Exhibition reflects on the history of ‘un-pregnancy’ through art

A collaboration between Birkbeck academic Dr Isabel Davis and artist Anna Burel has produced a series of artworks depicting the history of ‘un-pregnancy’, which are currently exhibited at The Peltz Gallery. 

Dr Davis, from the Department of English and Humanities reflects on the research which led to the collaboration.

Finding out you’re not pregnant can be a very odd experience of nothing happening. While of course, there are plenty of people who feel relieved on discovering they aren’t going to be parents, there are conversely lots who feel disappointed, and often this isn’t the first time they’ve felt this way. So, they are (or their partner is) not pregnant … again. Grieving for something that never was, feels strange.

My Conceiving Histories project explores how this nothing, this thing that never was, a thing which I call ‘un-pregnancy’, appears in the historical archives. I am particularly interested in how people in the past thought about the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility. What do they have to say about trying to conceive, about on-going childlessness (involuntary or otherwise), about the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy, about not knowing whether they were pregnant or not and about early pregnancy loss? What I am finding is that there is a lot of archival material about this apparent nothing. If there are things that can be touched, seen and read in archives about un-pregnancy, then this experience can’t really be a nothing; it must be a something, after all.

To pursue this project, I teamed up with a visual artist Anna Burel who, for a long time, has been working on the female experience of the body, particularly the female body in the gynecological encounter. Like me, she is interested in history and thinking about the points of identification between people today and those in the past. Working together, we have started to look at all sorts of aspects of un-pregnancy; simulated, imagined, misdiagnosed and phantom pregnancies at different points in time, as well as the difficulties of diagnosing pregnancy before home testing. Our exhibition, which presents the work we have done in the first phase of this collaboration, is open at the Peltz Gallery, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and continues until 13 December.

In the exhibition we explore four curious case studies: Queen Mary I’s two false pregnancies (1554-1557); a strange fashion for simulating pregnancy by using a pad (1793); a science-fiction fantasy about discovering how to diagnose early pregnancy and date human gestation (1826); and materials from the Family Planning Association (FPA) archive concerning the international transport of live toads for use in the FPA’s pregnancy diagnostic centre (1949-1964).

To give you a fuller sense of just one of these, let me tell you about the strange fashion in 1793 for wearing what was known as The Pad, which simulated pregnancy. The Morning Herald, a contemporary newspaper tells us: “Pads continue to be worn; and on account of these the dress is still a loose gown of white muslin flounced in front, appearing to be put on with the negligence permitted to the supposed situation of the wearers.”

Contemporaries described it as a fashion which moved around from the back, where it functioned as a bustle, to the front. Most of the evidence for it is satirical. Contemporary cartoonists were savage, presenting The Pad as silly and French. They were particularly delighted, but also perhaps horrified by the idea that it was a social leveler, ironing out differences between rich and poor, large and slim, young and old – making a nonsense of the pregnancy swell as a social sign.

A one-act farce, The Pad by Robert Woodbridge opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden the same year. It presents three interlocking stories of couples disrupted because women have taken to wearing The Pad. The main protagonist, Lovejoke, sets out to teach these women a lesson not to ‘outstep the modesty of Nature’ by wearing one. Two of the stories end happily but the third is more bitter. In this story, Sir Simon Meagre and his wife are childless after years of trying; Lovejoke leads him to believe that they might finally have the child they’ve hoped for, although in truth his wife has just taken to wearing The Pad. When the truth comes out, Lovejoke makes an exception for Lady Meagre – she can continue to wear The Pad as consolation for her childlessness. ‘Poor comfort!’ Sir Simon replies, ‘sad substitute for a Son and Heir! – I thought to have had a little boronet [sic]’. Although it is ostensibly a comedy, the play ends on this dissonantly poignant note, bequeathing us some odd evidence for trying to conceive in history.

Anna’s work on this bizarre fashion object explores its tragicomic potential. Her series of photographs show women wearing The Pad, sometimes with fools’ caps. Using the typography of Woodbridge’s play to mark up Pads with dates and slogans, Anna’s photographs explore the emotions around the absence of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is very privatising and not being able to become pregnant can feel humiliating, as if one can’t get into an exclusive private club, or as if the world is laughing. Women and men have long learned to resort to silence about their struggles to become parents for fear of exposing themselves as in some way inadequate. Maternity clothes today emphasise pregnancy as a special category. The current Western aesthetic in maternity wear stresses the neatness of the pregnancy bump, isolating it and giving it clear definition in relation to the female body. For those looking on from the outside, this kind of definition – both to the contours of the pregnant body and to the community of those who can get pregnant – is sharply distinct from the ambiguities of a life lived in uncertainty about the future, the body, pregnancy and parenthood.

The eighteenth-century Pad offers an odd sort of reflection on these complex emotions and there isn’t the sort of evidence that one would really like; what women thought and felt about wearing it, what their motivations were and so on. The imaginative world that it suggests, however, is one in which women can somehow side-step their own longing and the socially isolating experience of un-pregnancy and temporarily enjoy looking pregnant. What if we could collapse the hard boundaries that we set up today, so firmly reinforced by the fashion industry and other institutions, between those who can fall pregnant and those who can’t? Such things are taboo for us: celebrities who fake pregnancies are vilified as if they’ve violated some sacred estate, anyone else is deemed mad.

Yet history and art offer a temporary and neutral space, in which we might think about ourselves and ask questions like: ‘what if …?’

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: , , , , , , ,

Graduation stories: building a better future

Valquiria Godoy collected her BSc in Psychology with Neuroscience at Birkbeck’s Autumn Graduation Week 2017. She began her studies during an extremely difficult time in her life, coming to terms with the loss of her partner and bringing up a one-year-old as a single parent. It was far from plain sailing but with the support of family and Birkbeck staff, she has achieved great things. Here she tells her story:

I started at Birkbeck on the day of my son Victor’s first birthday. It had been a very difficult few months. Victor was just 40 days old when lost my fiancé Christian, six months before we were due to be married. He was working as a pizza delivery on a motorbike and lost control on a rainy winter day. He passed away at the scene with a neck injury. It still upsets me to this day, but I’ve learnt how to deal with my pain without letting it control me. A lot of my strength to get through it came from the fact that I had a purpose and a goal to become a good mother and provide for my child. I wanted to have a profession and a career so I chose Birkbeck.

I had finished my A-levels back home in Brazil and arrived in London when I was 18 in 2003. But I had to work and learn English before I could think of studying. I had discussed university with my fiancé and I was originally planning to start  when Victor reached the age of two. But with the change of circumstances, I adapted my plans.

My first year was very tough as I was still breast-feeding and Victor was too young for the Birkbeck nursery but I got help with money towards childcare for him while I was at lectures. My cousin looked after Victor for me for the 1st year and later he stayed at the evening nursery. Friends and family helped during exam time (nursery was only for when I was at lectures) but my son was allowed to come into the Birkbeck library so I could study during his nap time.

At the end of year one I considered quitting because it was too tough to combine a young baby and studies. Also I had to pick-up my son from my cousin’s house around 9.30pm and I wouldn’t be home before 11pm. I felt quite guilty to be out at that time with a baby three times a week, particularly when I was given dirty looks from people on the street who obviously had no idea I was actually coming home from university.

I saw a psychologist for around two years because I was suffering from PTSD, depression and anxiety because of what I had been through. At the beginning of my second year at Birkbeck, I met with Mark Pimm (Birkbeck’s disability coordinator) to tell him I was finding it very hard to cope with it all and was thinking of leaving. He suggested I should apply for DSA to help me with my studies, and with his help I managed to continue, going home from Birkbeck nursery by taxi. Victor loved it at the nursery and he’s genuinely upset he’s not going to see the staff anymore!

I was also able to get someone to help me with extra tutoring and note-taking from my lectures which were a huge plus. I could only study and revise when Victor was sleeping really. It was hard to concentrate at the beginning, but the thought of what I was doing it for would make me keep going. I guess that was my way to cope with it all and wanting my son to be proud of me. The studies also kept my mind busy to avoid unwanted thoughts. I guess it made me feel like it was all worth it and gave me more of a purpose in life.

I’m now working in a secondary special education needs school in west London as a learning support assistant in West London, working with pupils with all sorts of conditions, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Next, I would love to try for clinical psychology or educational psychology but I know how competitive they are so my back-up plan would be a Master’s in an area of behaviour or well-being.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard and challenging because it was. However, what I can say for sure is that it was possible and I made it happen even when I doubted I could. I can’t thank everyone enough as I can proudly say I’ve finished my studies with a 2 (i) and I can’t wait to continue with studying again.

Share
. Reply . Category: Categories, Science

Graduation stories: a family affair

Samiya Lerew graduated with a BA in Global Politics and International Relations at Birkbeck’s Autumn Graduation Week 2017, at the same ceremony as her son Edwin. Here she talks about how she came to Birkbeck and how much it has meant to study as a family.

I can’t thank Birkbeck enough for granting me such a great opportunity to study. For the longest time I’ve been politically active, but never pursued politics academically. Growing up in Mogadishu, I had seen the effects of what dysfunctional nationalism combined with dictatorship can do on the place I call home. So naturally, I wanted to study the nature of politics (which Dr Jason Edwards has described as “the very best things we can achieve in a society, and the very worst things we can do to each other”) in order to help me reach the right conclusions and certify myself as an ‘intellect’!

I came to London as a student in the early 1980s. At that time I was studying English, general office work, Pitman short hand and touch typing (my short hand is non-existent, however, my touch-typing skills stays with me to this day). But I was unable to take my studies further because as soon as I completed my course, my stepfather died. As he was the bread-winner of the family, I had no choice but to find work in order to help my widowed mother.

From that point, I was unable to pursue a full undergraduate degree because I was working full-time for Haringey Council as a rate rebate officer, and was then married with three children (two daughters and a son) with a mortgage on a home in Barnet, north London. However, I did manage to help form coalitions with a number of charities dedicated to problem-solving in the Horn of Africa. I set up the Help Somalia Foundation and in 2004, I attended a UN Human Rights conference; my input has helped to resettle Somali minorities in western countries, I have worked with Minority Right Groups and I briefly chaired AFR (Agenda For Reconciliation). But I have always found it difficult to cut red tape unless I had “BA (Hons)” next to my name.

So, encouraged by academic colleagues in these charities, and realising that it never really is too late, I applied to study Global Politics & International Relations at Birkbeck not long after my 56th birthday. Birkbeck couldn’t have been more welcoming after I submitted my application and took an active interest in my exploits. Studying part-time also allowed me to continue my charity work and activism for the affairs of my country of birth.

I admit that it has been particularly difficult at times to juggle the demanding academic studies, work, activism and house-keeping but I have been lucky to be studying with my son Edwin; he applied to do Government & Politics the same year as me and he became my study pal. Mind you, in four years he managed to dodge all of my classes!

We read Adam Smith, Machiavelli, Karl Marx and Foucault. We regularly exchanged ideas and had conversations about politics and how some of the concepts we studied at the Uni could be used as tools for contemporary world politics. It was great to have him study at the same time – he is also a great friend and a carer.  And we actually graduate at the same time. He’s now doing his MA at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has his theory class at Birkbeck, telling me that all the political philosophers are turning up again!

“You might try and escape politics, but politics will never escape you”, I say to him.

Share
. Reply . Category: Categories, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags:

Cyber Security professionals offer students advice and insights at Birkbeck Careers event

This post was written by Jenna Davies from Birkbeck Careers

cyber-2

Students were exposed to plenty of practical advice, industry insights and networking opportunities this week as professionals from the world of cyber security shared their experiences as well as their thoughts on getting into the sector at a panel discussion organised by Birkbeck Careers.

The fundamental message was extremely positive, with every panellist indicating that there is a route for anyone to get into the industry; it’s a case of finding the right one for you.

Nigel Jones, CEO of IAAC (Information Assurance Advisory Council) highlighted that companies are often looking for bothnon techie’ as well as techie people. He revealed his outlook that there’s always a way to map your route into cyber and no matter what your background, there’s a career in cyber if you want to go down this path.

The ever growing skills shortage was a hot topic of conversation and Nick Wilding, General Manager of Cyber Resilience at AXELOS Global Best Practice (a joint venture between the UK Government and Capita plc) highlighted the demand for the skills today’s students have. Being a geography graduate, Nick emphasised that the skills required are multi-faceted and the growth of the industry demonstrates the need for those in the audience to put their skills to use in this arena.

Fellow panellist Erin Jones – Senior Associate at PwC UK cyber security practice – took her teaching role developing computer science and IT schemes and turned it into a career within cyber. Erin spoke of her own education at an all-girls school, indicating that tech was never advertised as a career option, which is controversial given the low number of women currently working within technology. The barrier for Erin isn’t the lack of women in the industry; it’s the lack of awareness as cyber is often seen as the ‘dark art’.

Nick reiterated Erin’s description and the need to change its perception with organisations, who are often tired of hearing about the threats they face and need holistic approaches from those who can support them.

Daryl Flack, CIO of Blockphish facilitated the event and touched on the vast range of roles available within cyber security; management alone provides lots of opportunities such as working as a consultant, within sales, as a creative addition to the team, an entrepreneur or within the ethical side of the industry. He advised the audience to start getting into something remotely cyber to kick off their path, or checking out new websites that need something more secure and finding your route in this way.

Like the majority of successful professionals it starts with passion and commitment, and regardless of your chosen course of study it seems very plausible to get into this ever growing industry.  Erin pointed out that one of her current colleagues does threat intelligence and studied geography at university while another studied Spanish and now works in their technical response team. Anything applies as long as you have that passion.

The conversation continued over networking and undoubtedly left some attendees with the motivation and belief that they can very effectively contribute to this field of work. So more of us can now step forward to stop the hackers, fight the phishing emails and join this exciting and valuable sector that impacts just about everyone in this day and age.

Share
. Reply . Category: Categories . Tags: , ,