Review: The Motherhood Project (Battersea Arts Centre)

The Motherhood Project is a set of fifteen films produced by Katherine Kotz, made available via Battersea Arts Centre online from 19 April. 

There are female voices, male voices, disabled voices, trans voices, voices of children, voices of mothers who were, are, or could have been. There are letters, poetry, memories. There are moments which make you catch your breath, others which make you laugh, others which are as matter-as-fact as the miracle of birth. 

You can approach the collection in any order you choose, but there are some films which naturally complement each other. A Letter To My Baby and Gunk are both mothers talking to their sons. Untold and Lemn Sissay’s piece fit together about mothers who cannot raise their children.  

The Queen’s Head and Inside Me are frank and funny pieces about pre- and post-partum aspects of pregnancy. Venus of Whitechapel and Suited are about the miracle of a changing body and the creation of a new life. Number 1 and Motherhood touch on problematic families and the bond between mother and child.  

Screencaps from The Motherhood Project

The pieces by Athena Stevens and Kalhan Barath touch on disability and expectations of motherhood. Baby Yoga and Juno Dawson’s piece touch on the expectations of others from the viewpoints of a teenage friend and a trans woman.  

Joelle Taylor’s poem on children and creativity stands as a celebration and complement to the other pieces. You could start with this. 

The op ed pieces are very interesting, as they are given straight to camera, and are of something of a personal slant. Athena Stevens thought she “would be US President before [she] ever became a mum”. She speaks movingly of her own mother giving up so much to raise her, a disabled child with cerebral palsy, fighting for her to have a full education. As with many of the pieces in this project, she reflects on how women are perceived as “shrill, aggressive, over-emotional”.  

For Juno Dawson, the link between motherhood and genderhood is viewed through her own experience before she transitioned: “I was never asked about children … for a woman, it is not if you have kids, it is when”. She argues against gender bias being forced on children, about the nurturing instinct in childhood being limited to girls, about limitation. 

Lemn Sissay discusses his birth mother, and the “heroic” deed a mother can do in giving a child away they do not want or cannot raise. His view, and poetry on the issue, looks at judgement and beliefs in society from the perspective of both child and parent. In Kalhan Barath’s account of “borrowing a friend’s baby”, she describes her home pack of “dog and child … a pack of trust and love”. 

Screencaps from The Motherhood Project

The words from mothers to their children in both Anya Reiss’s A Letter To My Baby (directed by Sam Phillips and Anya Reiss, performed by Tom Rhys Harries), and Irenosen Okojie’s Gunk (directed by Akinola Davies Jr., voiced by Sarah Niles) both show love, understanding and acceptance of the children to which the women “gave their DNA”. The first film is very much one man reading from the printed page about his mother’s unconditional love; the second is more abstract, harsher, but born of the fighting tigress spirit to protect your cub. 

Katherine Kotz’s The Queen’s Head (directed by Elin Schofield), which she also performs, is wickedly humorous, as the character recounts in therapy how she had a hormonal breakdown on a live Zoom presentation (which we also see snatches of). It brusquely acknowledges the changes which are not just physical as a baby grows inside a body and focuses on decisions (“what if [the baby] turns out to be an arsehole?”), conflicts, and career (“[husband] would be better off carrying the baby”). 

Untold (written by Jodi Gray, directed by Jennifer Tang), looks at a would-have-been mother. This is a letter, or speech, to a child never born, a year after a pregnancy ended: performed by Zainab Hasan, it has a veil of positivity but a sense of awareness I found very moving. In the area of difficult subjects, we also have Siggi Mwasote performing her own Motherhood, in her old maternity dress from years before, about an abusive partner and a child she works to protect (“all we have been through melts when she laughs”). 

Naomi Sheldon performs her own Venus of Whitechapel (directed by Annabel Arden), as heavy in her pregnancy, she has a dialogue with her interior voice about the impending event with fear, acceptance and joy coming through. She muses, “you do not earn a baby, but I am not convinced I deserve one”, in this sweet exploration of the changing mind and body of an expectant mother. 

Screencaps from The Motherhood Project

Hannah Khalil’s Suited (directed by Caroline Byrne, performed by Emmanuella Cole), is a celebration of the miracle of birth, and the endurance of the human body and what it can achieve. In a black and white piece, a naked woman swims (“your bits are not yours anymore but think of the wonderful thing your body did”), while a voiceover soars in wonder. 

More quirky pieces are provided by E V Crowe’s Number 1, Suhayla El Bushra’s Baby Yoga, and Morgan Lloyd Morgan’s Inside Me. Their voices: son, friend, mother. Tim Hoare directs the first two, with Landry Adelard as a schoolchild in Number 1 trying to reconcile his view of girls (“she’ll get pregnant anyway”) and his mother, who he claims is successful, but who seems muted by circumstance. In Baby Yoga, Tsion Habte, just sixteen, cannot understand the change in her friend now she has a child, as they slip into a mother and baby yoga class in Queen’s Park.  

And Malcolm’s eye-wateringly funny piece, where Jenni Maitland chops vegetables under Maria Aberg’s direction while recalling an internal exploration of her pelvic floor which becomes “a chat which makes me sob harder”, and the “only thing I have done for myself”. The mother who is not just a vehicle to breast-feed, bathe or clothe her child, but is a sexual being with body wobbles and pee leaks. 

These plays are magnificent, short pieces of pleasure. To watch them all straight through will take just over two hours, or with the longest being only sixteen minutes, you can slot them in as and when. You have between the 19 April – 2 May to watch. 

Tickets are available at https://bac.org.uk/whats-on/motherhood-project/ on a Pay What You Can basis, with 50% of ticket proceeds going to the charity Refuge. 

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