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Designing Motherhood

MAAM exhibit explores birth from all angles

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Designing Motherhood
Alison Croney Moses. “My Belly,” 2021. Part of the series My Black Body. Cedar wood, milk paint. Commissioned for the Designing Motherhood exhibition by the Maternity Care Coalition Advisors. Courtesy the artist. PHOTO: STEPHEN TOURLENTES

One of the most intimate experiences and relations in life, motherhood, is the focus of a new exhibition at the MassArt Art Museum (MAAM). “Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births,” running through Dec. 18, explores the history of human reproduction, its relationship with design, and the societal, physical and emotional implications for the people who bear children.

“We started the ‘Designing Motherhood’ project in 2017 to confront the large gap around this topic in the collections and classrooms where we work, as well as in culture more broadly,” says the curatorial team in a statement. “Motherhood is not just a ‘women’s issue.’ This exhibition is for everyone because we’re all born and thus all shaped by these things that ‘make and break our births.’”


Design affects every stage of the birthing experience, from menstrual cups and birth control to maternity wear and breast pumps. Sometimes these tools are designed with the convenience and ease of the mother in mind, and sometimes with societal expectations of the mother in mind.

Boston-based artist Alison Croney Moses illustrates motherhood through a beautifully carved cedar wood pregnant belly titled “My Belly.” Upon close inspection, viewers can spot lines, intentional cracks in the wood, radiating from the belly button. The piece is made from a strong material, but the cracks exemplify the strains of motherhood and pregnancy.

“Pregnancy and motherhood are life-changing and full of contradictory experiences of pain and pleasure, heartache and love, fear and hope and sadness and joy,” says Croney Moses in a statement. “For Black mothers, this transformation occurs while living through systemic racism and personal implicit bias all made worse during the current health crisis.”

“Designing Motherhood” has only become painfully more relevant as decisions develop around Roe v. Wade. In one section of the installation, IUDs and intracervical devices spanning the 1930s to the 1980s are displayed. They make aesthetically fascinating sculptures and chilling reminders of the precarious state of female medical care.

Joan E. Biren. “Denyta with Her Daughter Darquita.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Though there are challenging topics tackled in the exhibit, there are many moments of joy as well. In Joan E. Biren’s photograph “Denyta with Her Daughter Darquita,” a mother and her daughter beam with happiness, leaning in for kiss, a spoonful of food suspended in the mother’s hand.

The exhibition poses the question, where is the balance between the tolls of reproduction and the joys? When does design benefit that balance and when does it detract from it?

“Our physical survival of the birthing process, and living, is what we are tasked with as humans,” says Croney Moses. “The ability to care for ourselves, to celebrate and to commune with each other is what we need to thrive.”

MassArt, motherhood, new exhibit