October 2015 / Mila Oshin, UK
ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the October column we are pleased to feature the UK based Mila Oshin, an artist, poet, singer, artistic director, curator / founder of Project AfterBirth and practicing mother. In her article Passage, she talks about her transition into motherhood and how this became integral in producing the international exhibition Project AfterBirth together with her life- and artistic partner Kris Jager from Drunk With Joy and Joy Experiment.
It is exactly six years ago this month that we last performed live. It was the final date of our tour with Joy Experiment and I was six months pregnant with our first child at the time. Kris and I were both on a high. We were looking forward to becoming parents, but in a way my pregnancy had almost been, quite literally, a sideshow up until that point. We were possibly even more excited about picking things up where we left off with Drunk With Joy as soon as the baby arrived. I remember daydreaming about having the baby in the studio with us as we would record our new album and about taking her or him on our next Joy Experiment tour, which was going to be even bigger and better than the last one, with international dates and new artists and works.
Three months later, after 60 hours of labour and resisting intervention, my first birth ended in a forceps delivery, which left me with permanent coccydynia, ongoing nerve damage and chronic pain. Due to what, in retrospect, is likely to be a combination of her difficult birth, my physical condition and exhaustion, and her high-spirited nature, my beautiful healthy baby cried almost all the time, demanded constant movement, fed in short sessions of fifteen minutes almost every hour when awake and never slept more than two hours at a time until she was six months old. I remember phoning the health visitor once to ask whether severe lack of sleep could result in permanent brain damage. I thought I was going to die, or at least go insane.
Fast forward over the two most difficult years of my life, and we were blessed with another baby in the making. Because of my lingering post-first-birth issues I could still not sit, stand or lie down in the same position for more than five minutes at a time. I knew my second pregnancy was going to be a challenge, but I had no fear of the birth itself. I was as convinced as I had been the first time around that with the right support in the background and left to my own devices in every other possible way, under normal circumstances, it should be no problem to birth a baby. We could barely afford it, but we felt hiring a doula was the only way to maximise our chances of the right person being there, to give us the support we needed, exactly when we needed it. Living a mere ten minutes away from hospital, there was no reason not to try a homebirth again.
In the autumn of 2012, I gave birth to my second daughter at home in the presence of Kris and our doula, moments before the arrival of a midwife. Although the experience was undoubtedly hugely empowering, rather than healing the memory of our first birth, it only seemed to magnify the horror and needlessness of the circumstances and consequences of the first one. Whenever I spent any time on my own, an overwhelming sense of guilt, anger and grief took hold of me. When my second daughter was six months old and I went into my studio again for up to half a day a few times per week, there was little else I could write about. Within three months I completed Passage; a book of twelve poems about my experiences, some so raw, intimate and brutally honest that, at first, I did not even show them to Kris, my artistic and life partner, and the father of my children.
I instantly felt that Passage may well be my most powerful, original and significant body of work to date. Still, I had no idea where to place it within my own artistic trajectory, let alone within the context of contemporary art at large. Unwittingly, I had entered the realm of the mother artist. I had no idea at the time that there was such a thing as ‘the maternal’ as a discourse within the arts, let alone any academic fields. I had not heard of any of the wonderful organisations and initiatives dedicated to the work of mother artists around the world that have sprung up in recent years. I was yet to come across a single one of the various books published by artists and academics over the past fifty years to highlight the contrast between actual experiences of new parenthood and their representation in popular culture.
My new feelings of isolation as an artist were reflected by my personal experiences as a mother. Like many other mothers and fathers, I was apprehensive of publicly questioning my pregnancy, birth and early parenthood experiences, or revealing and sharing my often conflicting related emotions. Our fear of being judged or marginalised for being ungrateful or too concerned with ourselves and failing at the first hurdle of living up to the vision of the ‘good mother‘ or the ‘good father’, is powerful. Still, I had a very strong sense that my personal experiences were part of a much wider problem facing 21st century parenthood at large. I started on a quest to back up my suspicions with evidence. I guess that was the point at which Project AfterBirth was born.
An unprecedented increase in instrumental and caesarean births since the 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that, in the 21st century, fewer women than ever before are able to do what has come naturally to the vast majority of them since the beginning of humanity. This mass female disability cannot fail to have a major impact on women’s sense of self and, subsequently, their relationships with their partners and children. Still, these facts appear of little or no interest to the medical or mental health profession. This, in spite of very recent studies suggesting 20% of mothers now suffer from post-natal depression (double the previous statistics), more than 10% of new fathers suffer from psychiatric morbidity, and suicide continues to be the biggest cause of maternal mortality in the UK (with related statistics being unobtainable in the USA where, quite astonishingly, reporting maternal deaths is not a legal requirement).
Fortunately, I knew from my own experience that I could rely on there being at least one type of parent who had no choice but to express their deepest and most complex feelings; the artist parent. Invisible as they may have been to me at first, I knew other artist parents were out there somewhere, committing their own pregnancy, birth or early parenthood experiences to paper, paint, music, film, etc., and thereby uniquely documenting a period in adult life at once the most intensely felt and least likely to be accurately captured by memory. I had always believed that artists, by both sensing the urgency and possessing the skills to translate issues at the core of our existence into the universal language of art, have the potential to break down fundamental barriers and open up crucial debates. It made complete sense to me that artists’ autobiographical work on new parenthood experiences could prove key to any research on the subject.
Fast forward over another two years and in addition to the imminent publication of Passage, Kris and I have just launched the first ever, international, open exhibition on the subject of new parenthood entitled Project AfterBirth. The exhibition is hosted by White Moose gallery in UK until the 13th of November and includes 39 outstanding 21st century works spanning the visual, performance, literary, film and digital arts by 30 contemporary male and female artists from across five continents. It has already attracted physicians, midwives, doulas, academics and journalists, as well as many artists, art students and, of course, parents from all over the country. The exhibition, which we aim to tour internationally between 2017-2019, also marks the starting point of an international inter-disciplinary art and research initiative through which we will pull together findings from the fields of obstetrics, mental health, midwifery, media studies, and women and gender studies to establish the extent to which 21st century pregnancy and birth practices and representations are influencing the state of maternal (and paternal) mental health.
For more information on ProjectAfterBirth and to keep updated on upcoming talks and special events, to obtain an exhibition catalogue or a signed copy of Passage please visit: www.projectafterbirth.com or www.milaoshin.com
Exhibition: Project AfterBirth
Gallery: White Moose
Dates: Sat 3 Oct 2015 – Fri 13 Nov 2015
Times: Tuesday – Saturday 11 am – 5 pm
Location: White Moose, Moose Hall, Trinity Street, Barnstaple EX32 8HX
T: 01271 379872,
Project AfterBirth’s 2015 programme is kindly supported by:
Lottery Funded Arts Council England, Birth Rites Collection, Museum of Motherhood, Joy Experiment, White Moose.