(Pardon me, if I’m sentimental)
The very last time I saw my granny alive, I knew this would be the very last time I would see my granny alive.
My paternal grandmother died one week after her 90th birthday in August 1998. She was alive for practically all of the 20th century. She lived to see two world wars, the atom bomb, the moon landing, the cold war, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the Internet.
She was of the first generation of girls in Denmark to graduate high school; but already by the time she would start 1st grade, Danish women had acquired the right to vote, and she would exercise that right for her entire adult life.
She mothered five children. When her second was born, about a year after her first, her mother (who had ten kids herself) told her to “take it easy.” Since she was an educated woman, and aware of contraceptive methods available, she did just that.
She never went to church, except for weddings and funerals, and occasionally for Christmas. She taught me not to pray, but to ask, for what I needed.
When I needed an abortion at age 17, without me asking, she intuited I was also in need of moral support, and sent me a box of bitter, dark, chocolate. Way to adult for my taste, I ate them anyway, as a token to me now being an adult, I was not!
The last time I saw her alive was the day after the birthday party, for which our entire family had gathered.
(Three course dinner, wine ad libitum, tobacco ware passed around between meals, and a dance after; this is how we party in my family.)
I wonder what she was thinking at that birthday party, she and everybody else knew would be her last?
Was she thinking about the laws of architecture: The temporary becomes permanent, the permanent becomes temporary, and nature always wins?
Was she thinking about the end of history?
Was she thinking of history as a pile of debris, or was she thinking of history as an angel being blown, backwards, into the future, by the winds of progress?
My granny had felt the winds of progress sweeping through her life. She was of a generation of women, whom rejected the axiom “Kinder, Küche, Kirche”.
This German phrase translates directly to “Children, Kitchen, Church” but its English equivalent would probably be “Barefoot and Pregnant.”
The slogan was appropriated by Third Reich propaganda to catastrophic effect, but its origins remain vague; most often is it attributed to Empress Augusta Victoria. According to the Westminster Gazette, in 1899, her husband – the last German Emperor, Willem II — lectured two visiting suffragettes thus:
“I agree with my wife. And do you know what she says? She says that women have no business interfering with anything outside the four K’s. The four K’s are – Kinder, Küche, Kirche, and Kleider: Children, Kitchen, Church, and Clothing”.
I imagine the visitors, replying in their best conversational German with a ”Bitte!” a versatile little word, which translates to “Please!” Depending on your intonation it can mean anything you need it to mean – in this case an “Oh, please!” or, really: “Thanks, but no thanks!”
The caveat, off course, was that Kaiser Willem didn’t really mean it – he never actually intended to assign women full responsibility for our collective educational, physical, and spiritual wellbeing!
To really hand the “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” over to the authority of women, would namely bring us close to what Anohni (former lead singer of Antony & The Johnsons) calls “Feminine Systems of Governance.”
On the live album Cut the World, she gives a passionate speech, inviting an enthusiastic Copenhagen audience to imagine “Jesus as a girl, Allah as a woman, and Buddha as a mother.”
This interest in the feminization of the deities stems from a growing concern for the wellbeing of our shared planet. As she says:
“I’m worried that the ecology of the world is collapsing and that I won’t have anywhere to be reborn because I actually believe, like, where is any of us going? Where have any of us ever gone? We’ve come back here in some form. […] I’ve been searching and searching for that little bit of my constitution that isn’t of this place and I still haven’t found it. Every atom of me, every element of me seems to resonate, seems to reflect the greater world around me. 
Here, Anohni comes close to describing a relationship with the world, which Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in a note from 1960, calls the “Flesh of the World:”
That means that my body is made of the same flesh as the world […], and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world[…].
Whereas this might perhaps be of mainly philosophical interest to Merleau-Ponty, it has both ethical and spiritual implications for Anohni, who says:
“[…] if I’m not heading off to paradise elsewhere when I die, then I have more of a vested interest in observing a sustainable relationship with this place.”
It should be self-evident that a “sustainable relationship with this place” involves the critical engagement with the challenges presented to us in the Anthropocene era (such as overpopulation, climate change, and energy transition), as Anohni has also elaborated upon in her recent album Hopelessness — which is in fact anything but, instead engaging the listener in a danceable and future-feminist protest.
In my experience, becoming a mother gives you a responsibility for your own little bundle of baby soft flesh of the world. Mothering, in the broader scheme of things, implies a physically vested relationship in the well-being of the world, for this and future generations.
It was this vested relationship –with the world at large, and the art world in particular—which moved me to put forward my ideas about a project called “Mothernism” to my MA VCS thesis committee in the winter of 2012; a project called into existence with the purpose to “locate the mother shaped hole in contemporary art discourse.”
It was also at this first meeting that I boldly stated that: ”it has to be a tent!”
With this, together with the protest-chic banners of my female protagonist Queen Leeba, I wanted to stake out a space within the thesis exhibition, and the art world at large, where we could have a conversation about mothering and its relation to artistic and curatorial practice. A conversation which was otherwise often being shut down within the larger conversations surrounding identity politics of art, queer, and feminist, theory.
Traditionally, artists are a matrophobic bunch, and Mother, still, by and large, a persona non grata in the art world. While her body remains the site of libidinous fantasies of envy, gratitude, ridicule, sublimation and downright abjection, rarely is she invited to speak on her own behalf, or from her own experience. Therefore, from the outset, the idea of the project was to create work, not “about” mothering but a work that worked “something like a mama” and spoke directly to her visitor in a maternal voice.
As such, Mothernism unabashedly advocates the concept and experience of mothering in the greater cultural field, the politics and labor of the labor of love, and their uneasy position within the current feminist and art discourse.
Over the course of the 20th century (my grand mother’s century) women entered the workforce (and the art market), and thus the value system of research and production, associated with this. Simultaneously, devaluation took place of “traditional” female care work –which was deemed “unprofessional.” Decisions regarding child-bearing and rearing, were relegated to the private sphere, its political (and artistic) potential unrealized.
But as long as (Western) feminism skirts around an issue, which in one way or other affects most (if not all) the world’s female population, by cutting it down to a question of “destiny” vs. “choice,” we may have come a long way, baby, but we are not there yet. Or, as Anne-Marie Slaughter recently pointed out in her book Unfinished Business, “You can’t have a halfway revolution!”
Self-proclaimed “anti-capitalist psychonaut sorceress” Johanna Hedva takes it one step further in her “Sick Woman Theory,” where she concludes:
The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honor it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, and interdependent sociality, a politics of care.
Ellis Island—a historical entry point to the United States and the largest capitalist economy in the world—is guarded by the Statue of Liberty. On her foundation is inscribed the famous poem The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus. In this sonnet Lady Liberty is celebrated as: “A mighty woman with a torch, the Mother Of Exiles,” who proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free[.]”
This, the care work of liberation, is the foundation to all out liberties.
All. Our. Liberties.
Perhaps the radical stance for the 21st century would be to claim these liberties, to reevaluate our value systems, and to say “Kinder, Küche, Kirche, Bitte!”
Yes Please! Please hand over the keys to our Educational, Physical and Spiritual wellbeing to our “female systems of governance.”
The Revolution Will Be Mothernized!
This essay was written for the colloquium “Mapping the Maternal: Art, Ethics and the Anthroposcene” at the University of Alberta in Edmonton Canada. The three-day event, organized by Natalie Loveless and Sheena Wilson, opened with the Exhibition “New Maternalisms: Redux” and culminated with a keynote speech by Griselda Pollock –good times!
More pictures from the colloquium can be found in the gallery here:http://newmaternalisms.com/colloquium-gallery/
The blog, written by Christine Pountney, can be found here:
 The American Lady and the Kaiser. The Empress’s four K’s, in: Westminster Gazette, 17. 8. 1899, S. 6.
The fourth K, being clothing, was later left out as the idiom became popularized, by, amongst others, 3 Reich propaganda.
The idea that the Kaiser didn’t really mean it — that he never really intended to hand over the governing of our collective educational, physical, and spiritual wellbeing to women — was already entertained by Karen Blixen, more than half a century ago, in “En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse” (Transl: A Bonfire speech with 14 Years Delay) from 1952. Blixen, however, uses the argument to maintain that the feminist movement has failed by not acknowledging the “natural” (and in my ears essentialist) difference between men and women, whereas I with this text would like to make the opposite argument.
A recording of Blixen’s talk (in Danish) can be found here:
 “Future Feminism” Antony & The Johnsons: Cut the World (Rough Trade, 2012)
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 248-250
 “Future Feminism” Antony & The Johnsons: Cut the World (Rough Trade, 2012)
 Anne-Marie Slaughter Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family (New York: Random House 2015).
 Johanna Hedva: “Sick Woman Theory,” Mask:The Not Again Issue