Ada Pinkston: Searching for Mother Tongues, at SPACES
To be loving we willingly hear each other’s truth and, most important, we affirm the value of truth telling. Lies may make people feel better, but they do not help them to know love.”
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions.
Ada Pinkston’s Searching for Mother Tongues, on view at SPACES through October 30, is a multi-media installation in the Gund Gallery revealing the realities of pregnancy, childbirth, aftercare, and advocacy among Black women. The exhibition didactic reminds us that since 1985, the mortality rate for pregnant women has continued to rise. Given the consistent presence of structural racism, Black women die more frequently during pregnancy, the birth process, and while recovering postnatally. While honest discussions and depictions of pregnancy and birth–with thick vulvas wide-open, blood, slimy water, placenta, and soiled infant (eyes sealed shut, alien like, with yellow ear-waxy-buildup or excess hair on skin) are uncommon in many social circles, Searching for Mother Tongues inserts these normally private stories of trauma and resilience into the contemporary gallery space.
Eight Cleveland-area residents, all of whom are Black women, share their pregnancy and birth stories with Ada Pinkston in exchange for holistic wellness services, which she gives to further honor the storytellers. Their voices, which at times overlap throughout the gallery space, are the soundtrack to a textile and sculptural installation of appropriately monumental proportions
The stories of two of Pinkston’s subjects play amid a sea of blood-red on stretched canvases of varying sizes, swaths of hand-dyed textiles in red-yellow-orange, all evoking the realities of pregnancy and childbirth. The American mythology around pregnancy and childbirth–that its “worth the pain,” that women can or should work during pregnancy and return within weeks of giving birth, undermine real women’s experiences and knowledge about this ultimately creative act. Pregnancy and childbirth are and have always been messy, dangerous states for women; throughout European American colonial histories, the most common cause of death during for women across class and race was pregnancy and childbirth, as infections were common, especially in postpartum.
One interview subject touches on postpartum recovery and learning time that is essential for the wellbeing of parent and child. “Because I was home,” she says, “I could rest and slowly acclimate to my baby. In the case of my first child, breastfeeding went well.” Another of Pinkston’s interviewees explains the confounding ignorance of the medical establishment, and the barriers to discussions between Black pregnant women and their doctors. It took multiple miscarriages before she began to put information about her body together and demand that her doctor provide a solution to help her carry a pregnancy full term. “My cervix was damaged,” she recounts, which led to multiple miscarriages; it was her persistence that got her the simple fix needed for her to carry her eventual child (Andrea) to full term. “After my cervix healed [from a miscarried pregnancy] the doctor reinforced my cervix with a stitch.” This person’s story was one of loss, but also of agency, as she worked with the doctor from the moment she became fertile in order to monitor the harm to the cervix and respond at the appropriate time with the stitch that would hold for the length of the pregnancy. “My daughter Andrea was my first planned pregnancy,” she says with a tone of resilience. This interviewee went through significant suffering, carrying fetuses to the third trimester, losing them because of a damaged cervix; it took a simple stitch to bring Andrea to full term, but the path to finding a solution and cultivating a relationship with a doctor required emotional fortitude. Given what we know statistically about healthcare and Black women, the intersection of sexism and racism are a likely cause of this communication conundrum. One wonders why this woman had to suffer so many miscarriages before such a simple treatment was available.
There is an air of celebration to the installation, too, as the flowing textiles, some in muslin, others in tulle, ebb and flow timelessly, like water, while a human heartbeat fills the space between stories. In sanitizing the birth process, we underestimate pregnancy and birth as tremendous–even superhuman feats, especially for Black women, and this comes across in the size and scope of the installation. Pinkston’s artist statement reminds us that giving birth is an act of creation, and of survival. While the current data indicates birth is a risky endeavor, especially for women of color, mortality rates in the U.S. have gone up overall since 1985, and current data indicates that the inequity reflects a larger problem when it comes to race, gender and healthcare, as many of undiagnosed or unrecognized illnesses may result in death, even after a successful pregnancy..
The video component, Here are the tools. We always had them. Facts outside of Machine Mothers, appears in vintage black and white and features a midwife or doula and pregnant women together during the birth process. The title reminds us that patriarchal-industrial capitalism’s promises of “progress” and “better living through technology” are mythologies for most people. Here are the tools shows the birth process with the caregiver in a supportive role as the woman labors, then pushes her infant into the world. The midwife then becomes teacher, as she cleans and swaddles the newborn for the mother to see, then places the infant at her side for breastfeeding. The room is clean and neat, but not sterile and cold like hospital birthing rooms, and the technicians, nurses, and doctors who shine lights and place cold instruments in and on bodies, not to mention the phlebotomists, who stick the laboring woman and, subsequently the infant, at the most inopportune moments, are not present in this scene. What one witnesses is honest connection between the woman giving birth, and the caregiver; hierarchy is absent, but the midwife/doula bears the wisdom with confidence and love.
While Pinkston’s work is centered on BIPOC people’s experiences, the installation reveals universal, yet nuanced truths about birth and reproduction. While sex, a driving human need for most people, is ubiquitously marketed and fetishized, a goal of heterosexual intercourse is pregnancy, labor, and childbirth, which results in blood, amniotic fluid, and–in the best cases for those choosing parenthood, an infant. The essence of life–the blood, sweat, and tears of this are patently present in Searching For Mother Tongues, through the pigment-soaked hanging textiles, the blood-red canvases, and the interviewees’ voices and stories. The installation is reminiscent of some of the best works of elder female artists of the 1970s and 80s addressing pregnancy, motherhood, and the body–think Judy Chicago, Adrian Piper, Carollee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, and Mary Kelly; it should not be missed. Moreover, it should not be lost on viewers that when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, art making, and activism, we always have, and still do have, the tools.
Ada Pinkston: Searching For Mother Tongues is on view in the Gund Gallery at SPACES through October 30, 2023.
In 2021, national data shows maternal death–the death of a pregnant individual that is not classified as accidental or incidental, “occurred in 1,205 women, up from 861 in 2020 and 754 in 2019. The 2021 rate amounts to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births.
A report by The Wilson Center addresses potential reasons for the increase in the U.S. mortality rate among pregnant people; racial and gender inequities reflect broader social and cultural trends around access to education, nutrition, and regular healthcare. Ultimately, pregnancy and childbirth are taxing bodily processes that require healing, recovery, and family or community support. If you do not have support, if your body is less healthy due to a lack long-term healthcare, you are at a greater risk for complications during and after pregnancy. (See The Wilson Center, “What Explains the United States’ Dismal Maternal Mortality Rates?” https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/what-explains-the-united-states-dismal-maternal-mortality-rates, accessed September 15, 2023).