It is easy to stumble upon “Investment” while perusing the other traditional art works within the Walker Art Gallery. One second you are gazing upon a Rodin sculpture, admiring the form and technique; and the next you are suddenly in someone else’s private thoughts, amidst their emotions and struggling with concepts you would never have imagined you’d have to consider in such a Victorian setting. This is the tiny world which artist Tabitha Moses has created, one which is dedicated to her and other women’s experiences of infertility and IVF. Displayed within the exhibition are three hospital gowns, embroidered with motifs relating to Tabitha and two other women’s experiences, alongside portraits by photographer Jon Barraclough. All of this acts as a means to create a dialogue on the emotionally harrowing reality that is infertility.
The traditional setting of the Walker is certainly not where one would expect to encounter such a unconventional exhibition, but it’s right there to be found on the first floor hallway. Perhaps this is intentional because of it’s unorthodox content. By placing it in the hallway visitors are forced to walk through the exhibit and grapple with its difficult themes. At the same time its positioning seems symbolic of the infertility afflicting these women. An estimated 1 in 6 couples in Britain have trouble conceiving (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21755753, 16/01/15). These are people we probably walk past everyday, unaware of their plight. And in the same way some visitors seemed to drift through the hallway, choosing to ignore the exhibit and instead move on to the other areas of the gallery.
Situated in the centre of the exhibit are three display cabinets which contain the embroidered hospital gowns. Positioned side by side they are almost like hospital beds in a ward, somewhere the three women would surely have appreciated the company of one another while the underwent their own IVF treatments. Surrounding the display cabinets are the portraits of the three women photographed by Jon Barraclough. Tabitha’s portrait shows a stoic, patient woman; Melanie’s, a woman filled with sorrow but drawing strength from that pain while Emma’s is simply her hospital gown hanging on a hook. The display card informs us that Emma was ill with an infection and thus unable to be photographed, an unexpected means for the exhibition to draw attention to the everyday suffering of those who undergo these intensive procedures.
The main way in which the artist creates a narrative of these women’s experiences is through the delicate embroidery on the hospital gowns. Tabitha was inspired by the colourful needlework of traditional Pakistani designs after travelling there in 2006-07 (Webb, 2014) and thus all of the designs form a mandala on the mid-sections of the gowns made up of symbols which represent the various aspects of each woman’s story. This mandala could be seen as not only relating to Pakistani culture but also as a circle which is the never ending cycle of reproduction, life and death. The items adorning these circles are a strange intertwining of the medical and mystical. Some are images of the hormone injections and negative pregnancy tests, while others are depictions of crystals, acupuncture, and fertility symbols from various cultures. This is Tabitha’s way of demonstrating the different ways herself and the other women coped with their infertility.
These symbols also successfully depict the unique personalities of the three women. While the presence of Melanie’s lucky leopard pants show a sense of humour, the embroidery on Emma’s hospital gown includes her Grandmother and a picture by her niece showing the importance of family to her. Tabitha Moses obviously has a great respect for all of the women who are going through things like this. Perhaps the most moving part of the whole exhibit is the inclusion of a comments board where people can write their own experiences of infertility as a therapeutic means to offer comfort to others going through the same thing.
Needlework is often used to create pieces of contemporary art which support women and give them a voice. Although traditionally associated with being a “women’s craft” and therefore potentially a negative thing for female artists to utilise, some current female artists are reappropriating embroidery and other typical craft-work as a means to communicate the strength of women rather than their oppression (Chansky, 2010). This is precisely what Tabitha has accomplished with her artworks.
Thus, through this exhibit Tabitha Moses has created a safe space for discussion about a sensitive topic affecting numerous people. Her beautiful designs convey a certain strength and bravery through their delicate stitches and wonderful colours. These designs were displayed to their fullest potential when photographed by Jon Barraclough on the women who inspired them and who in turn will surely inspire countless people going through similar situations. The exhibition is displayed in the Walker until 15th March 2015 and will then tour around various galleries. Hopefully this will allow it to reach as many people as possible, spreading its message throughout. After all, this message is one of hope as Tabitha eventually did conceive and the exhibit now exists as a tribute to the miracle which is her daughter.
Webb, Jane (2014) ‘Sympathetic Magic’ in: Tabitha Moses and Jon Barraclough (Ed.) (2014) Investment, Printfine Limited, Liverpool pp. 14-21
Chansky, Ricia A. (2010) ‘A Stitch in Time: Third Wave Feminist Reclamation of Needled Imagery’ in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 43, No. 4, August 2010, pp. 681-700
BBC Science, http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21755753. 16th January 2015