In 1985, Cuban-born, Mexico-based artist Marta María Pérez held a knife to her naked, pregnant stomach and took a picture. The resulting black-and-white photo shows the knife-wielding mother-to-be, her face cropped out, her individuality erased. It’s a jarring representation of motherhood, a far cry from the sunny, idealized images that flood social media and lifestyle magazines. Images that suggest mothers are ― and should be ― docile, domestic, faultless and, more often, white.
“I immediately thought of the movie ‘Psycho’ when I saw this photo,” writer NeKelia Henderson wrote in 2010 of Pérez’s work. “Well, the maternity version anyway.”
Pérez’s photo is part of “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985,” an expansive survey of work by Latinx women now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Together, the women paint a picture that diverges from the endorsed model of motherhood, blissful and devoid of complications or conflict. Instead, their moms are political, angry, salacious, outspoken, spiritual and experimental. Their images of motherhood welcome pain as well as love, truth as well as fantasy, horror as well as tranquility.
As Hammer guest curator Andrea Giunta, who organized the exhibition along with Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, put it: “They propose more realistic maternities, crossed by different cultural, social and political registers.”
Pérez’s menacing nude photo is called “Do not kill animals or watch them be killed.” The title, the artist explained to HuffPost, refers to the Afro-Cuban superstition that a pregnant woman who either kills an animal or witnesses a killing will give birth to a child with violent or criminal instincts. The myth echoes the 17th- and 18th-century conviction, upheld by some male philosophers and medical professionals of the time, that a pregnant woman’s unknown imagination could affect ― and potentially infect ― the unborn child forming inside her.
If a mother experienced shock, hunger or lust, her child might arrive with physical deformities, leading experts thought. So when children were born with disabilities or afflictions, the mother’s “monstrous imagination” was up for blame. According to Princeton professor Marie-Hélène Huet, male scientists and philosophers would respond to a childbirth gone somehow awry by asking: “What woeful maternal fancy produced such a monster?”
A version of this misogynistic anxiety lingers today thanks to a variety of persistent spiritual beliefs and superstitions, including those belonging to the Santeria religion Pérez ascribes to and interrogates. Her “Do not kill” image, in particular, is part of a larger series called “The Conceived,” for which she documented her experience carrying twins. She processed her pregnancy through the lens of her religion and its superstitions and taboos. The photos are “omens,” Marcela Guerrero writes in a catalogue essay, offering “an unromanticized view of maternity that transgresses Western notions of motherhood.”
The series’ titles are inspired by anthropologist Lydia Cabrera’s El Monte, an in-depth description of the major Afro-Cuban religions, which include Santeria, Yoruba and Palo Monte. Another of Pérez’s photos, titled “Born to you strangled by the cord,” depicts the artist topless, from just below her lips to just above her nipples, wearing only pearls. The title nods to the unsubstantiated belief that wearing a necklace while pregnant can result in a child being strangled by his or her umbilical cord.
Over the years, as medical technologies have evolved, the scientific community has debunked many of these beliefs, relegating them to the domain of spiritual superstition. However, a laundry list of still-potentially dangerous activities for mothers-to-be has taken their place: no smoking, no drinking, no caffeine, no high heels, deli meat or soft cheese. The list goes on. From policing thoughts to policing actions, the cultural desire to regulate and control pregnant mothers continues. Women are still expected to be impeccable parents ― even before their child arrives.
Ultimately, it can be difficult to draw a line between responsibly protecting a child and unnecessarily policing a mother. As Lynn M. Paltrow, author of When Becoming Pregnant Is a Crime, wrote: “Recognizing ‘fetal abuse’ moves us toward criminalizing pregnancy itself because no woman can provide the perfect womb.”
Pérez isn’t the only artist at the Hammer to skewer conventional representations of “baby bumps.” Johanna Hamann’s plaster-cast “Bellies” ― representations of pregnant stomachs that dangle from metal hooks, their contents spilling down like diaphanous fabric or human entrails ― recall both dresses lined up in a closet and carcasses dangling in a butcher’s display. As curator Giunta put it, “They refer to the relationship between maternity and trauma in at least two senses: a subjective one, visualizing aspects of motherhood that social stereotypes eliminate, and, on the other hand, referring to violence in Peruvian society of those years, to which the police and military forces of the state were linked.”
Idealized images of pregnancy might suggest that miraculous transformations into motherhood occur in a vacuum, but in reality, some women approach this phase of their life under a variety of external pressures, including political oppression and social unrest. In 1979, the year Hamann began work on “Bellies,” Peru was transitioning from military to civilian rule under President Francisco Morales Bermúdez. Her mother-shaped casts pay tribute to the pain inside a woman’s body, as well as the world beyond it.
While Hamann and Pérez visualize pregnancy, another artist, Louise Grobet, explores what happens post-birth. In her 1981 photograph “La Briosa,” a woman in a lucha libre mask feeds a bottle to an infant. As Giunta explained, mothers and homemakers in Mexico serve as both spectators and players of the carnivalesque and sometimes brutal sport of amateur, freestyle wrestling. In her photo, Grobet collapses the distinction between gentle mother and campy fighter. Both test the body’s limits and urge a woman to perform a designated role that has deep-rooted history in pre-Hispanic culture. “In this sense,” Giunta added, “maternity is linked to a form of festive and symbolic violence.”
Violence is also palpable in Chilean artist Gloria Camiruaga’s 1984 film “Popsicles.” In it, her daughters eat popsicles with little plastic soldiers in them, chanting “Hail Mary” in between licks as the residue of their sweets stains their lips and teeth. Camiruaga described the work as a “rosary of alarm, eternal and circular.” Her daughters engage in outwardly innocent childhood activities ― making devotions, eating sweets ― all the while cognizant of the threat of violence beneath the surface; the toy soldier is meant as a reference to dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile with an authoritarian military government between 1973 and 1990.
“With this performance she refers to the dictatorship of Pinochet, but also puts in a critical place her own motherhood, using her own daughters.” Giunta said, “We have to think that dictatorships, and social and police violence in general, generate violence that specifically targets the female body […] even caesareans practiced without anesthesia on women in prisons.”
The physical experiences of pregnancy, birth and motherhood are far from the pristine, ethereal events that some mainstream representations would suggest. In the United States, the maternal mortality rate is rising, with 28 maternal deaths occurring per 100,000 births in 2013. Non-fatal injuries are far more prevalent. According to Mother Jones, between 50 to 80 percent of women who give birth experience tearing of the pelvic skin and muscles, and around half experience urinary incontinence. Three quarters report residual back pain.
For women of color and women in marginalized communities, pregnancy invites additional hurdles. In 2008, a large-scale federal immigration raid in Iowa led to the arrest of 389 predominately Hispanic workers at a meat-processing plant. Babies born 37 weeks after the raid had a 24 percent higher risk of lower birth weight than those born the year before, a study at University of Michigan showed. Mothers also had an increased risk of preterm birth following the raid. For many Latinx women in America right now, particularly undocumented immigrants threatened by the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration, a euphoric pregnancy is not an option.
The artists of “Radical Women” unflinchingly confront the realities of birth and motherhood, no matter how painful, ugly, confusing or taboo. Western culture asks women to prescribe to the myth of motherhood as something immaculate and miraculous ― with any deviation from the norm perceived as weakness or insubordination on the part of the mother. Artists like Pérez, Hamann, Grobet and Camiruaga refute these expectations, complicating the idea of motherhood and illuminating the work, trauma and alarm that go into creating and raising a child.
“Radical Women” runs at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until Dec. 31, 2017.