Louise Bourgeois, The Birth, 2007, Gouache on paper, 23 1/2 × 18 inches
The word birth suggests a physical act, a material process, whereas creation engages the notion of manifesting something into the world without it necessarily connoting physicality. These distinctions harken back to age-old differences between the sexes, in which the disembodied mind was seen as male and the physical body as female, a viewpoint that has provided a cultural basis for an ongoing distinction between male virtue and female physicality.
The Birth by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), which depicts the emergence of a fleshy creature from a woman’s body, is solidly on the physical side of this continuum. The tension between the bodies of mother and child builds up until the moment of physical separation with the delivery of a new entity in the world. Bourgeois depicts that moment using transparent skins of juicy crimson to describe her mother and child.
The elemental, exaggerated round forms in The Birth resemble goddess sculptures from the ancient world, most famously the Venus of Willendorf, created long before recorded history. Bourgeois’ painting is a celebration of birth as an essential act, but its composition and palette signify the pressure and pain present in the act of giving birth, identifying the subject as a flesh-and-blood woman and goddess simultaneously.
Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., Limestone, 11.1 cm high
Contrary to the physicality of birth, creation is generally seen as a clean, non-material phenomenon detached from the body and connected to the power of the mind. The contrast between the stereotypically feminine and masculine qualities in birth and creation, respectively, have been seen and expressed in a variety of ways over the course of art history. The question becomes: if birth looks like a Bourgeois painting and a birther looks like a fertility goddess figure, what does disembodied creation look like?
An example could be Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam (c.1512) in the Sistine Chapel. Its composition and masterful technique center around the two masculine figures of God and Adam in the moment of creation. Absent from this painting is any evidence of female birth; the bodily fertility of the goddess has been replaced by an invisible divine spark.
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam (from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome), c. 1508-1512, Fresco
Inspired by the tension between these dual notions of birth and creation, I used an image of the near-touching hands of God breathing life into Adam in one of my own drawings. My work Becoming is aesthetically connected to art of the past. Through using these hands to point to the womb I present a reversal of Adam’s bloodless creation as an idealized representation of the birth of man. This drawing points out the power of women’s bodies to give birth to humankind while, in reality, a woman is limited in the control she has over her own body, from the way the very shape of it is culturally received to her ability to choose whether or not to have a child.
As a woman, consciously or unconsciously, part of my work will always be influenced by my gender and the feelings I experience within a gendered body. Through my drawings and body castings, I’m examining how social norms are imposed on women’s bodies and what it feels like to be insecure in your own skin.
Procreation fulfills one of the strongest human desires: to survive for eternity, in one form or another. Either through the physical act of giving birth to another being or the process of creating an idea conceptually, we all answer this call in different ways, and with varying degrees of success. From the ancient sculptor of the goddess, to Michelangelo creating Adam, and Bourgeois depicting physical birth, as humans we can’t help but be fascinated by the prospect of emerging from nothingness and potentially living beyond our physical lifetimes. And while this desire transcends gender lines, as Wangechi Mutu says: “females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”
Azita Moradkhani, Becoming, 2016, Colored pencils, 16 x 20 inches
Azita Moradkhani was born in Tehran, Iran. She received her BFA from Tehran University of Art (2009), and both her MA in Art Education (2013) and MFA (2015) from Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts & Tufts University.