If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. Home Truths at the Photographers’ Gallery

This week I went to see the new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity. To my recollection I have never given birth or had children so I felt it would be appropriate to take my mother along with me.  Hoping that she would have a different perspective and give me an insight into the work.

Spread onto two floors the exhibition consists of work by eight different practitioners, two of whom are male. It takes us on a tour of a subject matter that is seldom photographed, or spoken about. Often considered a sentimental and embarrassing topic, this exhibition sets out to ‘challenge stereotypes’.


Elinor Carucci. The Photographer's Gallery

Elinor Carucci. Home Truths. The Photographer’s Gallery. London


The first image we are met with is the aftermath of pregnancy. Elinor Carrucci, one of the first photographers I studied at college, has used her own body as an example. Mapping the changes a woman’s body will go through during pregnancy and what is left. Bumps, stretch marks and scars decorate her body almost like war wounds. I believe that there is an element of pride, a way of showing off what her body can endure.

Following Carruci, is a wall sized print Janine Antoni suspended in her daughter’s bedroom, with her legs rooted in a child’s doll house. The semiotics in Antoni’s work are easy to read. She explains “the substitution of house for skirt allows the mother to wear the family drama.” She is restricted by the duties of housewife and mother. I felt that there was an almost holy aura about the way in which she was being held up by the rope.


Janine Antoni. The Photographer's Gallery.

Janine Antoni. Home Truths. The Photographer’s Gallery. London


As I continued around the room, leaving behind me the “Madonna” inspired images, I came across the work of Leigh Ledare. I had to keep doing a double-take to make sure the work did actually say ‘Mum’. Stripped of all creative and artistic explanation the work is simply a boy taking photographs of his mother having sex. Personally I found the work difficult to understand because we don’t like to think of our mothers as sexual beings. I imagine that is what Ledare was trying to address. Or potentially it is a vision into a non-conformist idea of motherhood. Who are we to dictate what is normal or the boundaries of relationships?


Leigh Ledare. The Photographer's Gallery

Leigh Ledare. Home Truths. The Photographer’s Gallery. London


The work of Elina Brotherus and Fred Hüning tackle the heartache and struggle of miscarriages and stillborn children. Brotherus has undertaken a very brave project in documenting the failures of her IVF treatments. Aesthetically speaking these photographs were my favourite. In each frame Brotherus has placed herself in almost empty spaces creating a sense of shame and isolation as a woman whose body cannot perform what it was made to do. Hüning and his wife had experienced having a stillborn child and the anxiety that comes with trying again. His trilogy of books documents the cycle of life and death using photographs and song lyrics.


Elina Brotherus. The Photographer's Gallery.

Elina Brotherus. Home Truths. The Photographer’s Gallery. London


Fred Hüning. The Photographer's Gallery.

Fred Hüning. Home Truths. The Photographers’ Gallery. London


The final piece of the show was the wonderful and thought-evoking video by Katie Murray. Exercising on a cross trainer with the help of a workout DVD, Murray holds on to both of her children. At moments it looked to me as though she might have an accident and drop one of them but she remains stable and keeps her composure. Throughout the footage Murray has included scenes from a wildlife documentary of an antelope attack and its attempts to escape. Its message is simple enough to understand, however the image of Murray exercising whilst carrying two infants, as she puts it, “ridiculous”.


Katie Murray. The Photographer's Gallery.

Katie Murray. Home Truths. The Photographer’s Gallery. London


So as someone who hasn’t had children, what did this exhibition mean to me? What was my punctum?  It reminded me of Roland Barthes and his attempt to find a photograph of his mother that he could recognise. When I look over photographs of my mother holding me as a child I do not recognise her, simply because I do not remember any of it. In a sense the exhibition is showing my mother as an entity I do not recognise. I see her as the woman who would drive me to school not as a sexual being. I see her as the woman who argues with me because of the recycling not as someone who is worried about losing her identity. We seldom think of the sacrifices our mothers made when they gave birth to us. So as I walked around the room with my mother I felt as though I was walking with her through her pregnancy and through childbirth. As I reflect on the exhibition I can now recognise my mother in each of the artist’s work.

Over dinner I asked my mother what she thought of the work and she said, “We just got on with it.”

Home Truths: Motherhood, Photography and Identity, The Photographer’s Gallery, London. Through 5th January 2014.

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by Sarah El-Taki
in Focus on Europe

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