Coventry Daze

Eight person animated grid shown as a projection at Arcadia Gallery, Coventry

Holding Time is an ongoing work designed to create greater cultural awareness of the needs of breastfeeding mothers. The work has a conceptual framework as the central theme is motherhood and time. The centerpiece is an installation of animated portraits of mothers.

This project began with a commission by Warwick University Maternity Themed Clinical trials Unit to create a piece combining a grid of mothers with audio about their breastfeeding experiences. This formed the basis for a larger funding application to Arts Council England. I began the work by meeting the grassroots network and Infant Feeding team in August 2018.

When the work began, I intended to shoot new portraits of Coventry mothers but as the pandemic struck UK shores in March 2020, the plan had to change. I began to devise contingency plans: I would use Brighton images for the commission and if it was impossible to photograph Coventry mothers, I would use a photobooth method instead.

Social Media flag- call for participants January 2021

The whole project was designed to run without human contact, but I never stopped hoping that conditions would eventually change. Mothers were recruited via social media and through a network of partners from the Coventry Family Health and Lifestyle Services. I received great enthusiasm from their team and a project called MAMTA who work with BAME mothers wishing to breastfeed.

When the call for participants went out, we had an overwhelming response! In February I  interviewed sixteen mothers via zoom, suggesting the storytelling workshops (also zoom) to those I felt would benefit. Not everyone took up this offer but those that did reported great benefits from having the chance to discuss openly with other mothers the issues they had faced in establishing breastfeeding. Rachel New, the radio producer and writer who devised and ran the workshops on behalf of Creative Lives did an amazing job of really getting the group to face each other and themselves, to pull out the wealth of experience they had between them and craft this into written pieces.

Mothers share their final written pieces for the storytelling workshops run by BBC producer Rachel New (top left)

Breastfeeding is such a complex issue and so poorly understood. Mothers came from a wide range of backgrounds – young, older, experienced, new, British, South Asian, and African, reflecting the incredible diversity and cultural richness found in Coventry which has been welcoming people from across the world for many decades. I was hoping to bring out the contrast between mothers who had inherited an unbroken cultural inheritance of breastfeeding vs those, like me who had needed to start from scratch.

I waited hopefully for the restrictions to lift and finally on April 12th 2021 it was legal again to set up a photo studio. With the help of some local talent and the support of a wonderful arts organisation, Artspace, I was finally able to set up a temporary photo studio in Coventry in early May. Now all the mothers I had met only virtually started to appear every day at the door in 3D! It was a wonderful experience to meet them all finally, albeit under strict Covid safety conditions. 

By now the Storytelling group had a WhatsApp group and were organizing park meetups. We quickly set up a WhatsApp group for everyone and once the week was over I went into a supercharged post production period. My commission and proposal to Arts Council England had not included new animation but I felt it would be a travesty to the mothers who had shown such support and commitment to the project, to show mothers from another city in the final show. On my last night in the Premier Inn (I spent a lot of time in the Premier Inn) I decided I could make a new piece in time for the show.
It was an ambitious plan but I feel tremendously proud of the work that came out of Coventry: 8 pieces of writing by mothers, 12 new animated portraits, one large group portrait, sixteen VLOGS still being released onto Youtube channel and a legacy of seven still images hanging permanently in the labour ward where each mother gave birth, at UHCW in Coventry.

The project launched with the radio broadcast on BBC CWR of Rachel’s Storytelling mothers reading their pieces.

Mothers read their written pieces from the Storytelling project

a VLOG by Professor Debra Bick from Warwick’s CTU and then opened with an exhibition at Arcadia featuring the interviews, animations and the large grid. In different iterations of the project I have tried different approaches to how the multiple strands of the work is shown – in Coventry I showed for the first time a grid of mothers, with audio from their interviews.

Grid of animated portraits shown with audio and music

Arcadia occupies a storefront in City Arcade, a once-glorious icon of Coventry’s mid century architecture. It felt fitting to place this homage to Coventry mothers in a space frequented by families on their walk into town.

We were beset by a number of Covid related set backs…the opening coincided with numbers ticking up again. Rachel caught Covid right before the planned reading at the opening, Coventry City of Culture seemed to struggle to catch up with itself. But still word got out, families came, people met and talked. The work went up on the wall in UHCW. I did one gallery talk for Mothers Who Make and an interview for CWR. The show was covered in the Coventry Evening Telegraph and across social media people were sharing and posting.

The Coventry Evening Telegraph interviewed some of the mothers featured in the exhibition

We ran our Breastfeedingbuddy campaign during National Breastfeeding Week. It was touching to see the honours list: mothers, partners, siblings who helped during the most difficult periods, typically immediately after birth. I felt humbled by these posts and amazed by the stories attached to them.

There were alot of firsts during this project: first ever zoom interview (surprisingly easy), first ever live streamed talk (nerve wracking), first ever time I’ve stayed in a hotel in my hometown (kind of lonely and sad) first time my mum has invigilated (fantastic!), first time I’ve worked as part of a team (thankyou Ben and Rebecca), first time I’ve tried not to encourage a crowd at an opening (weird), first time I’ve felt afraid photographing mothers (despite all the testing and precaution) first time I’ve tried 4K animation (definately need to get my own projector) first time I’ve felt I really caught the moment. It was exhilarating.

Following on from this, the digital programme of mothers stories (now renamed Motherspeak) and Motherstalk interviews will be continue to be released, inspiring other mothers in Coventry and across the world to follow them, if they can, on the journey of breastfeeding.

Here’s a selection of some of the mothers with their stories already published online:

Hannah and Jacob, 2021

Hannah had a very premature baby who, at 25 weeks, was lucky to survive. She expressed for many months until finally she was given the go ahead to feed Jacob on the breast. Her story is an epic journey of resilience, stamina and self belief with some real insight into what mothers under this tremendous pressure need to keep going:

Rayyan and Yusuf, 2021

Rayyan is a typical Coventry mother (although she would point out she was actually born in Hull). She lives in a tight knit family who supported her through some difficult days after the birth of her first child. She came through it and is now tremendously positive about her experience and the support she received from family and the local maternity team:

Mel and Harley, 2021

Mel is breastfeeding her third child and talks about finally feeling confident enough go to baby groups. She is very funny and I think we can all relate to her description of herself when she was a new mother and was too embarrassed to feed in public, even when she had the support of her mother by her side:

Hema and Devani, 2021

Hema was one of the first mothers I met in Coventry, back in 2018 at a Big Latch event. She is a tremendous role model as someone who came through huge physical challenges to breastfeed and eventually trained as a peer to peer mentor and is now supporting many mothers in the Coventry Gujarati community. It was fascinating hearing about how Hema sought help when she needed it and is now there to help others:

Emilie and Jean, 2021

Emilie is not alone in finding herself surprised to be ’still’ feeding her child aged three. I found it really sweet how she says that it wasn’t the plan (but there never really was a plan….). I meet so many mothers who have fed full term doing this work and I’m always fascinated to hear their insights as it really is a journey of self discovery, as much as learning about your child and their needs:

This project is multi-channel, multi platform and operates city to city. By working with academics, health professionals and grassroots networks it is a large piece of socially engaged feminist art that is intended to bring about meaningful change in UK breastfeeding policy.

If you would like to know how to bring Holding Time to your area, please get in touch.

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