On art and motherhood: the artists doing both

‘Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood’, a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition, has opened in Bristol, showing work by more than 100 artists

Artwork of woman birthing a washing machine, and dishes in sink, from ‘Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood’, a touring Hayward Gallery exhibition currently in Bristol
Left, VALIE EXPORT, Die Geburtenmadonna, 1976. Right, Caroline Walker, Bottles and Pumps, 2022
(Image credit: Left, © VALIE EXPORT / Bildrecht, Wien 2023, courtesy of the artist. Right, courtesy of the artist)

Does it have to be either/or when it comes to achieving our professional dreams and becoming a parent? It is a question considered by writer and critic Hettie Judah in a new Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition, ‘Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood’, on view at the Arnolfini in Bristol until 26 May 2024.

Four years in the making, the show features work by more than 100 artists. It is one of the only exhibitions in the UK to show work by artists exploring their own motherhood, and the impact that motherhood has had on their art. 

Encompassing art from the feminist avant-garde to the present day, the show addresses many facets of motherhood, from documenting the experience, to balancing artistic creation with having a child, and mourning a maternal instinct that may never be fulfilled. 

‘Almost all of the works on the show are intensely personal, often rooted in what would otherwise be tremendously private experiences,’ Judah explains. 

‘Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood’

artwork of woman giving birth

Paula Rego, Untitled 2, 1999

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery)

The most striking thing about the show is how many of these expressions of really common experiences have not been seen in an exhibition before. Experiences of motherhood have not been considered material for art, yet the impact on mothers making art has been important.

‘It has been a hugely emotional experience,’ says Judah of the exhibition. ‘I’ve been engaged in correspondence with many of the artists in the show for years now – it has been a real thrill to be offered deeper insights into their work, but we’ve also shared a lot of tears. Artists have been told for years that the subject of motherhood was not of interest. They have been made to feel that in becoming mothers they had somehow invalidated themselves. Because motherhood has not been valued as a subject for art, I have often found out about works through talking to artists themselves. Almost all of the works on the show are intensely personal, often rooted in what would otherwise be tremendously private experiences.’

The range of work is representative of the breadth of personal experience, and the exhibition is divided into sections of Creation, Maintenance and Loss, with a series of films including one by Tracey Emin screening on a loop. Christine Voge’s Photographs from Chiswick Women’s Refuge, 1978, shows life in the women’s refuge that later became the organisation, Refuge. In the exhibition, they sit alongside VALIE EXPORT’s famous image of a woman birthing a washing machine, The Birth Madonna, 1976, and Cassie Arnold’s Bullet Proof Dress, 2022, a delicate sculpture of a child’s dress woven out of navy titanium, a comment on the relationship between US gun legislation and school shootings. 

photograph of tattooed woman on bed and another woman ironing

Anna Grevenitis, Regard series, 2015-

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Personal interpretations of pregnancy, birth and care also feature in work from Camille Henrot, and Heather Spears’ Studies/drawings of labour/ childbirth, Rigshospitalet 26-27, 1987.  

‘It has been really striking going through “Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood“ in the opening days [in Bristol], seeing people pausing and sometimes weeping in front of Fani Parali’s drawing of her sick son in the NICU, which is suspended in a metal armature shaped like an incubator. There have been equally strong reactions to Henrot’s Wet Job paintings of women attached to breast pumps,‘ adds Judah. ‘I went round the show with a group of women in their seventies and eighties and those paintings brought up memories and feelings they hadn’t really ever spoken about before.‘

Change is afoot in the art world, and there have been attempts to make it easier for artist parents to re-enter the industry after having children, from gallery openings happening earlier in the day to the opening up of artist residencies to include artists’ families, meaning they don’t have to leave them for extended periods of time. 

‘The biggest difference, I think, is that many artists now feel that they can be upfront about the fact that they are parents, and all of the factors that need to be taken into consideration. Until a few years ago this was absolutely something artists would have kept out of sight,’ Judah says.

‘Acts of Creation’ starts a much-needed conversation about inclusion on a massive scale, raising essential questions about how the art industry takes and doesn’t give back when people have to step back for myriad reasons. Here we see motherhood foregrounded in a most intelligent and nuanced way that celebrates mothers, and the quest for and loss of motherhood, addressing IVF and forced adoption, experienced by so many but rarely seen. This exhibition is very much about the art and the artists but it is also about society. 

‘People step away for all kinds of reasons – parenting, of course, but also to look after their own parents, or for ill health, or economic reasons,‘ Judah explains. ‘Currently, the art world is very focused on providing career boosts to recent graduates, and many awards and residencies still have age limits on them. So artist mothers are afflicted by structural sexism in the first instance, and then ageism in the second instance. I’d love to publish a book on “How To Re-Enter The Art World” – that’s the big question that still needs to be answered!‘

‘Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood’, with Hayward Gallery Touring, is currently at the Arnolfini in Bristol until 26 May 2024 and will then travel to Midlands Arts Centre (MAC), Birmingham on 22 June 2024, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield on 24 October 2024, and Dundee Contemporary Arts in the spring of 2025


Amah-Rose Abrams is a British writer, editor and broadcaster covering arts and culture based in London. In her decade plus career she has covered and broken arts stories all over the world and has interviewed artists including Marina Abramovic, Nan Goldin, Ai Weiwei, Lubaina Himid and Herzog & de Meuron. She has also worked in content strategy and production.