The mothers of the maternal activism in arts and academy: Mila Oshin

Procreate Project is joining the Women's History month by celebrating women who have dedicated their lives to  help raising the voice and visibility of mothers within the arts and society 

For the past 20 years incredible women have worked to facilitate other women/mother’s artistic practises, professional and personal development.

We want to tell the story of pioneers of what is recognised today as maternal feminism movement.

Our second interview is with Mila Oshin, artist, poet, singer and founder and co-director of the Digital Institute for Early Parenthood (DIEP.org.uk)

How did you start and why?

The difference between my first two birth experiences (one traumatic hospitalised birth and one homebirth without a midwife present) made such an impact on me that I had no choice but to dedicate a whole new body of work to my early parenthood journey. When I had finished this work, a collection of poetry and a music album named PASSAGE, I realised I had no idea where to place it within my own artistic trajectory or the art world at large, where parenthood is still deemed taboo as a status and inferior as a subject. Still, I could not imagine there were not more professional mother and father artists out there that had made important work about the transformational experience of pregnancy, birth and new parenthood. This led me to come up with the idea for curating the first international open exhibition in the world on the subject of early parenthood, Project AfterBirth

How did you make your voice heard and why people followed you?

I literally spent months researching and networking, mostly online, to find arts organisations and artists to connect with from all over the world. It did not take long to find some great people like Joy Rose (Museum of Motherhood, New York) and Helen Knowles (Birth Rites Collection) who where very enthusiastic about my ideas for Project AfterBirth and became partners almost instantly. An exhibition like this was so long overdue and, given the fact that almost 95% of us are parents and that birth and new parenthood are in such an appalling state and given such an inadequate status in our Western society, it did not take long for the word to spread.

The idea and need for this initiative could have come from anyone going through the same experience, why you were the one between hundreds of mothers to take action and initiate a movement?

I think it was my particular experience, the two extremely opposed kinds of birth I had, in combination with my background as a socially critical artist and the many years I had already worked for other artists and arts organisations as an audience development advisor.

What did it take?

Everything! It still does. Most of the work we do remains voluntarily and because I share both my life and work with the same partner the Digital Institute for Early Parenthood (which came out of Project AfterBirth) has completely taken over our lives.

How did you make it work around your family life?

I am still not sure it works sometimes! My partner and I strongly believe in the importance of parents (or grandparents) looking after their own (grand)children in the early years and as neither of us have any family in the UK this has been really hard without any help with childcare, especially since we had another baby last year, just as our other two started school. My partner and I (Kris Jager) literally split our week in two where I look after the children and do school pick-ups 2.5 days per week and work 2.5 days, and he does too. It does not always work out and it means we live on a shoe-string budget all the time, but we do not mind the challenge and feel making a positive contribution to the world is important to us and also provides a good example for our children.

Tell us about what’s behind the scene.

Things have become quite tricky since baby number three appeared on the scene last year and I am seriously reconsidering my work/life balance at the moment as it does feel like I am putting an awful lot of work and time in and am not always getting enough back. My work as an artist has also had to take a backseat and this does not work for me and I have to find a way to fix this. Brexit has not helped either. The idea that after having lived, worked, paid taxes, volunteered and fought for important causes in this country for 22 years (all my adult life), I will soon be kicked out because I am European unless I pay for and fill in a document to prove I am entitled to settled status just feels really uncomfortable. It seems mad, especially as my partner and children are British. I have loved England all my life, but since Brexit I feel heartbroken and am questioning all my life’s decisions.

What does it mean for you to facilitate other Women’s art?

For me art, as the only universal language, has always been an incredibly powerful tool for social change. I have advocated for women’s rights through my work as an artist and curator all my adult life because I feel amplifying women’s voices or voices that reveal truths about the feminine experience is one of the most important tasks to have in a world that has been so deprived from these voices and that has suffered and caused so much suffering because of this for so long. Being a parent in this world I have now come to realise that outstanding autobiographical art by professional mother and father artists can not only be incredibly moving, it also provides truly unique and rare evidence about the reality of experiences such as conception, pregnancy, birth and new parenthood and how parents are just not getting heard and looked after in our society. It feels like a real privilege to be able to work with this art, bring it to the public and use it in educational initiatives that transform the views of those who will one day be responsible for future parents’ wellbeing such as midwifery and ob/gyn students.

What are the challenges and joys?

I think I have mentioned quite a lot of challenges already above! Funding is a huge issue, as you will know. We hear time and time again that our work is too education and research focused for arts funding, and is too art focused for education and research grants. We can’t seem to win! Still, the results of our work and the encouraging feedback we get on an almost daily basis, from parents, artists, medical professionals, students, etc. whom we work with or who have just heard about or experienced our work, makes it all worthwhile.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope to have another poetry collection and music album out soon with Drunk With Joy. Also, especially now that my maternity leave has ended, it will be an important focus of the Digital Institute for Early Parenthood (DIEP) again to curate a unique rolling programme of exhibitions, events and festivals that promote outstanding international works of art on all kinds of early parenthood experiences to widespread audiences. We will also continue to work on our EPiC project (Early Parenthood in the Curriculum) which comprises our core educational work at DIEP. Through this we are developing and delivering an art based module for medical schools and midwifery colleges that teach students about all aspects of the lived maternity experience and their influence on it. Another core element and more long-term aim of the EPiC project at DIEP is to develop an art based programme about all aspects of the early parenthood experience (from conception to the early years) to integrate in secondary schools’ curriculum to help young people prepare for this challenging life experience and to give them a better chance of retaining good mental and physical health throughout.


Creative Mothers Programme/GPS Embroidery by Lizzie Philps

It was a delight to partner up with The Mother House, Stroud as part of “GPS Embroidery”. This is a project which takes mothering arts practices beyond the domestic sphere by using the to and fro of the GPS signal to scrawl across city, suburban and countryside locations in an attempt to broaden ideas about who-gets-to-write-what-where in and about the British landscape. I have been running these workshops with people who mother in a variety of contexts, both alongside children and without, but this was a wonderful way not only to enable artist-mothers to keep working, but to broaden the audiences for our practices by carrying them out in the public space of the library.

Using a variety of playful mapping techniques, and with GPS trackers to trace their routes, participants created their own representations of the city. Whilst commuters may use maps as a tool to show main roads and businesses, we might not see the other, unpaid kinds of workers who are making paths through the streets. Whilst tourists might use maps to find sights and attractions, the details of life that escape the municipal overview are not often acknowledged or recorded, but are equally memorable and fascinating. Mapping allows us to experience details of the world we might otherwise miss, and to share a glimpse of these perspectives by exhibiting the maps in the library.

 

In parallel workshops facilitated by The Mother House Stroud’s Rebecca Stapleford  and inspired by the stories of ‘A River’ by Marc Martin and ‘The Magic Paint brush’ by Julie Donaldson the group explored the theme of place using a variety of playful mapping and creative painting. The children’s work was exhibited in the library space, too. 

 

 

The project was the starting point for Gloucester Library’s Creative Mothers Programme, which has been developed by producer Hannah Brady and aims to develop sustainable networks of mothers within the area.

The work has helped us explore the complications of making work with babes in arms and roaming toddlers and demonstrates the possibilities of what can be achieved in a short period of time within a supportive environment.

It was wonderful to work with such a creative and friendly group, and to be able to share our work with the library staff, visitors and general public. I hope that together we have helped to raise the visibility of maternal work (both artistic and caring) another notch, but I would like to give the final word to the artists:

 

These lines represent walks I have made with my daughter since becoming a mother. They portray a growing sense of discovery, beginning and ending from our secure base, our home. They begin small and close and with time they grow, branching out into new pathways. This is symbolic of the neurological development of an infant’s brain, and our journey together stepping out into a new world.

Ruth Bide

 

Drifting around the city I felt invisible. Everyone was going about their usual business but I felt unusual. My senses were heightened and everything was amplified. Sights, sounds, people, faces. I wanted to notice everything but it didn’t feel overwhelming. It felt glorious. As if I had permission to stop and stare, reflect and enjoy whatever caught my eye.

Sharon Bennett

 

When walking with the intention of observing I noticed details. I wouldn’t normally pay any attention to these details at all. As Sylvia slept in the pram, I took photos of these details then overlaid them on the map of Gloucester. I like the sense of scale between the items in the drawings and the streets represented by the map.

Athene Whitaker

Supported by Gloucestershire Art of Libraries, The Arts Council, Procreate Projects and inspired by Mother House Studio.

Participants: Chloe Kempton, Sharon Bennett, Athene Whitaker, Katrina Rosser, Jessica Timmis , Ruth Bide and Oonah Davies


Childhood memories by Mother Art Prize winner Mary Martins

Winner of the first Procreate Project Mother Art Prize, Mary Martins, has just finished her residency at the Mother House studio in Dagenham as part of her awards.

Here is an insight on what she has been working on and what are her plans for the future.

How has the Mother Art Prize helped your practice develop during the last few months?

Since receiving the Mother Art Prize last October, there has been a progressive yet significant shift in the perspective of my practice and artistic identity. The mentoring session from Sylvie Gormezano was extremely useful, with discussions surrounding creating work in the context of motherhood and expanding on my work within film and animation. Her advice really helped to untangle some creative blocks that I initially had about the direction that my work was taking.

‘The Divide’ was made at a very pivotal period on my creative journey, a stage where I really wanted to experiment with more abstract animation techniques and intertwine a clear narrative in relation to my own experiences of motherhood. I am extremely grateful for the positive responses I have received and to those it may have inspired.

It was also wonderful to see my work exhibited at the Left Overs exhibition and in a new environment as animators usually display their work at film festivals. What has really transpired, is that ‘The Divide’ can now be seen as a method of challenging the parameters of documentary practice through animation.

Shortly after making ‘The Divide’ I started to work on a new project which focuses on autobiographical memory in relation to identity and culture, and specifically my own cultural heritage. The place where our childhood memories go, is the theme that my new animated short will explore. For this animation, I’m working with rare archive footage of Nigeria in the 1970s to really draw out the richness of my heritage. I have the support of two other animators, which I believe will move by work away from the realm of moving image and experimental.

I used the time at the Mother House Studio to complete the research and development stage for this project. I have created a blog where the public can comment on this theme and share their earliest childhood memory. Similarly to my own, others have reported that their earliest childhood memory was a significant event involving a parent or carer.

I am now at the pre-production stage; where I will create a story board and animatic with the view to start the production stage in June.

My ideas are still evolving, my craft is developing, but animation is very technical, so it requires a great deal of dedication and practice. I am very excited to see the results of this new direction.

More about the Childhood Memories project

Our earliest childhood memories, often episodic, are one of our most intimate experiences. Scientists believe that these can start from as little as 3 years old. After the age of 5 these memories become elusive. There is a mechanism behind the cognitive process that retrieves these abandoned memories or temporary cases of amnesia. A journey back to where it all began can often be painful, beautiful or enlightening or perhaps a combination of all three. There is a very faint line between our repressed memories and those that we may never remember. According to Freud, infantile amnesia ‘veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it’. Restoring these memories brings a purpose – We can use this as a way of learning more about our family background and about ourselves as an individual.
Cultural differences may offer an explanation as to why some memories are more vivid in our mind than others and why others remember more from their childhood. Certain experiences in our adulthood often trigger the re-possession of the earliest childhood memory. We sometimes need to attach to the initial relationship we once had with the world.

My earliest childhood memory is when I accompanied my mother to Lagos, Nigeria in 1987. I was 4 years old. I was too young to remain in London with my Father and my two older sisters.

Read more about Mary Martins last project here