CLARE Archibald was 20 weeks pregnant when she found out the baby girl she was carrying had a heart defect and could not be saved.
At 42, and having had five previous miscarriages, the news crushed her last hope of giving her older daughter, Kizzy, a sibling. On the advice of doctors, she had a termination and was able to hold Delilah for a few precious minutes before she stopped breathing.
In the three years since Archibald, from Burntisland in Fife, left hospital clutching a pink box of mementoes - including photographs of her baby’s feet - she has written about Delilah’s death in a series of short stories, poems and other literary works. Much of the response has been positive, but she has also met with hostility from some who see childbirth as an unworthy subject for art.
Now, one of Archibald’s poems Gift Wrapped is featuring in a ground-breaking exhibition, Project AfterBirth, which is aimed at tackling this prejudice. Opening at the White Moose Gallery in Devon today, the event features 39 works from all over the world and explores diverse experiences of parenthood or the lack of it; spanning the visual, performance, literary, film and digital arts, it encompasses all aspects of reproduction, from the most extreme - infertility, miscarriage and post-natal depression - to the most quotidian, and includes humorous as well as harrowing contributions.
What makes the project so pioneering, however, is that its curators Mila Oshin and her partner Kris Jager, both performance poets and musicians, hope to link with academics, GPs and other medical experts to counter mainstream portrayals of new parenthood and the unrealistic expectations they create. They believe Project AfterBirth gives unprecedented access to first-hand experiences which could form a vital resource and inform future policy. “Uniquely artists have both the skills and the urgency to express their deep emotions. Only they really document that period of early parenthood and so provide almost the only evidence of what happens when you are faced with these challenges,” Oshin said. She is in the process of setting up a permanent online institute and an inter-disciplinary network for early parenthood and the ambition is for the exhibition to tour Europe with associated conferences taking place wherever it goes. Oshin hopes Project AfterBirth will also challenge the idea that art about parenthood is somehow inferior. “There is no space even in the contemporary art world for parenthood and we want to fight against that,” she said.
The works featured include an oil painting by British artist Chris Anthem, whose infant son is being raised in Lebanon, and an image by internationally-acclaimed photographer Trish Morrissey.
The initial idea for the exhibition came from Oshin’s own contrasting experiences of childbirth; her first delivery left her with permanent physical trauma while the second took place at home without a midwife present. She and Jager perform together as Drunk with Joy. Their contribution to the Project AfterBirth is Passage, a new album of poems and music.
Archibald’s poem Gift Wrapped is written on a scroll tied with ribbon and enclosed in a memorabilia box identical to the one she received at the hospital; visitors will have to open the box and untie the ribbon to read it. They will also be able to hear Archibald recite it via an audio link.
The poem captures her ambivalence towards the box, the enforced pinkness of which she initially resented.
“There was a while when I was quite depressed and it was in my wardrobe and I felt it was kind of looming there all the time - it almost took on a life of its own and I found it quite oppressive,” Archibald says.
“But every now and again Kizzy will ask to see it because she bought things for Delilah and she quite likes looking at them and just having a bit of a chat - I guess it’s nice to have the option.”
Archibald’s work explores the complexities of her situation: what it was like having strangers ask questions about her pregnancy in the four weeks she spent waiting for her termination, for example, and how it affected Kizzy who was five when her sister died.
Project AfterBirth comes at a time when artists do seem to be gradually reclaiming childbirth as a legitimate source of inspiration. Scottish singer/song-writer Kathryn Joseph’s award-winning album Bones You have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled was written in the wake of her baby son’s death - and the last track The Weary touches directly on her grief. Scottish poet Marion McCready explores the superstitions and nightmares born of the anxiety of parenthood, while Rebecca Goss was short-listed for the Forward Prize for the Best Collection of poetry in 2013 for Her Birth, an anthology inspired by the short life and death of her daughter, Ella.
Like many other artists in the exhibition Archibald has faced discrimination. One night, the organiser of an open mic event denigrated her performance of her poem Shush, though it received a standing ovation.
Now, however, she too appears to be on a roll. Her piece Meandering Routes of the Muscle Memories is to appear in the Scottish Book Trust’s forthcoming anthology Journeys and her film poem, Flight or Fight, about her daughter Kizzy’s response to Delilah’s death, will be shown at the launch of the new Families in Trauma centre in Fife later this month.
“I don’t think I have any written any of the pieces with the intention of getting a message across,” she said. “But I don’t think the fact it’s my personal experience, or a domestic, female-centred experience should diminish its worth.”
Project AfterBirth will be on at the White Moose Gallery in Barnstaple, Devon, from October 3 to November 13.