#IWD2020 - The power of art to make the invisible visible

If art imitates life then one thing it certainly reflects is the invisibility of women’s work.

In this #MakingWorkVisible blog, Lauren McLaughlin talks about the importance of art in the feminist movement. You can find out more about Lauren at www.laurenmclaughlin.co.uk.

Our society relies on women’s invisible labour, yet artists can play a vital role in making it visible.

As reported by Engender; women still do the majority of invisible and unpaid work including domestic work, caregiving, and voluntary work. When we turn our eye to the arts, work by women is largely invisible there too. In fact, female artists make up just 2% of the art market and although over 60% of MFA students are women, galleries only show 30% women artists. If art imitates life then one thing it certainly reflects is the invisibility of women’s work.

I’m an artist, activist and single mother; some of the most undervalued roles in our society. Despite bearing the brunt of a number of patriarchal systems, I’m inspired and motivated by the power of art and artists to make visible the invisible challenges faced by women.

images of the following artworks: Crystal Ann Brown, Momument I , Installation; laundry and textiles. 2017. Emily Zarse, Milk and Tears, Handmade quilt. 2018. Toni Pepe, Via Lactea, Breastmilk and Cyanotype. 2019. KimyiBo, Kitchen Math, Etching. 2018. Zoe Freney, Gentle Hum, oil on canvas. 2018.

Last week I calculated that I worked just over 65 hours - of which 16 were paid. The remaining 49 working hours of my week included (in no particular order) cooking, housework, budgeting for a funding application, writing an exhibition proposal, researching for that proposal, assembling an Ikea bed with my son, updating websites and answering emails, accounting, food shopping, teaching my son how to make apple crumble, preparing for and attending an interview, creating artwork in my studio, preparing workshop materials and several hours of emotional labour. The emotional labour or ‘mental load’ really added up this week. In a culture of mindfulness, it can feel very difficult to ‘live in the moment’ when you are forced to constantly plan ahead; the next meal, the next event, the next application deadline, the next school trip or child’s birthday, as well as planning for the following week’s schedule and workload. It is a never-ending cycle.

There is so much invisible work that goes into being a mum, and so much invisible and unpaid work that goes into being an artist/activist. On paper, I’m a part-time employee, freelancer and single mum who only works 16 hours per week. Yet like so many women, so much of the important work I do is not defined within those 16 hours. In the process of creating opportunities for women in the arts, maintaining supportive networks, and advocating for gender equity in the industry, this too relies on many hours, months and sometimes years of invisible unpaid labour. Ironic right?The older your children get, the more invisible your mothering becomes. No longer running around after them wiping their snotty noses and picking up their Lego, the days of pleading with them to get to bed at night morph into pleading with them to get out of bed in the morning. Your energies turn from focusing on their physical milestones to their emotional ones. In many ways, they need you more. We are no longer tied by the breast but tied by invisible worry. It’s the invisible, emotional labour that teenagers need the most; your advice, your comfort, your emotional availability and for some reason an endless need for homemade pancakes.

In a society that undervalues women’s work and undermines women’s issues, a government which is forcing women to bear the brunt of austerity and is undervaluing the arts at every level, it can be difficult to maintain hope. How can things ever change? What can we do?

We can begin by valuing ourselves and recognising our work; every invisible moment of it.

The beauty of artists is that they have the unique ability to make the invisible visible. Studies have shown that 90% of the information processed by the brain is visual, and the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text. If you cast your mind back to any major cultural event or news story over the past decade, chances are it’s an image that pops into your head first.

Inspired by the pioneering feminist artists and collectives of the 60’s and 70’s who led the way for new generations of women artists, I founded Spilt Milk with the mission of promoting the work of artists who are mothers and empowering mothers in the community to recognise their value. Artist members of Spilt Milk are creating beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking and empowering works which represent their daily experiences as women and as caregivers. From hand sewn quilts representing the struggles of breastfeeding, abstract paintings inspired by feeding a toddler, installations comprising overloading laundry piles, these artists are imitating life in their art. They are placing value upon that which has been historically undervalued and are creating visual evidence of work which is vastly unseen.

In a culture saturated with visual information, it is vital that women continue to make space for ourselves and for each other. By exhibiting and sharing the work of women artists, it is not only the artists themselves who benefit. I have witnessed mothers cry tears of gratitude standing in front of artworks which finally enable them to feel understood, to be seen and for their experiences to be validated.

Leon Trotsky famously said “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Well, it’s time for women to take hold of the hammer...


This blog was commissioned as part of Engender's #MakingWorkVisible campaign. It does not necessarily reflect the views of Engender, and all language used is the author's own.

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