Motherbox on creating a home for multidimensional practice of many shapes and sizes
“The mother mind does not think in a linear way […]. The mother mind thinks sideways, upwards and downwards. We must awaken the mother mind within us.”
– Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa
This concept of a circular and lateral, instinctual and intellectual “mother mind” state of being as articulated by the late renowned isiZulu sangoma (traditional healer), mystic and author provides the inspiration for Mother Mind, a Breathing Space supported project by the artist-led group Motherbox.
This multi-faceted project of interconnected activities revolve and intersect around different forms of mothering – as metaphor for nurturing open artistic processes, and in the very real lived-experiences of artist mothers.
For Motherbox, the “in between” is a permanent point of interest, and which holds particular relevance in current times. Against the overarching backdrop of global uncertainty, the Mother Mind project creates space for temporary methodologies and process-led collaborations with no fixed outcome. It foregrounds the “work” that (might) result in the “art work”.
In this interview, Motherbox (Lindiwe Matshikiza, Mmakgosi Kgabi and João Orecchia) speak about their circular, multidirectional approach to thinking and organising, and the artist pairs involved in the Mother Mind project share thoughts and experiences from their process.
In describing the way that Motherbox works you’ve used the analogy of connective tissue in the body. Can you tell us more about this and how it might relate to notions of community and collaboration?
We were thinking about the connective work that we do, work that often appears to be incidental but has actually proven to be quite substantial: Connecting people to other people, joining up networks, connecting ideas to spaces that could hold them – performing the role of intermediaries and facilitators between the people inside the various processes and trying to help relationships function as well as possible. With our family-style, embodied approach it feels natural that we fell on the analogy of connective tissue, in the way that it takes different forms, has a supportive and protective function, and is in-between other tissues and systems in the body. It’s a useful idea to us right now when seeing our multifaceted roles within various communities, what we all come with and how we individually and collectively contribute towards the health and growth of those relationships.
In what ways does the Mother Mind project reflect broader themes and areas of focus for Motherbox generally?
With Mother Mind we’re experimenting with an expanded version of how we work, and trying to articulate and establish some organisational practices and goals. The projects are connected by some key things we’re interested in: Artists in the process of discovery together; the various kinds of value that become revealed through collaborative work; processes and outputs being led by relationships and the complex drives of the artists, and not necessarily determined by industry trends. In terms of what the artists are exploring, the projects are, in different ways, exploring the construction and myth of identity; they are involved in the excavation of memory, and they are creating thoughtful practice around some of these ideas. We can relate to all of these ideas, as an organisational body and the three practising artists that it consists of.
Having previously worked with some of these themes and areas of interest through one project at a time, Mother Mind has opened up the possibility of having several projects happening at once, which inevitably means our thinking about all of them overlaps, but also that we start to see how they might all be making some kind of harmony together. This has been interesting to us as it presents a vision of Motherbox has a home for multidimensional practice of many shapes and sizes.
The artist pair projects within the context of Mother Mind are all long-term projects exploring loose frameworks for exchange. How might these open-ended and horizontal ways of connecting and exchanging resonate with the uncertainty of the current times?
For us, they represent the work of artists as being constant. Because the ‘work’ is often only considered to be what’s visible at the end of a process, there’s a tendency to focus on that and be preoccupied with how to market, shape and maintain what a career looks like. In this moment where employment, exhibition, performance, public opportunities to show work… have been so drastically affected, it has brought the question of process right forward: Without ‘work’ what is ‘the work’? Could it also be useful to consider process as the main work, and to understand that, in that sense, artists are engaged in this all the time. It has been such a pleasure to be able to drop into the lives of these artists and say, ‘How can we support what you’re already doing, wherever it’s going?’. That attitude and approach has been really well received across the board, because with so many pressures on all sides it’s a huge relief to continue artistic exploration (relatively) calmly, without having to be defensive or reinvent, and with even a small degree of financial and imaginative support. And, of course, what’s going on around each of the pairs inevitably gets processed into the exchanges – grief, loss, change, turmoil – so it also becomes a document of the times.
Allowing a process to unfold organically requires trust and openness. Please tell us more about why these are important characteristics and what you have gained from working in this way.
Our projects rely on trust, whether between ourselves as co-founders or within any of the relationships with people we work with. It’s intuitive work, and we practice this and make space for it. The more we know each other and get a feeling of real satisfaction from the relationships, the more we trust each other’s decisions and recommendations. It has the effect of challenging us each to develop more and further artistically, because of the mutual belief and validation. There’s a lot of mistrust within the arts industries because some of the ‘established’ methods have proven to be exploitative or deliberately exclusionary. For those structures to maintain themselves, they typically have to maintain power in the relationships, and when you’re on the other end of that – not knowing when/if a question you have will be resolved, how to proceed, or why something feels uncomfortable – it can range from frustrating to deeply traumatic. We are inspired by processes that support people ‘showing up as they are’, being able to talk openly about what’s going on, and, contrary to what certain systems train us to think, it has a really positive effect on how work gets made and creates less of a separation between our ‘artist’ selves and our ‘other’ selves, for example. The openness and trust lead to honesty which in turn leads to authentic expression, which is very powerful and generative in all kinds of ways, often surprising. Then there is the trusting of the process itself, which is created by all the people in it, which is really just a more local version of trusting the process of life. It’s an act of faith, that with the right people, the true things will emerge, and in the most meaningful ways.
Have you experienced any insightful challenges or learnings through your work as Motherbox?
We’d like to see our organisational capacity grow so that, as artists, we can also have enough space to work on the creative elements. It’s a fine line to walk, because we also want to see our work contributing to a better culture around work and a better functioning system of support for the arts in general, but it can also be very consuming to be focussed on that, so we’re constantly looking for a balance between the intimate/inner/immediate and the distant/outer/long-term, and considering bigger teams, with the roles broken down more. We’re reliant on our ability to adapt with an unpredictable landscape but the danger is that we remain in that mode until we’re too tired to do it anymore. With this Breathing Space grant in particular, we approached it with a lot more urgency and clarity around the value of process and how we could grow our organisational presence simultaneously. Until now, we haven’t focused so much on a social media presence, for example, and we can see that this is where many people interact with projects immediately and regularly. But this is also a whole job, and we have to set up a method for this as well, to make it manageable. Where we have previously relied on promoting projects as individuals and in more targeted ways, the need to maintain in-between audiences on social platforms right now has been challenging. Which is somewhat ironic considering everything we’ve said about in-between spaces and process work! But somehow, framing process in an ongoing, sustainable way for social media has been tricky, perhaps because we as individuals aren’t so focused on this ourselves; perhaps because we are trying to find expression that serves the projects best in that problematic space and it eludes us.
Another thing that we are coming to terms with – and that has actually been quite useful to counteracting ways of working that are quite deeply ingrained – is that the pace of non-hierarchical work is slow. Especially now, when all the people involved need a lot more time and space than previously to make decisions, consider propositions, wade through various anxieties and pull out something that makes sense. The slowness doesn’t mean any less commitment, it just means a more trusting and thoughtful holding of the process. The holding is also part of the work.
What are some of the formats you have considered or explored to make visible process-oriented projects for a public or specific audience?
For A *C of Voices we’re looking at a kind of membership network where those that have contributed interviews can meet and exchange with each other within a specific platform and even possibly work with the archive in more public iterations, as invited or consented to by the various participants. That’s one way we’ve been considering how to hold the intimacy and vulnerability of the research but also keep it growing as a community and give it some public sides as well.
With the collaboration between Mthabisi and Lindiwe, we are putting it out as an Instagram account that shows some of their process writings but mainly invites anyone interested in writing as a process to join in the activity, with an option to submit entries to the account or just keep it for their own practice.
Then the two publications we are working on – the correspondence writing between Urmila Abrahamse and H. Magumura, and the research on Artist Mothers in Africa – will be small, light, holdable documents that can be easily passed around (think: Chimurenganyana), carried or received by people who are interested. Both publications are an attempt to show a moment in a much longer process, the moment memorialised in print but also rendered temporary in its style and content.
For Mother Mind project participants: What has been your experience collaborating on this exchange project during this time of social distance?
“This has been a rare opportunity to reflect on my artistic career from the perspective of motherhood. I didn’t realize until I’d had the conversation with Lindiwe to what extent I had compartmentalized the two things to the outside world, when in fact all my work is intrinsically linked to being a mother. I started my journey as an artist as a way to connect to my son through stories and we have evolved in that journey together. For example, as he’s gotten older, the age of my target audience has grown with him. He is often the first outside ‘eyes and ears’ of my work, as well as the reluctant volunteer at my events and my number one cheerleader.”
– Maimouna Jallow (Nairobi-based theatre-maker, storyteller & mother)
“It has been incredibly encouraging to have a space from and for mothers to reach out to me in ways that attempt to shape a larger and safer space for those of us who are artists. I appreciate the gentle entry through conversation that Lindi made room for. It felt like our personal stories – the very thing that is often silenced or shut down – were heard, unpacked and noticed first. From this ideas began to grow. Meeting with the other women involved has been nothing short of an education, which is a reminder that there are so many different kinds of motherings going on, despite the common factors that we all share (we are artists). I am encouraged by hearing the various expressions coming from these mothers and seeing them all begin to shape into something that aims to make space for and amass behind all (hopefully) the other mothers who are artists who’s realities are all too often pushed off the periphery.”
– Meghan Judge (Johannesburg-based artist/mother)
“Considering that we started the project being together physically, I’m surprised that we have managed to maintain the sanctity that the method creates. This project is cocooned by the safe space that Lindi and I created with each other and the other participants. This is the foundation and strength of the project. I somehow believe that it continues to work from a distance because of that foundation. The method ‘deprives’ you of one of your senses to heighten the others. I think the distance adds another layer of deprivation that heightens my sense of re-imagining and re-membering the magic of being in the same room. The method itself bridges the distance, it transports you to a place inside yourself that defies time and distance.”
– Tracy September (A *C of Voices)
“Reprieve. Vulnerability. Care. Support. Possibility. Alternatives. What if. Overwhelmed. Mind. Body. Abandon. Submerging. Emerging. No control. It’s okay. Disruption. Interrupted. Space. Anxieties. Where am I? how?
We’d free-write in response to the same prompts and, though the forms of resulting texts varied, there existed a proximal intimacy between their content. The manner in which said responses would often flow in and out of each other nursed an almost obsessive preoccupation with seeing the sharing of stories as building a capacity for communal living.
This initially overwhelmed me with questions to which I could only respond by further abandoning myself to the exchanges without making a conceptual quandary of what we had going. I was also blindsided considerations about the process of writing and relationships between readers, writers and texts which I hadn’t given serious thought to previously. While those considerations were noted and have stayed with me to explore in other ways; how Lindiwe and I have been making and exchanging texts is a space I realised as being uninhabitable for the aggressive ‘labour’ those considerations appear to demand. These exchanges are a space to protect. What became important was that there was someone who, despite our varied timelines and distances that may exist between our day-to-day, I could still live and ‘make’ without ‘making’ alongside.
A huge part of what has made it something to embrace and continue with is that we’ve taken care to impose no stringent expectations of each other in the unfolding of the collaboration. It has never set out to resolve or answer anything. Notions of “quality” in respect to the texts are absent. We respond to our prompts when we respond. We don’t sit around and criticise each other’s responses though we might, in person, reflect on them. Receiving a response always feels like it is Lindiwe reminding me, “hi, I’m still here”; affirming a shared humanity of out of a great silence. It’s being in community, it’s the gift of vulnerability, encouragement and fortitude among myriads of unuttered gifts.”
– Mthabisi Sithole
“The process between Mthabisi and I came out of a physical meeting and spontaneous, shared act of cutting up our more-or-less improvised texts and sticking the pieces back together intuitively, to form unified pieces. Early in this version of the process we imagined we might find a way to do something similar but then, through distance, found something more honest to where we were and how we were dealing with the times. When we did eventually get together, we felt reluctant to cut up the pieces, as though it felt like a gimmick from a different era or that it might dilute what was coming out, namely, uninhibited, raw and surreal poetry. We reflected instead on what the process has meant to us artistically and personally. I think it’s a very positive sign of a project/process when it can keep revealing its relevance to you over time, adapting with what’s needed, and ultimately feeding everything that makes up ‘practice’ because its roots are actually embedded in the source.”
– Lindiwe Matshikiza
“In this time where proximity is the biggest question for all of us and while so many doors have closed and while the familiar feels further away than I ever thought possible, having this exchange has been a lifeline. My work is richer for the safety and care of the space we have carefully created. That is also allowed to wax and wane and shift to meet the demands of our regular (lived) lives makes it feel organic and wholesome… a place to return to… like another kind of home.”
“Well, distance is not new to me, but receiving income for my scribbles is. I appreciated that and did not expect it. I hope I can have several copies, just to hold.”
– Urmila Abrahamse