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See inside 'Picturing Motherhood Now' at the Cleveland Museum of Art

"Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens," by Njideka Akunyili Crosby as seen in the exhibit "Picturing Motherhood Now" at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
A Black mother and child rest among plant life

The Cleveland Museum of Art holds centuries of art depicting motherhood, perhaps most commonly seen through works of the Virgin Mary and child. Looking through this museum’s collection, two contemporary art curators wondered how artists depict motherhood today.

The resulting exhibition, “ Picturing Motherhood Now,” presents the varied ways mothering shows up in art, from raising children to fighting for future generations, while intentionally highlighting diverse creators and work.

“We’re interested in bringing in voices and perspectives and subjects that have not always been prominently featured throughout the history of art,” said Emily Liebert, curator of contemporary art at the museum.

The first room in the show, called “Missing Pictures,” focuses on such representation. One piece, for instance, depicts a mother and daughter who are undocumented immigrants. Another painting, shows two Black women holding babies that appear as white silhouettes on their laps.

"Not My Burden" by Titus Kaphar as seen in "Picturing Motherhood Now" at the Cleveland Museum of Art. [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

“Do they stand for the white children that Black women have historically cared for? Or do they stand for the children of the mothers and therefore represent children who have been taken too soon from their mothers?” Liebert said. “I think that the painting leaves it open for either one of these or many other interpretations.”

The exhibit goes beyond imagery of mothers and children and presents motherhood much more broadly.

“It became a really interesting lens to reflect on our daily lives and the present that we inhabit,” Liebert said.

Photography by LaToya Ruby Frazier documents families dealing with the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Photography by LaToya Ruby Frazier as seen in "Picturing Motherhood Now" at the Cleveland Museum of Art. [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

“She used three generations of women to talk about an ecological crisis, as well as social justice, looking at the way that that crisis impacted different people in different ways, taking in particular a toll on low income families and people of color,” Liebert said.

Cleveland artist M. Carmen Lane demonstrates “giving birth to an organization” through their photography, said Nadiah Rivera Fellah, associate curator of contemporary art at the museum.

Lane has six pieces in the exhibition which tell the story of turning a house in the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood of Cleveland into a center for creativity and healing called ATNSC (pronounced Ata-en-sic).

Photography by M. Carmen Lane as seen in "Picturing Motherhood Now" at the Cleveland Museum of Art. [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

Another work Rivera Fellah said she’s excited about sharing in the exhibit is by indigenous artist Wendy Red Star.

“She created this really wonderful commission for the work that is a portrait of her great-great-grandmother, herself and her daughter, so kind of call[ing] attention to the way that the culture is passed down through the women in the family,” Rivera Fellah said.

"Amnía (Echo)" by Wendy Red Star as seen in "Picturing Motherhood Now" at the Cleveland Museum of Art. [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

While most of the artists featured in the exhibition are women, the show also includes non-binary and male perspectives on motherhood.

“I think it's a subject that any artist has access to and any visitor has access to,” Liebert said. “We really hope that anyone who comes into this exhibit finds some point of connection, finds an entry point, finds something that speaks to them and their experience and maybe learns something that they hadn't thought of previously.”

“Picturing Motherhood Now” is on view through March 2022.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.