Lactating Bodies (in progress)
2023 - onwards
artistic research, participatory performative practice, ethical, legal & socio-economic research, series of sculptural objects (upcoming)
Image by Katya Ev
“Milk does nothing if not connect: bodies, generations, species, and so much more. Melanie Jackson and Ester Leslie describe milk as “bridge between bodies” that “disturbs the dominant motif of a bounded body, of sovereign individuality”.1
Back in time, I unsuccessfully proposed the idea of an artwork that revoked human lactation as a nomination project for a famous art prize. Several more attempts to introduce this topic to institutional frameworks met with different types of censorship. The idea of human lactation in an art institution was labeled ‘distasteful’ or ‘too provocative’ or even ‘sacred, thus, inadequate’. These critiques pushed me to throw an extended far look into in-depth ethical and socio-political questions and undermining taboos surrounding lactation.
In 2021 - 2022 I conducted an extensive artistic research supported by the grant of the Flemish Community, Belgium (Sept 2021 - Feb 2022). Moreover, being an associate artist of Jubilee (Brussels, Be), I included and brought my research around lactation within the collective project Emptor which articulates various questions concerning (co)-property and ecologies of artistic practices. Since 2023 I continue the research in collaboration with TWIIID (Be), legal sounding board in arts, curator and dramaturge Azad Asifovich (Az/Fr), doctor of philosophy and writer Mélanie Weil (Fr/Be), artists & architects Ciel Grommen &Maximiliaan Royakkers etc.
Highlights of the research / Cornerstones of the ethical approach for Lactation Bodies:
1/ (in)(ex)clusion in public sphere
According to scholar Mathilde Cohen, major figure in the academic field around lactation and breast milk:
“breastfeeding in public has become more accepted, but ‘milk expression’ — defined as removing milk from the breasts manually or using a breast pump — continues to be seen as a distasteful bodily function, which should be confined to the private sphere”. 2
2/ lactation as labor
Alyssa Rosenberg, Breastfeeding isn’t ‘free’, The Washington Post, May 31, 2022
How as an artist can I frame lactation as a form of embodied labor?
Which legal and economical tools can I use to do so within artistic strategies?
In other words, what legal frameworks can I create in order to unpack the value of lactation labor and to reflect on co-ownership of artistic results with lactating mothers?
3/ falsified representations
Source: google images
Representations of lactation, and particularly milk-pumping as its blind-spot, are strikingly falsified. Serving mainly for marketing purposes, the images of milk expression are either sexualised or depicted as a leisure activity taking place in wealthy interiors. Even more disruptive representations bring up breast-pumping as a miracle solution for business success featuring ladies in office outfits performing breast-pumping at the workplace and with covered breasts.
4 / lactation in relation to colonial exploitation
Rutherford George Montgomery, Slave and Child, 1848
Nevertheless, lactation is advocated in European countries as a moral requirement and a strong social norm, can be particularly fraught for Black and Indigenous women, whose reproductive and lactating labor has historically been exploited for white interests.
As fairly states Mekha McGuire in Black Breastfeeding after a History of Trauma (2018):
"The history of the controlled reproductive capacities of Black and afro descended women is the foundation on which this country (USA) is built [...] “The echoes of slave women being forced to give up their milk still resounded. And black women didn’t talk to their sisters, daughters and granddaughters about how to feed their babies; the bottle was just assumed. And for some women, breast-feeding was a ‘white thing.’” [...] Some women who had breast-fed said it was a topic that couldn’t be addressed in their families. [...] “There were some older black women who wanted to disassociate themselves from the past, from slavery and the wet-nursing,” she said, explaining that often young slave women were pressed into giving their milk to white infants.[...] “A lot of slave babies died during slavery because they weren’t breast-fed. They were fed concoctions of dirty water and cows milk,” she said. Meanwhile, those children’s mothers were giving white children their milk. And women reported that oral histories have been reinforced by modern technology. “These pictures are all on social media” .
5/ inclusivity and gender questions in relation to lactation
" Lactation and breastfeeding are quintessentially mammalian, sex- based, heteronormative, and gendered characteristics. In coining the term “mammal” in 1758 to characterize a group of animals, Carl von Linné made the breast the icon of the class—in Latin mamma means breast (Schiebinger 1993). Yet, lactation is one of the few things, along with pregnancy, that only females, defined biologically, are supposed to do. Th e mere suggestion of a “lactating
man” is typically met with giggles and chuckles. While in several cultures, including the Vedic, Greco-Roman, and Arabic civilizations, milk itself was seen as a masculine fluid, owing its perfection to the contribution of male semen (Altorki 1980; Mahias 1987; Myers 2016), the activity of breastfeeding has consistently remained feminized and subordinated.
Yet, neither breasts nor lactation are exclusively female. All mammals, but for the stallion, male mice, anteater, and monotreme mammals such as the platypus, have teats. Instances of male lactation, defined in zoology as the production of milk by male mammals’ mammary glands, have long been reported in the scientific- medical, religious, and gender studies literature, as well as in folklore, the popular press, fiction, and visual arts. To cite but a few examples, in 350 BC Aristotle ([n.d] 1907: 522a) asserted, “from time to time [milk] has been found in a male,” marveling at a buck that produced enough milk to make cheese.
A couple of millennia later, French physician and philosopher Louis de Jaucourt (1751– 1765) claimed, “breasts are the same in men and women because in both sexes they sometimes filter real milk.” Male lactation must have been such a common topic of discourse in the eighteenth century that aft er referring to a couple of examples, Jaucourt swiftly concluded “[b]ut as no one doubts this truth today, it is unnecessary to dwell on it.” 3
1 Iselin Gambert, Making Milk Book Review, Hypatia Reviews Online (2019)
2 Mathilde Cohen,The Right to Express Milk, Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 33, 2021
3 Mathilde Cohen, "THE LACTATING MAN" in Making Milk. The Past, Present and Future of Our Primary Food, London & New York, Bloomsbury, 2017
with support of the Flemish Community and the platform for artistic research Jubilee (Be)
bed, milk, 2019
Untitled (The dwell)
bed, milk, 2009
Back then I used cow milk and the work could only exist as long as the milk remains fresh. Following several occasions to re-exhibit this initial piece (2009) way later in time, I questioned myself for the overuse of cow milk for both political and ecological reasons. This self-critique directed me towards human milk.