A Little Bit of History
The iconography of motherhood has been probably one of the most frequented topics in the history of art. From the early Paleolithic statuettes known as "Venus", to the last chapters of the contemporary creation. Breastfeeding, likewise, has had a significant presence in many art forms from different eras and cultural contexts, not only in the West, but also in the pre-Columbian, African and Asian art. There are, for example, various statues of the goddess Isis enthroned whilst nursing Horus inside the Egyptian art in the late period and earliest representations of Coptic art, as in the Phoenician art, the mother goddess Astarte, an assimilation of the Sumerian Inanna or Mesopotamian Ishtar. All these are proof of the worship to Great Goddess identified as the Mother Earth (Gaia), the supreme deity of fertility, widespread among mediterranean cultures. Similarly, in Greek art there are images of the goddess Hera breastfeeding Heracles, which starts the Milky Way myth, or the also called Kourotrophos (the one who nourishes the child), similar to the Roman Magna Mater.
The first representations of early Christian art, since the fresco of the Madonna nursing the Child of the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome (one of the first models of Marian iconography) will homologize the image of the Virgin with the mother-goddesses of antiquity. The breastfeeding virgin, nicknamed Nursing Madonna or Madonna Lactans, develops especially in the late Middle Ages and during the Renaissance period, well enthroned with the child in her lap, resting during the escape to Egypt or next to some adult saint as occurs in the mystical lactation of San Bernardo. Byzantine art will cultivate even a specific typology called Galactotrofusa, characteristic of the Orthodox iconography. With the Council of Trent such representations will be drastically reduced being considered unchaste; limitations that unfortunately have persisted over time (e.g. in Victorian times, mothers covered their faces with a cloth to be photographed next to their offspring and today censorship remains a constant in social networks). However, the representations of the Nursing Madonna, mother the of Christian art have dominated the iconography of breastfeeding in history of art, except curious exceptions, like Magdalena Ventura in The Bearded Woman by José de Ribera in 1631 until well into the nineteenth century, where they start spreading the maternities, restricting women to the private sphere, matter that will be taken up again and again by the biggest names in art history.
All these works, signed mostly by men, will impose an ideal of motherhood, made from the male perspective and under the perspective of patriarchy. It is a mother, almost always from a male, presented as a symbol of purity and model of virtue, like a Madonna: immaculate, selfless, flawless, agreeable, suffered, omnipresent. This cultural construction will promote a model of subjectivity and a specific behavior that has had a deep impact in the collective unconscious, spreading the idea that all women possess the same maternal instinct, as if we were not able to make our own decisions and only reach our self-realization the time we become mothers. The result is a preset and prefabricated maternity that responds to an ideology of objectification towards women, full of pressures and impositions that provide a whole repertoire of rules that dictate how to be a good mother, completely ignoring their needs and wellbeing.
With the turn of the century XIX to XX, women started to picture themselves, getting free from some of the stereotypes or imposed roles, and showing maternity and breastfeeding from other point of view, especially after the second wave of the feminist movement. From Mary Cassatt, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Kathe Kollwitz, Tamara de Lempicka, Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stanton, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Tina Modotti or Lola Álvarez Bravo, to some of the artists from the Womanhouse, Mary Kelly, Annette Messager, Sally Mann, Vanessa Beecroft, Catherine Opie, Rineke Dijkstra, Renee Cox, Ana Casas Broda, Nicola Constantino or Ana Álvarez-Errecalde –and these are only some names-, there are significant examples of artists that reflect the experience of being mothers under new parameters really distant from the Christian model imposed in the West.
With this precedents we get to Isa Sanz’s project “Alma Máter”, formed by a series of photographs of women breastfeeding his daughters or sons. A foreground of a breast with mother’s milk being poured over a hand –a symbol of transference that embodies life’s energy and, probably, a meeting ground with her previous work about another fluid that connects the natural cycles: the menstrual blodd (“Sangro pero no muero”)- serves as a prologue to the project.
Every photograph is signed with the mother’s and the daughter’s/son’s name, so it is not about anonymous women, but we are facing people with diverse identities pictured in the moment where the form a unique body with their offspring and, somehow, the form the very same symbolic unity. Isa Sanz makes visible the mother-child relationship to inquire precisely about what is not visible. The act of breastfeeding brings us back to the original point of our existence and to the beginning of our journey towards independence; an instant of communication marked by deep contact, so transcendental and complex that inaugurates a process of transition, growth and identity construction for the mother and the child, which is new for both.
The same scene is repeated in every picture. Only the protagonists, the position of their bodies and the location changes. Mothers share and make visible the intimate moment that constitutes the experience of breastfeeding in a public space, except that here, the place that served as a context to the religious representations in old times (called the Milk Grotto where the Madonna breastfed her child during the escape to Egypt, staining the rocks with her white "miraculous" liquid), is now a forest, a cloister, the beach, a school, a street in the middle of the city or their own home; more or less everyday environments to which it gives new meanings and functions.
Mothers pose proud and firm, well settled in the space, with slight venture. Everything is taken care of, but the final image turns out spontaneous and natural. The complicity between mother and child is also projected between each of these women and the photographer in an exercise of mutual trust. Isa Sanz sets the camera lens in the eyes of the protagonists, and by doing so looking directly to our own, causing confluence, opening a dialogue and narrowing emotional distance. While representations of the past only allowed us to access the private space as mere voyeurs, these pictures foster a shared experience whose axis is the direct gaze.
"Alma Mater" places us in front of brave women who overcome the fear, doubt and uncertainty that entails raising and caring for a person in the early stages of their life, everyday. However, their glance, like the position of their bodies, transmit sensations of wellbeing, harmony, serenity and above all, empowerment, as they are affirmed as mothers but also as people. The decision to breastfeed has surely been obeyed by very different motivations, and it is not merely a cultural imposition or a burst of instinct. These women seem to assume their maternal role as a conscious experience exerted from freedom; they have decided to get involved in the affective and active care through breastfeeding, knowing that it can be deeply painful and that parenting is not easy in a system like ours, which penalizes motherhood. Women who choose to be mothers are forced to face many difficulties if not real balancing acts to conciliate personal, family and professional obstacles in their lives, cities full of obstacles, and a repertoire of pressures and requirements responding to economic, political and ideological interests, ignoring that motherhood is a value that enriches the whole of society and makes up the world as we know it. It is worth remembering that what is personal, as warned by Kathe Millet in her time, is also political and therefore, concerns us all, regardless of the gender we have been assigned. Feeding with the body itself is primarily a token of love that requires a lot of courage, responsibility and dedication that often exceeds the limits of what we imagine. Making visible this invisible work, as Isa Sanz proposes in this project, is enhancing and dignifying the most generous act that a human being can have towards another one.
(translation Adrian Mantecón)