Thursday, May 9, 2024

Interview: Nīa MacKnight

Nīa MacKnight is a photographer and educator based in Tongva Territory (Los Angeles, California). When she became a single mother at 21, the worlds of art and photojournalism seemed at odds with the practical demands of parenthood. But raising a child ultimately renewed the importance of making time for art, and she focused her lens on intergenerational memory and the poetics of everyday life. Drawing from her Anishinaabe, Lakhóta, and Scottish ancestry, Nīa explores narratives of migration, healing, and transformation within the urban environment she calls home. With a background in photography, psychology, and education, she now teaches photography and graphic design to high school students while pursuing her own creative practice. Her photography has been commissioned for publications including the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Environmental Health News, and the New Yorker. We spoke to her in the midst of her recent exhibition, “How do your ancestors find you if you don't have a name?”

Cultural ReProducers: Could you describe your daughter in your own words?  Age, name, general temperament…
Nīa MacKnight: Elle is twelve, about to be thirteen. She’s very inquisitive, bold, a bit… mischievous. She has a lot of passion. She loves everything fiercely, whether it be animals, people… she has so much love for the world.
Cultural ReProducers: So when she was born, what kinds of expectations did you have about being an artist who's also a parent? And how did that square with the reality of it for you?
Nīa MacKnight: So I had my daughter when I was 21, and being a single parent at that time I felt I didn't have the energy to create anymore. Just trying to keep up with everything… I was depleted. I didn't see a place for me in the world of photography, specifically photojournalism. I gave so much of my physical energy working jobs that weren't creative, getting a degree in psychology - I was really focused on understanding my role beyond the arts.
When I started navigating the art world I noticed this lack of dialogue that included support for artists that are also caretakers. There’s this expectation that you're on your own. That individualism can be alienating. I’ve really had to think about how I'm supporting my work, how to carve that space for myself if it doesn't exist elsewhere. So I've had to take jobs outside of creative labor. And I've learned to really draw inspiration from daily life.

Hand of Light, Nīa MacKnight

When my daughter was maybe three or four, I have this very visceral memory: we were at our apartment,
around that magical hour where the light is filtering through everything – a little bit softer and golden. It had been a long day. I picked my daughter up from preschool, and we're finally home making our dinner. I look over and I see this very direct ray of light piercing through the curtain. And my daughter noticed it and put out her hands, and then I see in that moment, “what a beautifully composed image.” I grabbed my camera, worked really quickly, and was able to capture that moment. That particular memory is really a catalyst for the type of work I do. It reminded me that although there may not be space for you right now, continue to make work. Maybe there will be a space or a time where this work means something to someone else, but for now it means a lot to you.  

I don’t agree with this idea that you have to give up an art practice when you have a child. I saw in that moment that this everyday experience – my daughter’s really the source of inspiration and energy that fuels my work as an artist. How could I separate those worlds? I'm always thinking of how psychology and art intersect. I don't work as a therapist, but as a teacher, you know, you work many roles. I always think of art as a form of transformation and healing. What else could it be?
Cultural ReProducers:  I love that, and I totally agree. I think that for any parent, there's always this question of what kind of world our children are growing up in -- what we hope for the future. Does this transformative practice in your artmaking connect to that?

Nīa MacKnight: Yeah, thank you. I think that through experiences of caregiving - whether you're a parent, or a teacher, or taking care of your own parents - you’re giving your energy and often that makes you feel depleted. Right? So it becomes more and more important to hold space for yourself while you are caregiving for others. That could look like painting, that could look like going outside to take photos. That could just be staring outside the window and reflecting on a concept that is evolving, or a memory from years ago. Photography is this tool to turn that into a material form. That’s something that as a society we don't hold enough space to talk about: health and wellness… we’re not designed to produce at an industrial rate. If we're creating this life form, it’s a story that takes years and years to get right.
That’s where I hope my daughter, that the times she's navigating are different. Maybe we'll get to a place where we're evolved to hold more space for parents, in particular mothers, to heal. Financial support to navigate working and caretaking, and the way we treat elders. I hope that evolves by the time she's older. But you know, I think it's still really important for her to always hold space for herself. 

Future Ancestor, Nīa MacKnight
The medium of photography is immediate, and directly engaging with the world. I hope that my daughter, and my students … youth, that they continue to utilize this tool to engage with the environment. Engage with their own family histories. To look inward. To find your role in the outside world. How to expand on time as a cycle. According to traditional teachings, time is not linear. We play a critical role in the cycle of life. Every material object we create, that's a story. Each story has its own life force. And it keeps getting shared and taking on new forms, new interpretations. As storytellers, it’s a huge responsibility to make sure that that story is ready to be shared with the next person, and the next person after that, so the story is always living in time.
Cultural ReProducers: Who have been your role models in artist-parenting / parent-artisting?

Nīa MacKnight:
I feel very fortunate that I grew up in a house where art was very much part of daily life. I think of my own mother. You know, our situations were different, but - despite having multiple children to take care of, and taking care of her parents - she still carved out time to make art. She sewed these little dolls and would often sell them at local fairs or boutiques, and that evolved into painting and drawing. Although she wasn't commercially successful then, she still carved out time to create. Now she's much more well-known, but I witnessed her struggles, and how she used art to carve out more spaces to be seen

Womb, Nīa MacKnight

Living here… LA is so sprawling and big - sometimes that can feel isolating. Being a really young mom, I thought I was the only one navigating all that. But out here in the South Bay area I've come to meet a lot of people that, although at first we didn't share that we had children, our art started this dialogue. As my daughter got older I met a lot of other artists:  Jenn Graves comes to mind, Carrie Dietz, JaNae Collins … those are just a few that come to mind. All working artists - whether they’re printmakers, painters, or actors - they’re playing an active role in their children's lives, in a very competitive urban environment such as Los Angeles.
Cultural ReProducers: Your work is also tied to family in a more expansive way – connecting you to traditions and stories of your ancestors. Could you say more about how that has shaped your photography?

Nīa MacKnight: Well, I come from mixed ancestry: I'm Lakhóta, Anishinaabe and Scottish, so both indigenous and settler histories. My childhood was very multiracial and also intertribal. All these different sources of knowledge really permeated everything. So within my work I'm always drawn to the contrast of energies: reflecting on the role of humanity within urban environments, which are so layered. Here in LA, I'm a guest on Tongva territory. These aren't my traditional homelands. I'm always drawn to people in the community that exemplify duality. Their stories truly show that these energies can coexist.

Child of Industry, Nīa MacKnight

Los Angeles can often seem very post-apocalyptic. There’s that relationship with the oil industry. My family lives right by a refinery. Cars everywhere, concrete. Thinking about assimilation, and in particular, my family's role within that in history, in the United States. My work really examines this duality between two worlds: the industrial and the natural; The material and the spiritual. I'm drawing from ancestral memories, and my role as both a witness and a participant, trying to harvest intimate moments in a landscape of colonial violence.
Right now I’m showing a specific series of photographs and a site-specific installation titled “How do your ancestors find you if you don't have a name?” I was thinking about last names, in this modern world, as a way of really carrying on a family's legacy. I thought also about my own government name and I was confronting feelings of shame, because there there are traditional Lakhóta ceremonies where people are given a name… as a way for your ancestors to meet you beyond the physical world. My aunt, who lives out on Standing Rock, shared with me that a lot of people don't have these names. It's not as common anymore.
Lakhóta society is very matriarchal. As I was digging and thinking about my relatives, I recognized this pattern of women not taking on their partner's name. Women have their own essence. Their role in society was very different than it is today. I really wanted to highlight how colonization, but also assimilation, is reflected in names. So really questioning, what is a name? I believe that your ancestors can find you no matter where you are, whatever name you have. They are always there with you.


Saturday, April 6, 2024

Online Workshop: Making it What We Need

Making it What We Need
Cultural ReProducers + Mother Creatrix Collective
Thursday, April 18th
7pm Eastern Standard Time


We're excited to present our Making it What We Need workshop online for the very first time! No matter where you are, join forces with other parents in the arts to help create the art world you'd like to be a part of. Making it What We Need is a generative workshop considering alternate models for living, making, and making a living as artists, led by Cultural ReProducers organizer Christa Donner. The workshop is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Mama Needs a Raise at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, NY, and will be followed by a Q and A with New York's Mother Creatrix Collective as a real-life example of artist-mothers making it what they need.

If you'd like to join us, please Pre-Register for more information and to access the Zoom link.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break our Births

Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break our Births is a multifaceted project that explores human reproduction through our material cultures. Organized collaboratively by Juliana Rowen Barton, Zoe Gregg, Michelle Millar Fisher, Gabriella Nelson, and Amber Winick, it began as an award-winning book published through MIT Press, and evolved to include a design curriculum, a website, and an exhibition traveling from Philadelphia to Boston, then Seattle and Stockholm. I was excited to catch it at Boston’s MassArt Museum of Art (MAAM), where it's on view through December 18th.

Designing Motherhood is a complex show that can appear deceptively straightforward. The layout is clean with minimal wall text, and many items on display will seem familiar at first to those who’ve experienced the ups and downs of having a uterus. As I wandered through I nodded in recognition at an array of delicate, curiously shaped IUDs, early tampon designs, and a selection of baby carriers used around the world. But among these were quite a few things I couldn’t identify. Consulting the exhibition guide I discovered critical tools I'd never heard of, many designed to address inevitable flaws in a birthing industry where men predominate. The accompanying texts unfurl narratives of struggle, innovation, love and empowerment.

prototypes for a discreet, flushable pregnancy test
designed by Bethany Edwards and Anna Couturier
Simpson, and a tactile pregnancy test for the blind
designed by Josh Wasserman

During my visit, a college class arrived for a tour with co-curator Michelle Millar Fischer, who led the group towards an unpleasant-looking surgical device designed by J. Marion Sims, the so-called "father of modern gynecology." She explained that though it is commonly known as the Sims Instrument, the tool is also labeled here as "Lucy," the name used by Ob/Gyn Kameelah Phillips and her surgical team to shift recognition to one of the enslaved black women on whom it was first tested. We moved on to a silicone speculum now under development by a four-woman team, and a guide created by disabled members of San Francisco's Planned Parenthood to make pelvic exams less painful and more accessible for a variety of bodies. This approach exemplifies the tone of the exhibition: it spotlights designs that support reproductive sovereignty, solidarity, and care across a spectrum of cultural, disability, gender identities - without shying away from the patriarchal history of obstetrics and gynecology.  As the show travels, it incorporates local resource guides that include feminist healthcare collectives, counseling centers, and other systems of support.

a necklace with color-coded beads to track ovulation, 
designed with a group led by Dr. Maria Hengstberger
In Designing Motherhood, design and activism are often interchangeable, and community organizing stands out as a critical form of care. There are flushable pregnancy tests for those in precarious situations, and home abortion kits made from easy-to-find objects, created in 1971 by the Los Angeles Self Help Clinic. Documentation of the MIT Media Lab’s “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon plays on a monitor alongside those standard pump models that keep surprising new moms with their poor design, and a video by artist Arrow (aka Ari Fitz) explores maternity wear from the perspective of a queer masculine pregnant person of color. 

Numerous products used in women's health care haven't been updated much since their invention, something Designing Motherhood aims to change. In its Philadelphia iteration, its curators collaborated with UPenn professor Orkan Telhan to develop an open source curriculum for art and design classes, introducing the challenges and inequities mothers encounter as series of creative prompts. In Boston, the show is hosted by MAAM, a teaching museum linked to the city’s public college of art and design. During my visit, a student gestured her group over to inspect an irregular grid of blue and red rectangles by Ani Liu. It was a chart tracking the time of every feeding, pumping, and diaper change during the first 30 days of her child's life. It's a form of data-collection that pediatricians urge many mothers to undertake, and I remembered the process all too well. Even so, it is striking to see a single graphic that captures the extreme, round-the-clock fracturing of time that takes place in early parenthood, during which Liu was granted no maternity leave. I try to imagine what the next generation might make of this information, and what it could mean for the future. 

The exhibition will travel on to Seattle in 2023, and then on to Stockholm, Sweden. No matter where you are, the Designing Motherhood book is well worth seeking out. It is not an exhibition catalogue but a thick, beautifully-designed collection packed with essays, interviews, and images that extends beyond the scope of the show. You can also find designed objects, international policies and more by following their ongoing IG account @designingmotherhood

Ani Liu's "Untitled (Labor of Love)," charting the first 30 days of her child's life

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Interview: Faye Lim

two dancers, one wearing a white full-body suit and the other a black one, supporting a small child with their feet
Faye's son supported by dancers in a work by Rolypoly Family,
image by Larry Toh Photography
Faye Lim is a dancer and movement-maker.  She is a mother, an educator, and an advocate for parenting artists. Her choreography and direction have been presented in public spaces, stages, and galleries in Singapore and internationally. As co-director of Derring-Do Dance, she makes body-based artworks and programs through Movement Arts and Rolypoly Family for diverse children and their families. Her training and experience span the fields of the arts, education, non-profit impact research and sexuality education consulting. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Faye began working with a team of cultural producers to initiate  Parenting Artists SG, an online forum for discussing how the Singapore arts scene can be a more supportive environment for artists raising children.

This interview is part of a creative exchange between Cultural ReProducers and the artist-run gallery CommaSpace in Singapore.  It began during a residency where connecting with fellow artists meant meeting online because of the pandemic. Given these circumstances it felt especially lucky to meet Faye in person to connect over our mutual creative interests, and we followed up remotely once I returned to the United States.  (Christa Donner for Cultural ReProducers)                                                                                                                                        
Cultural ReProducers:
How old is your child now? How would you describe him?

Faye Lim: He is going on seven. It’s funny - recently my word for describing him has been “perfect.” I’d been thinking about it, and this word just kept coming up. Clearly not everything goes according to plan, but all the areas that he's growing in, learning in, figuring out, struggling - everything just feels like it makes perfect sense with who he is.

CR: What has changed in your creative process after becoming a parent, and what has stayed the same?

I think what's been constant is my practice in movement improvisation, as well as studying and experiencing what freedom and the sense of liberation are like. I’ve always been quite topsy turvy in the way I choreograph and make dances, and having a child has enriched that approach and the sensation of disorienting and orienting again.

I experience dance differently now, after becoming a parent. Time and space and energy-wise, certain restrictions closing in on me. But moving around with him, improvising with him helped me to…play, I suppose, with that feeling of time and space closing in. I've been getting really a lot more curious and paying a lot more attention to how children and different caregivers move and work with their bodies. I mean, when I think about movement improvisation, dance improvisation - I also think about the autonomy and self-determination there and then. Like, how do children experience that? How do they experience their bodily autonomy around their caregiver - around adults, in different settings?

image by Kavitha Krishnan, courtesy of Rolypoly Family
CR: How did motherhood change your relationship to the artistic community here in Singapore?

Faye: My practice now includes working with children in a committed way. And also because of the attention I've put on advocating for artists with caregiving responsibilities [through Parenting Artists SG], I have started to work with artists I didn't used to have interactions with. Some of them have become very important and supportive peers for me, and I hope me for them also. 

I think some folks think of me as only working with children. I'm happy about that work, but I also have mixed feelings about that. I don't think this is the case across artistic communities and families - but there is definitely that association of “oh yeah, she is the artist who works with children and cares about caregiving.” (laughter) At the same time it's also quite thrilling to be able to bring these aspects into the fold of our dialogues as artists, and to be available to other parties who care about this model. Within this community, there’s this artist – they and I have been practicing contact improvisation together, and organizing events here in Singapore with other folks as well. But it was great when they also became a parent, and I was dancing with them when they were pregnant. Just to be in that space of overlap – of our movement practice, our changing bodies, our changing identities and of having this other being tag along and be around us. I was one of the first among my friends who was practicing and became a parent. Here in Singapore, I didn't have many parenting dance artists as predecessors when I had just given birth. There are a few dance artists I work with closely, who have either just given birth or are about to. I feel like a community of support is more possible now.

CR: Being a parent in the performing arts poses specific challenges:  there are so many components that you have to physically show up for – rehearsals and performances coordinated with many other people. Building that community seems crucial. Could you talk a bit about the group you recently launched, Parenting Artists SG?

Faye: Yeah, so we had some informal meetups in 2020. I wasn't actually all that keen on starting another Facebook group – but out of the first meeting we had, just at the start of the pandemic in Singapore, there were suggestions from the group to start something online, where people could gather. It was February 24 2020, just as Covid-19 cases were increasing here, and I specifically remember, we were on the edge of our seats - like “Can we do this? How can we meet up safely? Do we do this online?” We did temperature checking and signing in (for contact tracing), and it was hybrid, so the three or four artists who didn't feel well, they had their own discussion group online, and the rest of us met in person. The people who came were not only from the performing arts, but you are right to say there are challenges unique to performing artists.

CR: How did that initial event come about? What was the impetus to get it started?

Well, when my son was quite young I gathered a very small group of artists who wanted to discuss parenting, inspired by an event at Movement Research in NYC. Four of us met to chat about what our experiences had been like, as working artists and as arts audiences (3 parents, 1 artist who was not a parent yet and became one a few years later). Two years later another small group got together, including two producers. In the meantime,  I was looking around online, researching how other artists were talking about being parents. Cultural Reproducers is a resource I went to a lot, and a couple of others, like Mothers Who Make. One of my producer friends posted something about a residency that was specifically supporting parenting artists and mentioned it seemed like a positive direction. And then another friend who is not a parent – who was advocating for more visibility and more support - posted that she wanted to do more. So I approached the both of them - it was me and these two friends who are not parents, but who care about this.

That set the tone for how things came together. There are folks who are active in the group who are not parents, and I really appreciate their attention, their care, their time in organizing some of this together in sharing resources. One of them combed through the internet to locate all the relevant government and arts policies, and created a resource document. A lot of these things I wouldn't have been able to cobble together if not for these folks. One of them is a producer who is an organizer with a group of arts producers here called Producers SG.  It’s quite deliberate that there's that partnership with Producers SG, because there's the push for artists to work in teams - we want to not handle everything on our own, and a lot of the times the producers are the folks who are helping to gather the resources. They gather the funds for the work, and they are the ones who then help to put the provisions that are needed – like childcare- into the budget sheets, into the application forms, into the negotiations with funders and such.

CR: I don't know if it's a performing arts thing or if it's a Singapore thing, but could you just briefly explain what you mean by a producer here? It is not something that I had heard about for smaller groups of artists in the United States, but it seems quite common here.

Oh, my goodness yeah. It’s funny because you’re called Cultural ReProducers, and like, how are we using those terms differently? So first a disclaimer: I think different producers work in different ways for different projects. The producer typically helps make the project happen - the person who pulls the creative team together - whatever technical or administrative needs, and they may put in the infrastructure for the timeline, the fundraising, keeping the project on track in terms of division of labor and such. So they help make it happen, and take that load off the artists. Just this past year, during the worst of the pandemic here, I got to work on my first project fully produced by an independent producer.

Having producers that understand what it's like is very helpful. One of the producers went off to a festival in Europe where they were talking a lot about the visibility of work by women artists. He came back with an understanding of what to look out for to produce in a way that's more inclusive. So I feel like these things are happening in parallel.

a still from the film "Beautiful Fields Beyond Me," (currently in development). image by Faye Lim
CR: What do you feel are specific challenges to being a parent in the creative community in Singapore -- things you’d like to work to change?

Culturally, there are quite specific expectations of how children should behave, and that puts these expectations on the parent as well. And art spaces, as you know… as progressive as we imagine them, sometimes are not necessarily progressive. That whole “children should be seen and not heard” thing. The arts community here is many communities. It’s really diverse. I think there are some other communities within the arts that are comfortable sharing space with children, but I don’t think in the contemporary dance community, that we can assume a familiarity with sharing space with children. Either that, or children tend to be objectified or exoticised - they are interesting and valuable to some artists insofar as they further the artists’ vision and artistic goals.

As someone who parents a child and advocates for children’s rights, it is quite challenging being in some of these spaces - but that has been an opportunity of growth for me. Practising compassion and empathy for my colleagues, collaborators, partners and myself hasn’t always been easy but has certainly paid off. The frank discussions and negotiations make room for us to challenge assumptions and can be generative for the working relationship.

I think another thing is also the concept of caregiving – is it a community or a society responsibility, or is it on the individuals. he concept of caregiving, when confronted in the workplace, feels very much like an individual's responsibility. I have heard laments about how other colleagues/collaborators have to take on extra workload when a parent takes childcare leave. The idea here is - your child, your problem. Whereas in some arts communities I am fortunate to work in, caregiving is viewed as part and parcel of work life - whether it is the care of a child, an elderly family member, or a colleague who needs extended medical care. I much prefer the notion that caregiving is something we look at collectively, so as to invest in our collective health and future. 
My friend had started up this informal performance space called "Make It / Share It," and that was also the time when I was thinking about how to thrive as a parenting artist. I talked to her about it and she said that in Sweden, children are anywhere and everywhere - they are present in arts spaces. So she created this open stage performance platform and added guidelines like “children are welcome.” She didn't call it a “family” space. Her guidelines were along the lines of  “If you want to perform here, do expect that you might hear some sounds from children - don’t get grumpy about it.” I performed there, but I also brought my son to shows. I have friends who make movement-based improvisational performances, and it was great to have this space where my son could join in, and they were so able to incorporate his sounds and his movement and his story-making into their show. That's the kind of risk taking, the kind of disruption and improvisation that I’m interested in when I make art. It doesn't have to come from a child, but how often do we get another adult audience members disrupting our show, much less in Singapore? (laughter) That’s the energy that I am completely excited by - to have a space where my son could be himself and the artists could be themselves… it was really perfect.

CR: I’m curious what projects you’re thinking about these days, or longer term, once your child is older.

I have different strands of creative energies and goals and visions, and they tend to overlap, intersect, and diverge. Alongside what I’m making as a dance artist, I've been looking for avenues where I can have more conversations and intersections between art and public health, specifically for children. I’ve been trying to lay down some foundation to work at that intersection, whether it's as an artist, as an organizer, as a consultant. And then, alongside that, always my movement practice in contact improvisation. That’s like a stream that just flows for me, on and on and on. I imagine that will continue, and I’ll have different points of discovery along the way with my movement practice, and I don't necessarily have a plan for that.

Faye Lim dancing in "Telescopic Dreams," image by Finbarr Fallon


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.

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.

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"
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?

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]. 

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? 

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? 

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.


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.


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.


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.