M(other) Icon

M(other) Icon

When asked what he considered was the greatest act of heroism he knew, Mahatma Gandhi replied that it the one performed by the mother who woke up in the middle of the night to find that her baby had wet the mattress they were sharing, and who exchanged places to ensure that the baby slept in the dry for the rest of the night. The heroism wasn’t so much in the act but in the fact that the mother had forgotten it entirely the next morning.  Gandhi’s point was that true acts of heroism are threads of common productive actions that weave themselves into the fabric of existence.  Such heroism of everyday life go unnoticed and uncelebrated, but without them the world would grind to a halt.

Motherhood is an inexhaustible source of heroism and of metaphor for the nurturing world upon which we depend. However, we have enshrined motherhood in iconic certainties that have all but fossilized it. The iconicity of motherhood has been and remains a property of patriarchy in many cultures, and it underlies the way masculinity and femininity are defined respectively. Sons and daughters, husbands and lovers think and feel differently of motherhood. However, perhaps no other subject highlights the incompleteness of manhood and of masculinity. Motherhood is living proof, if ever needed, that human life is inexorably enmeshed in polarity, and motherhood is the superior polarity always. The great song of motherhood is rendered differently by each woman. Indeed there are as many forms of motherhood as there are women. It is therefore a treat to explore the work of a pregnant artist on the subject of motherhood, the negotiated motherhood of a working woman.

Motherhood remains an immovable icon in the minds of many, however, it is also part of a personal narrative, and as such is endowed with an outer social reality and an inner individualized truth. Helen Sergeant assures us that the inner individualised truth is greater than the mesh of inherited perceptual constructs of motherhood.  The institutionalisation of motherhood has brought to expectant women salutary levels of care and fellowship, at least in sufficiently comfortable economies. This however does sometime raise the question of the woman’s participation in her own pregnancy, beyond the reassurance of a comfortable term of pregnancy and culminating delivery. For pregnancy is also part of culture, albeit a submerged, if not culturally repressed dimension of mutualism.  This culture manifests outwardly as the anxieties and elations of pregnancy and the many shades of emotions in between, and are mostly confined to the recesses of private thoughts and discussions with close confidantes.

But this culture is rooted essentially in the phenomenal power of co-creation with nature, and one that is gifted to women only. It is a power that embodies but also redefines sexuality, that polarises and transmutes psychic energy, that enacts the fundamental tenets of alchemy.  It also articulates our deepest hopes of survival and makes endurable the inexorable cycle of life and death in which all existence is caught.  It relates every human being to the eternal mystery and grandeur of existence, and teaches us perhaps the most salutary of all civilising lessons, and that is acceptance of the diversity and loveliness of all life forms despite the heavy investment of expectation during the ninth month of gestation, and before.

The drawing implement in Helen Sargeant’s hand is wired directly to her felt sense of being and the alchemical change within, and for which she acts as a crucible. Her Baby remains protectively camouflaged within her torso, echoing the exhibition theme M [other], where the bracketed “other” alludes to the promises of a new and vulnerable presence gestating within, a combined identity in which the mother’s actions, movement and thought are invested. She schematises her felt sense of pregnancy, borrowing from charts, grids and other visual artifices for recording the transmutation within.  She is thus able to conjugate the intensely lived experience of waiting with the inexorable measurement of a time-frame she shares with the caring agencies in her world.

In her drawings, the space of pregnancy overflows the confines of the body; expectations are transmuted into feelings, and are located in parts of the body that are connected by tubular structures, the curved flights of single arrows and what appears as knotted ropes or rosary beads.  It is perhaps an echo of the intelligence of life as it is instinctually felt rather than reasoned and rationalised.  And therefore more authentic.  In the way Chinese artists use ink as a symbol of the creative potential of the Tao, or primordial essence, Helen Sargeant uses ink to represent the bodily fluids essential to the alchemy of life. The ink and the forms it engenders form part of the same organic nature.

Like all institutionalised aspect of existence, pregnancy has been rationalised and affords anyone curious enough heaps of knowledge on the subject.  After all, we are in the throes of a knowledge revolution, courtesy of information technology.  However, evidence suggests that knowledge has been in a state of agitation, if not revolution, always.  The revolutionary element today lies in the ready availability of a knowledge so dauntingly voluminous that it has become disconnected from knowing.  In a few short years an iPod, currently under preparation, would place the equivalent of 20 thousand books in the top pocket of anyone who can afford it.  But if the technologies of learning have taught us anything over the centuries, it is that knowledge must permeate feelings to become humanised, and for its assimilation to be complete.  To read with the intelligence of feelings is true learning, and leads to intellectual fulfilment and authentic knowing. It is the kind of reading that the drawings of Helen Sargeant demands of us.

Our first awareness of Meaning was probably the amniotic fluid in which we all swam.  That is perhaps why infants take to the world of meaning like fishes to water, for they each have their own unique way of, and need for understanding.  It is for them that black ink bleeds softly into white paper to create worlds of meaning, meaning that cannot be owned, but that needs to resonate with our own need for understanding.

Dr Jacques Rangasamy is a Senior Lecturer for the BA Visual Arts Programme, member of  The Fine Art and Critical Theory Research Centre and Equality and Diversity Coordinator working within  The School of Art and Design at The University of Salford.  He is also the chairman of Shisha. Shisha is the international agency for contemporary South Asian crafts and visual arts.

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