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 …?’

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Mr A moves in mysterious ways

L0075005 The Foetus / Rebirth. RIC23, Adamson Coll

Helen Grieg, The Foetus / Rebirth. Credit: Adamson Collection/Wellcome

Dr Fiona Johnstone, Associate Research Fellow in Art History writes on the new exhibition, which will showcase early art therapy from psychiatric patients. The exhibition will be shown from 15 May – 25 July 2017, at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts. 

This summer the Peltz Gallery will host a historically significant exhibition of works from the remarkable Adamson Collection, one of the world’s largest collections of artworks made by psychiatric patients. Titled Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, this exhibition will be the first time that the Collection has been displayed since its recent acquisition by the Wellcome Trust.

For almost three decades, Edward Adamson was engaged as ‘art master’ at the long-stay British mental hospital Netherne, in Surrey. His initial role was to facilitate patient involvement in a scientific study investigating the relationship between mental illness and creativity, published by Netherne’s Medical Superintendent Eric Cunningham Dax as Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art in 1953. When research ended, Adamson chose to remain at the hospital, establishing an open studio where residents could come and paint freely. A pioneer of British art therapy, Adamson was deeply committed to the healing possibilities of creativity, and often remarked that simply making the short journey from the ward to the studio could have a beneficial effect on patients.

Over the years Adamson amassed a vast collection of patient artworks, including drawings, paintings and sculptures. After he retired in 1981, some 6,000 objects were relocated to a temporary exhibition space on the Rothschild family’s estate at Ashton Wold, and then moved to storage in Lambeth Hospital following Adamson’s death in 1986. Most of the Collection was physically transferred to the Wellcome Library in 2013, and formal custodianship agreed in 2016.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways has developed out of a series of events hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities: two reading group sessions, which included a meeting led by David O’Flynn, chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, and a discussion of Framing Marginalized Art (Karen Jones, Eugen Koh, Nurin Veis and Anthony White, 2010), a text which explores the ethical and curatorial complexities of exhibiting art therapeutic materials; and a screening of the award-winning essay film Abandoned Goods (dirs. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, Fly Film, 2015) which traces the evolution of the Adamson Collection from clinical materials to revered art objects.

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

My co-curator, Dr Heather Tilley and I were fascinated by the potential challenges involved in exhibiting these works: should they be ‘framed’ as art works, historical documents, clinical artefacts, or all three simultaneously? We were also intrigued as to how we might settle on a unifying theme. The Adamson Collection interweaves a number of narratives, including the history of the post-war mental institution, the development of psychiatric practice in the UK, and the origins of art therapy as a profession. It also tells a range of individual stories, including that of Adamson himself, and of the people who produced work under his guidance. How would we be able to do justice to all these perspectives, especially within the relatively small space of the Peltz Gallery?

Ultimately we decided to ‘frame’ the Collection by focusing on the work of eight selected individuals, chosen for their distinctive visual styles and particular histories. By presenting these makers as artists, rather than as un-named and undifferentiated psychiatric patients, and framing their objects as artworks, we have aimed to highlight the aesthetic, personal and historical dimensions of the collection, whilst remaining sensitive to its medical and therapeutic contexts.

We hope that this exhibition will be the beginning of a continuing conversation about the ethical and legal complexities of exhibiting the Adamson Collection (and indeed art therapeutic materials more generally). This summer the Wellcome Trust will host a series of public workshops examining these very issues, focusing on topics such as the naming of patient-artists, accessibility, and the efficacy of the label ‘Outsider Art.’ (N.B. at time of writing dates and details of these workshops are still to be confirmed – keep an eye on our exhibition website for further information).

The exhibition will be also accompanied by an exciting programme of contextual events at Birkbeck, including:

  • A launch event and private view will be held on Thursday 18th May as part of Birkbeck Arts Week.
  • Curator’s tours will as part of London Creativity and Wellbeing Week.
  • A legacy event titled ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’ will be held at Birkbeck in the summer of 2018.

For more information about the exhibition, please visit the Peltz Gallery website.

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Carlos Reyes Manzo’s “Dwellings” exhibition opens eyes to unjust world

This post was contributed by Paul Donovan, and was originally published on his blog Between the Lines.

Guests-at-the-opening-of-exhibition

Guests at the opening evening of ‘Dwellings’

An excellent photographic exhibition from photojournalist Carlos Reyes Manzo focusing on “dwellings” has been unveiled at the Peltz Gallery in London.

Carlos has brought together many images from across the world, displaying the lives of struggle of so many people.

Some of the images show no more than shacks, others formerly substantial dwellings then destroyed. One of the latter images concerned a house destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force.

The exhibition is also a chronicle of Carlos’s journalistic journey, taking in the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 to Ethiopia in the 1980s and Iraq and Afghanistan in the early part of this century. There are also contrasting images of England, including scenes from Brighton and London streets.

The exhibition shows struggle and hope – concern that things don’t seem to be getting any better across the world as the decades go by, yet the resilience of people to survive and, wherever and however, prosper.

Reyes Manzo greets guests at the opening event

Reyes Manzo greets guests at the opening event

Carlos told of his own journey, as someone who was expelled from Chile to Panama, after being held in  the Tres Alamos concentration camp in Santiago  by the murderous Pinochet regime. Carlos eventually arrived in Britain, where he lived in some of the worst sort of dwellings in Britain at the time, as he started his journalistic journey. “I realised what was happening in Britain then was happening all around the world,” said Carlos, who recalled graphic images of war in Afghanistan with people losing their legs and the struggle of Roma families against discrimination.

One image shows a dalit woman in India standing with dignity, despite having stood and been ignored for four hours.

Chilean ambassador Rolando Drago paid tribute to how Carlos’s work illustrated the suffering of humanity across the world, the lack of opportunity and need for human rights.

The exhibition has been organised by the politics department at Birkbeck College as part of its ongoing work on housing issues. The other collaborators in the work are the Birkbeck Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies.

The exhibition runs until 20 March at Peltz Gallery, Birbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square London, WC1H OPD

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Ming: 50 years that changed China, at the British Museum

This post was contributed by Yi-Wen Huang, a PhD student in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

A few weeks ago, I, along with my fellow students, attended the British Museum’s current exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China which opened on 18 September. The visit ended with a Q&A session with the project curator, Dr Yu-Ping Luk. The exhibition is divided into five sections, namely the Ming Court, the Arts of War, the Arts of Peace, Beliefs, and Trade and Diplomacy. The arrangement of the exhibition allowed for the depiction of the aesthetic qualities of the works. In addition, the display and accompanying text alongside the exhibitions also provided a contextual perspective through highlighting how these objects reflected the social hierarchy and conditions of Ming China.

One of the questions that I had in my mind before attending the exhibition was trying to work out in what ways did the fore-mentioned 50 years in the Ming Dynasty change China? According to the curator, the 50 years between 1400 and 1450 were important for three reasons: the shift of the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, the emphasis placed on art by the Emperor Xuande and the explorations undertaken by Zheng He. The exhibits on display thus reflected these three shifts.

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

The objects that impressed me the most were the long scroll paintings on loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing. These paintings depicted hunting activities, eunuchs playing polo and horse-riding. If you look carefully enough, you would be able to find images of the emperor appearing in different scenes participating in the various activities. These paintings reflected life in the imperial court through an insightful observational panorama brought to life through the technical skill of the artist on a long scroll. The landscape paintings with accompanying calligraphy were another display that I found interesting. Landscape painting has long been part of an intellectual tradition of the literati in China. In the Ming regime, landscape painting was one of the Four Arts (四藝 sih yi); the other three being able to master the musical instrument, the Gu Qin, being able to play Chinese Chess and becoming skilled in calligraphy. These landscape paintings at the exhibition explicitly reflected the elegant (雅 ya) culture among the literati. Finally, I was also fascinated by the display of the very first Koran in China which reflected the multicultural and multi-faith in the society in Ming China.

The Q&A session after our visit with the project curator Dr Luk was the most rewarding part of the visit. Through sharing her experience in curating the exhibition, Dr Luk highlighted how this exhibition was the result of five years of research, preparation and collaboration between scholars and professionals from different institutions. Learning about how the objects were loaned from China for this exhibition also provided some insight on the various negotiations that had to take place between government institutions in China. It was also interesting to think that there was a need to consider political sensitivities when presenting information about the objects on display.

It was great to be able to learn more about the exhibition through the Q&A and additional activities about this exhibition, such as the Curator’s Introduction are being organised throughout the duration of the exhibition. Based on what I learnt on our trip, I will definitely be trying to attend more of these events.

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