How Women Artists Are Shaping the Way We See Motherhood

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
May 5, 2021 9:27PM
Deana Lawson
Mama Goma, Gemena, DR Congo, 2014
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Motherhood has been reflected in the art for centuries. The Virgin Mary archetype, which historically took the form of Madonna and Child, was the focus of iconic pieces by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Duccio. Other greats of Western art history, including Rembrandt van Rijn and Salvador Dalí, used their own mothers as muses for some of their works. Though some notable women artists were shaping this narrative, too—such as Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun and Mary Cassatt, who are known for their depictions of mothers and children, and Leonora Carrington, who dared to touch upon then-taboo subjects of pregnancy and fertility—the vast majority of Western art history’s early representations of mothers were heavily influenced by the male perspective. As a result, images of motherhood were often one-sided, reflecting expectations rather than realities, and disregarding the complexities of what it means to be a mother.

Over time, with the growing presence, recognition, and support for women in the arts, authentic and diverse representations of motherhoodincluding depictions of pregnancy, birth, mothers with their children, and family portraitshave become exponentially more expansive.


Twentieth-century artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Louise Bourgeois, and Alice Neel were unafraid to demonstrate that motherhood is far from being one-dimensional. Instead, they turned to this theme as a vast well of inspiration. Questioning the limited depictions of motherhood in the art historical canon and honoring the complexities of this theme in art wouldn’t be possible without their courageous work, as well as that of leading artists working today, like Judy Chicago, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems. Contemporary artists continue to go out of their way to create powerful—often autobiographical—works in which motherhood is far from being a monolith.

Bourgeois is known for frequently making work centered on maternity. Her drawings, paintings, and sculptures of spiders—one of her most lauded motifs—are known as odes to her own mother’s maternal affection. Many of the titles of these works, including Maman (1999) and Ode à Ma Mère (1995), directly referenced her mother. In numerous artworks, the French-American artist also retraced the experience of childbirth, and she publicly spoke out about the feelings of inadequacy she experienced as a mother: “There I was…a wife and mother, and I was afraid of my family…afraid not to measure up,” Bourgeois once said.

Neel’s boundary-breaking works—many of which are currently on view in a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—directly parodied and critiqued the Madonna and Child trope. In contrast, Neel focused on depicting the joy, ambivalence, and fear of motherhood.

The trail blazed by women artists of past generations has given way to innovative contemporary works, like Miami-based artist Najja Moon’s new piece Your Mommas Voice in the Back of Your Head (2021). A product of The Bass’s “New Monuments” commission, on view at the Miami museum until January 23, 2022, this abstract sound sculpture is devoted to the profoundly personal yet widespread bond between mothers and their children. “Your mother is a monument,” Moon has written about the piece. “A constant reminder. A well of advice. An angel on your shoulder with a lot of attitude.”

Acknowledging the influence and symbolic power of monuments, Moon wanted to use her work to create a communal understanding of motherhood. Thus, she compiled the audio featured in the piece by interviewing close to 50 Miami-Dade locals who shared intimate details about their relationships with their mothers. Fragments of these stories were then recorded for the sculpture by Moon’s mother, as well as other family members and friends.

A sound bath of scolds, mantras, and colloquialisms in English, Spanish, and Creole emanate from the striking sculpture, which is made out of gradient dichroic glass. Moon chose for voice to play a prominent role in the piece, inspired by her own mother and how we tend to become our mothers through the language we use. “One of the things I enjoyed in the process was finding crossover in the phrases and realizing that maybe we say things in different ways, but we’re saying the same thing,” Moon explained. “I think sound helps deliver this idea of a universal part of the relationship.”

Despite the numerous women who have demonstrated that it’s possible to be a successful artist and mother at the same time, the entrenched fear that motherhood could be a hindrance to artists continues to be prevalent.

London-based artist Laxmi Hussain has turned this perceived limitation on its head. A mother of three herself, Hussain is convinced she wouldn’t be an artist were it not for motherhood: “Nothing I’ve ever come across is as challenging as being a parent, so there is nothing else that I need to be afraid of doing,” she said.

Laxmi Hussein, installation view of works in artist’s studio. Courtesy of the artist.

Laxmi Hussein, installation view of works in artist’s studio. Courtesy of the artist.

Hussain’s minimalist blue drawings and watercolors depicting raw representations of the female body came to life after she became a mother. From a young age, her firstborn child inspired her with his great interest in drawing. She sees her children as artists in their own right who, far from limiting her work, deepen her devotion for it. “It’s very difficult to find other people that want to do the exact same thing that you’re happy to do for hours on end,” she said, “and my kids do.”

Hussain’s own experience with pregnancy and postpartum has informed the figures she creates, joining a line of women artists who have questioned hollow representations of pregnant and birthing bodies in art.

Many artists have taken this premise one step further by portraying unabridged birth scenes from a female perspective, including Judy Chicago’s “Birth Project” series (1980–85), which depicts painful and mythical aspects of the birth process. More recently, Clarity Haynes created Birth Altar (2020–21), a life-size shrinecurrently on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum—that emphasizes the bravery and resilience that images of birth convey. Photography has been a particularly powerful medium for truthfully reflecting the vicissitudes of this subject, with artists such as Carmen Winant featuring 2,000 raw images of women in the midst of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum in her striking installation My Birth (2018).

“Motherhood is such a varied experience,” Hussain said, “and I think we just don’t talk about it enough.” That varied experience is becoming more known—and discussed—thanks to the honest, fearless work of groundbreaking contemporary artists.

Salomé Gómez-Upegui