you want to be part of it?

NS:
A studio, with childcare? It sounds interesting. But I do wonder whether they have a strong barrier between the kids’ area and the parents’ area. I can imagine my son often coming to interrupt me... so, personally, I’m not confident that I could concentrate on my work when my kid is with me. It is a contradiction, because I totally agree with this idea of making your workplace more accessible to kids, but then, I know how difficult the reality would be.

Not only workplaces, but public spaces like museums or theaters still have a strong separation between kids and adults, and the unspoken rule is that kids shouldn't disturb the adult’s world. Having a separation is definitely the most productive and less stressful way for adults. For example, I am always nervous when I take my son to the museum. He loves to make noise in a quiet space, so the other people’s evil eyes towards me make me really sad and upset. I can totally understand what they feel, so my feeling is complicated. I feel angry and I also feel bad to have disturbed the other people at the same time. This situation is probably more particular to Japan than the UK.

I think it’s definitely worth trying these kinds of new ideas – otherwise the situation is never going to change.

Note: At the time of this interview Natsumi Sakamoto was based in Tokyo, Japan.  She is now based in Glasgow, Scotland.