A hand drawn and painted background in soft oranges, yellows and greens, with the words 'LOVE is the DREAM' written on it.

Feeding Futures

Jade Montserrat, 'LOVE is the DREAM', commissioned for the Feed project in 2022

When my son was small, cars drove recklessly, everyone vaped aggressively, and I scanned cafes and parks under a burning spotlight as I searched for a space and place to feed my baby. Highly attuned to my surroundings, elbow against the wall in a dark corner, squished onto plastic chairs in a windowless meeting room, on a wall between two Southeast London warehouse art spaces. Never ashamed, but often uncomfortable and tentative, wondering if today would be the day I’d get a negative remark or be asked to move.

These fraught practical negotiations of space, public perception and a hungry baby happened in parallel with coming to terms with an ever-changing postpartum body, my new identity within the world, and a host of unexpected emotions. I felt the same whether I was breastfeeding or bottle feeding, complicating an already stressful situation in which I was desperate to breastfeed but faced obstacles that nothing in the prenatal period had prepared me for. Preoccupied with my own sense of inadequacy, I also wondered: will this bottle provoke judgment? Will I be asked to cover up or move? Is that person disapproving or disgusted? Britain is culturally confused and contradictory when it comes to the ways we feed our babies. Our public places are not always kind to parents, nor to those who do not present as white and male. What hope did I have of publicly feeding in full comfort given a lifetime of experiences of patriarchal intimidation in public spaces?

Breastfeeding should be a visible fact of public life.

I knew I had legal protections: in the UK the 2010 Equality Act protects the right to breastfeed in any public space, including on public transport, as well as in commercial spaces such as restaurants, cafés, shops and cinemas. According to a 2013 YouGov survey only 77% of respondents felt it was ‘generally acceptable’ for a woman to breastfeed her child in public. Of those surveyed, more felt it was generally more acceptable for a woman to breastfeed in a public toilet than in a restaurant or on public transport.[1] I’ve not run a statistical analysis, but I’d guess a significant percentage of media attention on breastfeeding is devoted to the countless breastfeeding sit-ins that have been staged across the globe, in response to someone being asked to leave a public space or cover up. The activism is necessary, but these news reports simultaneously reinforce the idea that there is something potentially controversial about breastfeeding in public, presenting the issue as something open for debate rather than something that should be protected by law. Breastfeeding should be a visible fact of public life.

Photo of the side of large mural on the side of a house depicting a mermaid breastfeeding her baby
Breastfeeding mermaid mural by Sam Bates in Greenock, Scotland, 2022. Compliments of boobingit.com

Recent public art initiatives are testament to how culturally unaccustomed we are to seeing people nurse. Take, for example, the breastfeeding mermaid mural painted on a gable end of a tenement block in Greenock, which captured headlines in early 2022. The piece was created by artist Sam Bates (known as Smug) and jointly commissioned by Inverclyde Health and Social Care Partnership’s infant feeding team and the Oak Tree Housing Association. Local breastfeeding mothers spoke about how the image made them feel more supported locally, while others praised the work for normalising breastfeeding. Other actions designed to create a feeding-friendly atmosphere and normalise breastfeeding include the life-sized cardboard cut-outs of nursing women which were placed in front of public places in the town of Timmins, Canada in 2017. As with the mermaid, the action drew some criticism from online commentators, but most people were largely positive and revealed how important such visibility can be for parents.  

It is these kinds of experiences and associated emotions which sparked Feed, an ongoing project initiated by Elaine Speight of In Certain Places (an art-based research project at the University of Central Lancashire) in collaboration with several partners including Lara Eggleton at Corridor8, Vicky Carr of Textbook Studio and performance artist Krissi Musiol. One of the first outcomes of Feed is a feeding chair, intended to be used in museums, galleries, libraries and other public venues – the kinds that offer free entry, eliminating the need for parents to purchase things in order to have a safe space to feed.

A photo of a high backed, squarish chair made from plywood and orange padding, with outer shell covered in illustrations, a screen on a stem, speakers around the head area and a pullout foodstool
‘Feeding Chair’, designed and fabricated by M3 Industries with Vicky Carr and Elaine Speight, decorated with artwork by Jade Montserrat, 2022.

The chair is a high-backed throne in plywood with an orange upholstered core, its design paradoxically monumental yet intimate. It takes up space, invites exploration and offers sanctuary. Highly practical, there are cubbies for books and wet wipes, a pull-out footstool, a gooseneck iPad holder and generously padded armrests winged with side tables and bottle holders. The exterior of the chair is printed with Jade Montserrat’s warm, autumnal bespoke artwork, referencing love, roots, communication and dreams. Speakers embedded in the chair play audio works by Musiol, Nicola Singh and Magda Stawarska-Beavan, giving them an excuse to withdraw from social interaction if desired.

Feed connects with other artistic explorations of hungry babies, feeding parents, lactating bodies, politics and public spaces. For the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial, American artist Jill Miller set up ‘The Milk Truck’ outside The Andy Warhol Museum. After raising $15,000 on Kickstarter, she converted an old ice cream truck into a multi-faceted breastfeeding support centre. ‘The Milk Truck’ is conspicuously bold, decorated with large pink and blue polka dots and candy stripes. A blancmange-like breast sits on its roof, a flashing nipple on top. It is disarmingly kitsch and, as it drove through the streets of Pittsburgh, monumentally spectacular. Yet its interior offered space for retreat and peaceful feeding. In her Kickstarter video, Miller envisages a van that responds to breastfeeding ‘emergencies’, to be called upon when, for example, a woman nursing in a restaurant is asked to ‘stop creating a spectacle’. The van arrives, providing a hidden sanctuary for the parent in question, while bringing hordes of breastfeeding allies to stage a public breastfeed-in on the offending premises.

Allyship was a driving force behind the formation of the Los Angeles-based group M.A.M.A. (Mother Artists Making Art), who came together in the 1990s to ‘support each other in salvaging, theorizing and representing […] our experience of being mothers, especially in teasing out those experiences which are invisible or taboo in terms of the norms’.[2] The collective, comprising artists Lisa Mann, Athena Kanaris, Karen Schwenkmeyer, Deborah Oliver and Lisa Schoyer, worked on a number of projects exploring breastfeeding. As part of a 1998 arts festival in Pasadena, the collective installed ‘California Civil Code Section 43’, titled after the state law that protects a woman’s right to breastfeed in any location, public or private. A wooden box measuring eighteen quare inches was placed on a public bench in a downtown retail area. A large ‘X’ was painted on the front of the box, while its lid and sides were decorated with cartoon animals nursing their offspring, like a child’s alphabet block. Yet the ballot-like X conjures ideas of consent and censorship. A speaker concealed inside the box played the sounds of a baby’s incessant cry. When intrigued passers-by opened the lid to investigate, they found a monitor showing intimate videos of women breastfeeding, each shot from the perspective of the mother looking down at her baby. A voiceover recounted women’s experiences of breastfeeding and their complicated attitudes towards their bodies, the changes that they have undergone as their body becomes an ‘object of desire – a simultaneous source of sexuality and nourishment’.[3] 

A still of a sitting woman expressing breastmilk into a champagn glass with a pyramid of glasses and video screens of breastfeeding babies in the background.
Live stream still from ‘Milkstained’, M.A.M.A. (Mother Artists Making Art: a collaboration with Athena Kanaris, Deborah Oliver, Lisa Schoyer, and Lisa Mann), 13 September, 1998.

In the same year M.A.M.A. explored these ideas of sensuality and nourishment in a multi-sensory performance titled ‘Milkstained’ a to a small audience at the Electronic Café International in Santa Monica, which was also live streamed on the internet. The performance began with a naked woman lying on a white pedestal, her back to the audience, white cloth draped over her buttocks and thighs. Soon, the flow of the body’s odalisque pose was disrupted by white liquid pouring down her back as damp patches blossomed on the white cloth. More women joined the stage, some expressing milk by hand, others pouring milk into a fountain of cocktail glasses. Spoken word, the sounds of a baby feeding, and the unmistakable whirr of an electric breast pump expressing milk echoed around the small gallery space. At the end, the audience was invited to taste the freshly expressed milk, a gesture later explored by Canadian artist Jess Dobkin in her stages of ‘Lactation Station’ in 2006, 2012 and 2016. In the perceived safety of a hygienic white cube gallery space, Dobkin hosted intimate tasting sessions of donated pasteurised breast milk. As people drank from tiny plastic glasses of ‘Sweet Fall Harvest’ and ‘Passion’s Legacy’, the artist advised them on the woman’s diet at time of expressing, the age of their child, and details of the woman’s experiences with breastfeeding. While ‘Milkstained’ explored the perceived disorder and sensuality of the maternal body, ‘Lactation Station’ highlighted the cultural taboos surrounding breastfeeding and human milk. 

In 1979, the Chilean art collective Collective Acciones de Arte (CADA) used similar strategies of performance and theatricality to intervene in routines of everyday life, using infant milk to protest against the horrors of the Pinochet regime, in particular its decision to end a programme of daily milk rations for all children. In ‘Para no morir de hambre en el arte’ (‘In order not to starve to death in art’), members of CADA handed out boxes of powder formula milk door to door in a poor neighbourhood. Later, they arranged for trucks owned by a national dairy company to block the traffic in the centre of Santiago with the convoy eventually coming to a stop at the Museum of Fine Arts, where a large white sheet was used to block the entrance.

Spectacle and visibility are pertinent to parents, with some desiring privacy and quiet moments of calm and others not wanting to feel ‘hidden’ or preferring to be in the middle of the action and conversation. While the ‘Feeding Chair’ has wheels, which allows it to be repositioned within a space, questions of visibility and comfort are embedded within the overall project, a tussle which may not be resolved until there is a significant cultural and societal shift in attitudes towards women’s bodies.

A photo of a group of mothers and their babies and children sitting at a table in a brightly lit room.
From the ‘Feeding Futures’ event at Whitworth Galleries in July 2022. Photo: Fiona Finchett.

There was a glimpse of this world of care and respect at ‘Feeding Futures’, a child-friendly public event hosted at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester as part of the Feed project. Attendees wheeled prams and chased toddlers through the heart of the gallery and up into the Jacobean-style Grand Hall with its high ceilings and room to breathe. Ideas of place and taking up space were threaded throughout the day. I gave a talk which was part personal essay and part art history, making visible certain historical and cultural constructions of infant-feeding and ‘good’ motherhood. Louise Oliver from Diversity in Infant Feeding and Spectrum Lactation drew attention to the shameful inequality of representation in breastfeeding messaging and offered a solution in the form of an image bank that reflects the true picture of breastfeeding and expressing in the UK. Designer Sally Sutherland led a flag-making workshop which provided space for reflection as attendees shared their assortment of feelings and calls towards a better future. The event ended with a performance by Musiol, whose repetitive work in hollowing out watermelons to make margaritas mirrored repetitive work of motherhoods and offered a moment of meditation.

A still from a video of a woman in a white shirt seated at a table with a microphone, spooning the flesh from a halved watermelon
Krissi Musiol, ‘Missed’ still from performance on 13 July 2022, part of the Feeding Futures event at Whitworth Galleries. Photo: Fiona Finchett.

Attendees of ‘Feeding Futures’ also had the chance to experience Musiol’s audio walk, ‘Carried’, by taking a watermelon (weighing roughly the same as a baby at forty weeks pregnant) into Whitworth Park, using headphones for a guided walk. We were at once highly conspicuous yet sheltered by Musiol’s voice in our ears, alternating between gentle instruction and intimate recollections from early motherhood. At one point I stood facing a patch of meadow and wept. Then I turned, as a man in lycra urgently asked me why women were pacing the park with watermelons. After I answered, I reflected on the perception gap between him and I. The weight of the unspoken, the incommunicable, the unshareable. I thought about how new parents, especially women, are also told to be quiet. To be grateful. That our own postpartum traumas or fears should be soothed by our healthy baby (when we are so fortunate). The ways we get caught between our specific cultural and social expectations and our own realities and desires. How there are chasms between each of us, despite our need for spaces where we can be held. Projects such as Feed are integral to baby feeding liberation, to a world where cars still drive too fast but where we never have to feel anxious about where or how we will feed our babies.

A smiling woman walks in a sunny park holding a watermelon at her lower abdomen.
A participant takes part in ‘Carried’, an audio walk created for Whitworth Park by Krissi Musiol, July 2022. Photo: Fiona Finchett.

Feed is an ongoing project led by In Certain Places at the University of Central Lancashire in collaboration with Corridor8 and Textbook Studio. ‘Feeding Futures’ was a child-friendly public event hosted at the Whitworth Gallery on 13 July 2022. The ‘Feeding Chair’ will be installed at the Whitworth from mid November, with plans to tour venues across the country and to work with additional artists, researchers, health professionals and groups to create new audio/ visual works to go in it. Audio works, commissioned texts and information about the project can be found at https://www.feedproject.art/. Copies of the Feed zine are free and will be available at participating venues, and can be requested by emailing info@feedproject.art.

Joanna Wolfarth is a lecturer in art history at The Open University. Her first book MILK: An Intimate History of Breastfeeding will be published in January 2023.

This exploration is supported by UCLan and Arts Council England.

[1] Amy Brown, ‘Are We Really Still Talking about a Woman’s Right to Breastfeed in Public?’, UNICEF, 2018. https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/still-talking-about-a-womans-right-to-breastfeed-in-public [accessed 12 July 2021]; Jordan, William, ‘No Breastfeeding in the Swimming Pool’, YouGov, 2013 <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2013/08/19/no-breastfeeding-swimming-pool> [accessed 18 October 2022]

[2] Andrea Liss, Feminist Art and the Maternal (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 75.

[3] Micol Hebron, review of Separation Anxiety at Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, California (Oct 11 – Nov 2010), Art Pulse <http://artpulsemagazine.com/separation-anxiety> [accessed 18 October 2022].

Published 24.10.2022 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

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