'The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world', 2019 by Grace Cross

‘MOTHER IS A DRUM’ – Reflections on womanhood from a mother

MOTHER IS A DRUM is a solo exhibition by Grace Cross at SMITH. The show deals with the birth of the artist’s child and the solemn epiphanies of motherhood. Making use of symbols in her paintings, the viewer is confronted with images of famished mouths, a woman with breast pumps–reminding one quite starkly of the image of Rachel McAdams on the cover of Girls. Girls. Girls magazine­–as well as images of mushed up food and leaking breasts. Her paintings leave traces of ambiguity containing odd comparisons and uncomfortable smiles. Every object presented within the frame of the canvas are given the status of a talisman. Such objects include a spoon, a toy and a showerhead. By granting them this talismanlike stature the objects become injected with ritualistic power and carry what Lucienne Bestall refers to as “psychic weight”. The symbols Cross works with are given life through the associations that are connected to them. As Bestall notes, “For Cross, the inanimate animates even while it keeps its stillness; it produces effects, it inspires engagement.”

Bestall remarks that the most recognisable objects featured have a footing in both the real and imagined (symbolic) worlds–“A breast pump is seldom a breast pump”. The body of work does not allow for a fixed meaning but instead translate as impressions made from dreams– “Only the artist can divine their true meaning”. Each object depicted stands in the place of something else. According to Bestall this something else could be a myth, a story or an anecdote. These mediums (a myth, a story or an anecdote) reveal details of the artist’s heritage, childhood, the people she spends her time with as well as the writers who inspire her. No object. No line. No colour. Is without its meaning and forms neatly–the neatness of a mother–Cross’ metaphysics of symbols.

‘Comfort rug (when one becomes two)’, 2019

In MOTHER IS A DRUM, Cross follows the familiar route in her artistic expression towards textiles. However, instead of working with yarn, the texture of textile is mimicked with paint and brush strokes. This process becomes ritualistic in nature and repetitive. Through this body of work Cross admits to being a weaver; a mystic and “a good enough mother”. Bestall observes that “Her woven paintings are both a material and immaterial coming together of fibres and stories…” We are taken into the familiar territory of childhood and motherhood with the use of tones that are “play school primaries” and feature “brilliant” hues. The brightness of colours on surface is continuous not often overshadowed.

Words become spells. The figure of the witch is made synonymous with that of womanhood, of motherhood as we are confronted with talismans and incantations. This metaphor becomes more potent when tracing it back to being a good enough mother as historically women paid with their lives if they refused to birth children. Justifying this femicide was done by calling these women evil in nature–witches. The question remains that if one has a child today what is it that you are paying for? The words that combine to form these spells include such phrases as suck, push, pull, pick, drop, pick, drophere here here here in purple lettering as well as formed in yellow I am I am I am. These words mimic the repetitive vernacular of a young child as well as the repetitive work that is expected from a mother figure. Another phrase that makes an appearance is Mother is a drum. Dum dum dum. ‘Mother’ is a drum could have a myriad of meanings. Perhaps it references the relationship between mother and child. It could perhaps be a reflection of the labour of the mother in rearing her child. The child then drums on the mother while it is in the womb. When it is out of the womb with its little hands drumming on the female body to be looked after, to be fed. And the dumb? Perhaps a reflection on the child’s dismissal of the mother’s; the artist’s sacrifices for them. But as has been mentioned before, only Cross could truly know what these paintings reflect upon. I see her expression in this exhibition as a process of metamorphosing and coming into her new role as a mother while simultaneously learning how to balance this responsibility with everyday life’s expectations.

Cross’ work opened yesterday and will run throughout Women’s Month­–in itself this becomes a political statement as it encompasses themes of the femme body, womanhood and motherhood. Speaking to a theme so central to the lives of many women during women’s month gives the show a particular agency that cannot be ignored.

MOTHER IS A DRUM is showing at SMITH, Cape Town till the 31 August 2019.


Bestall, Lucienne. The Tie That Binds, SMITH, 2019

‘Sympathetic Magic (transitional blanket)’, 2019
‘Mother is a drum’, 2019

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