They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
— Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse“
from Collected Poems.
So, how did you celebrate Mother’s Day last week?
Maybe you popped out with your mum for a meal? Or maybe you spent the time missing your mother who’s no longer with you? Or maybe you did nothing at all, having no meaningful relationship with your biological parent?
As the Larkin verse above tends to suggest, parenting is a complicated and messy affair. It’s often easy to forget that mothers (and fathers) are just people too, as flawed and imperfect as their children. Regardless of the leaps and bounds made in feminist activism, the burden of parenting still rests disproportionately on mothers. Certainly, this age of hashtag-blessed-everything doesn’t help – if social media is to be believed, the pressure is on for mums to have flat abs, perfect blowouts, high-powered jobs and still be able to churn out handmade organic sugar-free (yet delicious!) treats for their kids.
Enter SPRMRKT, and its present exhibition at its Robertson Quay outlet, Motherhood.
You’ll find no #humblebraggery, and certainly nothing overtly #blessed about the stories being told here. Conceived as an ongoing project, this iteration of the exhibition features the stories of 4 women – Kumari Nahappan, Nin Choong- Wilkins, Sui- Chin Han-Mckeand and Carmee Lim.
The showcase is jointly produced by SPRMRKT Founder and Managing Partner Quek Sue – Shan and writer Patricia Lee, and seeks to represent stories of real mothers and their unvarnished life experiences, warts and all. Lee, in particular, draws on her background as an established fashion and culture writer to communicate the profusion of emotion associated with notions of motherhood, in an accessible and heartfelt manner. Says Lee,
“I’ve been writing stories for years, but this is the first time that the stories have been woven into a physical space to create a multi-sensory experience. “
Cheekily situated in a ‘supermarket’ of sorts, where one might traditionally expect to find mothers, the show upends stereotypical ideas on what it means to be a mum:
Kumari Nahappan’s installation Play, no expiry date (2018) for example, is an ode to the artist’s lost child, a monument to the absence of traditional notions of motherhood. The red ropes made of yarn, wire and banana fibre, intertwine and dangle from a frame, recalling both whimsical paper chains at a children’s party as well as the visceral, physical ties of a human umbilical cord.
It’s such a poetic work, as it’s sandwiched by mirrors – look up (or down), and you’ll see that the cord twines endlessly, an infinite statement on the essence of motherhood:
A daughter may have been lost, but this work communicates quite beautifully, that Nahappan remains a mother to her forever.
It’s also fitting that the installation is situated outside the actual SPRMRKT café — the cord is contained (yet unbroken), and lurks at the peripheries of polite conversation. It’s a melancholic nod to how society tends to deal with the loss of children – these are complicated, unspoken things replete with painful emotion, and which tend to remain hidden from view.
A sound work Zest (2018) inspired by former Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) Principal Carmee Lim, also stands out in Motherhood:
I would challenge RGS alumni who have experienced the force-of-nature that is Mrs Lim, to listen to the work and not well up with tears. For RGS girls of a particular vintage (like myself), the syrupy If We Hold On Together by Diana Ross was something of an unofficial anthem, trotted out at almost every school function.
I don’t know if it was an overabundance of teenage hormones, or memories of Littlefoot being separated from his mother, or just the fact that it was a bloody touching song, but almost every instance of singing it, would result in the entire school population (literally, the entire population) being reduced to floods of tears.
I was personally amazed to find that the tune still has the ability to make me blub like a big Pavlovian baby, despite having been out of secondary school for over twenty years! It was also a revelation to discover that the song had been chosen by Mrs Lim when RGS became independent in 1993, to “rally the RGS family—teachers, students, parents and alumnae — behind a bold new vision (for) a new journey, where creativity and community mattered as much as academic pursuits.”
For this sound work, Quek and Lee (themselves RGS alumni) commissioned DJ Fauxe to remix a version of If We Hold On Together, as sung by Mrs Lim (now 78!) who delivers the tune with great operatic flair and gusto. It’s a beautiful tribute to a lady who “mothered” generations of schoolgirls, with a vision that every girl was unique in her own way. DJ Fauxe’s contemporary rendition encapsulates Mrs Lim’s personality perfectly — bold, experimental and always just that little bit ahead of the curve.
On a somewhat more philosophical level, the work made me think about the kinds of ties which bind us. One has only to look at the bond shared between adoptive parents and their children, to understand that blood and biology are not the only things which hold us together.
Indeed, when asked how she and Quek approached this project, not being mothers themselves, Lee had this to say:
“The project’s starting point was that everyone has a mother and a relationship with one. While neither Sue-Shan nor I are mothers, we both have good relationships with our own mothers, and friends and family at different stages of motherhood.
Reflecting as insiders and outsiders, helped shape our perspectives. As a writer, I hope that I was able to successfully translate the pain, joy and awe I felt as each of the women shared their personal stories with me.”
Indeed, as Quek thoughtfully shares, the show is a “visual and artistic exhibition of profiles lovingly gathered,” for “everyone who has a mother, is a mother, wants or does not want to be a mother, or can’t be a mother.”
Circling back to Philip Larkin’s musings, your mum might well have screwed you up, but chances are, you messed her up pretty badly too. If you’d like to understand how – mosey on over to Motherhood and reflect on the raw, messy experiences laid bare there.
The exhibition runs until 31 May at SPRMRKT Daily, STPI Creative Gallery & Works, 41 Robertson Quay Level 1, S(238236). As part of the all-inclusive experience on offer, the cafe will be featuring a special menu for the duration of the show, with dishes inspired by the artworks.
All images courtesy of SPRMRKT.