Date
23 September 2021
Reading Time
7 minute read
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How Annie Wang challenged the conventional expectations of motherhood

Is it possible to maintain artistic autonomy during motherhood? The artist reflects on her seminal work, Mother as a Creator, a staggering series 21 years in the making exploring the relationship between creativity, motherhood and culture.

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Date
23 September 2021
Reading Time
7 minute read

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It’s October 2000 and the artist Annie Wang’s body goes through unexpected, significant changes. Her belly swells with life and an uncomfortable pregnancy ensues. At the same time, the Taiwanese artist is studying for a PhD in fine art at the University of Brighton. For Annie, this is the start of a long investigation into the relationship between motherhood and the role of an artist. On the surface, the premise of Annie’s best-known work The Mother as a Creator is simple. Every few years, she takes a photograph – candidly lit, black and white, neutral facial expression – documenting the passing of time as her son grows from foetus to teenager. In each one, the previous portrait can be seen on the wall behind, a time vortex bearing a reminder of the person that came before. A lingering question mark symbolising Annie’s initial thought which kicked off the project: “Would I be able to prove that it was difficult or even possible to be an artist during motherhood?”

Above

Annie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

“Would I be able to prove that it was difficult or even possible to be an artist during motherhood?”

Annie Wang

Across the series of 11 photographs, the whole story may appear evident but on the contrary, there are layers to the project which explore the gendered expectations of Taiwanese women, the depiction of motherhood and what it means, and what is or what is not a suitable subject in Western academic art. In light of two new shows exhibiting Mother as a Creator, Annie tells us about the ongoing 21-year-old (and counting) project and how it, she explains, “prompted me to use visual art to explore the issues surrounding my pregnant body, motherhood and my culture.” A selection of the series is currently at the Daegu Photography Biennale in South Korea as well as showing at London’s Huxley-Parlour from now until mid-October.

Previously, Annie had ignored all these things. For one, motherhood wasn’t a topic that flowed freely in her circles and then, when she did think about it, she felt the archetype of the selfless mother posed a threat to the unbridled creativity she hoped to achieve as a Taiwanese artist. The more she thought about it, she pondered the differing routes ahead of her. On one hand, there were the Taiwanese artists who’d given up their creative lives to take care of their children. On the other, she contemplated the opposite: the role of an artist which prioritised the work as opposed to the offspring. In the end, she came to a compromise, a happy medium that meant doing both while “striving to experience, to venture, to question, to research or to challenge the conventional expectations of motherhood.”

GalleryAnnie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

GalleryAnnie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

Born and raised in Taipei, Annie journeyed to the University of Brighton in 2000 to study for a PhD in art. There, she found herself pregnant, and decided to dedicate her research to the highly personal and intimate experience told through an autobiographical lens. Her first memories of photography take us back to Annie’s early childhood. “My father started to use a single-lensed mechanical camera to take photos when I was a baby,” she tells us. At the time, in Taipei, cameras were expensive and not easy to operate. But by the time Annie was in primary school, she could operate the film and flash with ease. As a child, she loved to look through old family photo albums and photo books expounding the Taiwanese way of life, and looking through these volumes, she would note subtle changes in the environment and people too.

Fast forward to Annie’s pregnancy and she decided to “gamble on an adventure” focusing her PhD studies on motherhood from an autobiographical perspective. Battling morning sickness and general feelings of weakness, she remembers getting through her first year by “sheer willpower,” all while tending to her gradually-building research. One day, while experiencing a bout of morning sickness so bad she describes it as “unendurable”, Annie received some infuriating feedback which would prove pivotal to the direction of the work. The feedback was delivered by a respected British artist who was also a mother. “She seriously questioned my choice of subject and considered that this autobiographical project was not worth researching, particularly at PhD level,” says Annie.

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Annie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

The supervisor’s point of view was clear: “She indicated that, from her experience, people would seldom be interested in me and my story about motherhood.” Annie being a Taiwanese woman exploring the subject in the context of white patriarchal society, that is. Instead, she was advised to find a “sharper” issue, something deemed more powerful or extraordinary by society. Annie lost her confidence in turn, and though it took a while, she eventually found a supervisor who supported her unique point of view and the beauty of the subject that she was experiencing so acutely. With this new supervisor, Dr. Chris Mullen, Annie was able to plunge headfirst into the tangled threads of identity. She unpicked the myth of the selfless Taiwanese mother, comparing it to the fullness and the complexity of the artist self, and how indeed the two could be mutually intertwined.

In her PhD thesis, Annie also points out of the work: “I only adopt the narrow definitions of a mother and motherhood so that I may explore a woman’s specific maternal experience and relationship with her children, starting with the biologically female body in the human world. I do this because the experience of the maternal body is extremely profound, complex and personal for a mother and it is hard to explain it to a man or indeed anyone who has no experience of it.” Beyond the biological definition of motherhood, she also looks to the idea of a mother in traditional Taiwanese culture.

In Chinese, the word “mother” is closely connected with sacrifice and “signifies an ability to consider other people as a priority.” Annie also nods to the proverb: “Honey is sweet, a kitten is soft, a mother is sacrificial”; another indication as to what is collectively expected of mothers. In Annie’s research, she cites Dr Carin Rubenstien who wrote: “That only by meeting this standard can [mothers] be applauded by society.” In her notable publication The Sacrificial Mother, the professor of psychology perceived this as a kind of cultural suppression where mothers learnt sacrifice was a good thing while viewing themselves as important was wrong. Annie also researched Shulamith Firestone, the Canadian-American radical feminist who suggested, says Annie, “that the specific biological capability of women to give birth was the origin of the profession of women in a patriarchal system.”

In the face of pregnancy and the pressures of an academic institution, Annie spectacularly explored how she might maintain a sense of artistic and personal autonomy as a mother. While much of her reading posed a societally backward struggle ahead of her, she found light in an unstoppable force of creativity which was only enhanced in motherhood. She found resonance with Adrienne Rich, the American feminist poet and essayist, who made a distinction between motherhood as an experience and motherhood as an institution. In her thesis, Annie paid tribute to the writer who “found that the reason behind women’s state of bondage was not their capability to reproduce, but the patriarchal system which dominated rights within politics and the economy.” With this in mind, Annie began to see motherhood as a potential for creativity and happiness; two elements that are abundant throughout the relationship documented in The Mother As a Creator.

Above

Annie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

“I have explored the creativity of motherhood which enriches my art, I couldn’t have imagined this at the beginning of doing the project.”

Annie Wang

Over the years – 21 to be precise – the project evolved, deepening as did the tender relationship between mother and son. The near-annual photographic traditions brought Annie and her son closer, “because we often need to recall, review and revise” both the past and future in order to make a new image. As the series progresses, we see a child grow from an unborn baby to a fully grown young man in just a few clicks. The foreground is littered with objects that provide a glimpse into the mother and son’s wider lives. We see toys, Christmas trees, painting rollers, record players and books come and go with the years, building a bigger picture of the interests that come into play as an artist makes her way in the world while her son discovers language, music, drawing, eventually leaving home to find his own path in life like his mother before him.

The Mother As a Creator not only encapsulates a moving coming-of-age relationship for the viewer, it also stands testament that an artist can fulfil their sense of self while maintaining a good and meaningful relationship with their child. In this way, the series reframes motherhood, importantly, from a Taiwanese perspective. The 21-year-long project has helped Annie break through her doubts. Step by step and photograph by photograph, she now collaborates with her son to build the work together, discussing the important things in life and what they individually want to present in each photograph. “I have explored the creativity of motherhood which enriches my art, I couldn’t have imagined this at the beginning of doing the project,” she finally goes on to say. “I experience the power of time, creativity and photography. However, I do feel sad about the time flying.”

GalleryAnnie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

GalleryAnnie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

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Annie Hsiao-Ching Wang: 汪曉青 Mother as a Creator (Copyright © Annie Wang, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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