The history of photographers making images of their family is a rich one, but how do we photograph the intangibility and complexity of what we inherit from our family? What does it mean to declare agency over personal history through art?
Lindley Warren Mickunas’ new project Maternal Sheet delves deep into these complexities without hesitation. Inspired by psychodrama (a practice of dramatization and storytelling as a form of psychotherapy), the artist examines familial pain, beauty, heritage, trauma, and the institutionalized sexism of art history as a way of unpacking her own relationship to motherhood.
In this interview for LensCulture, Warren Mickunas talks with Dylan Hausthor about the importance of perspective, history, and how reenacting and reimagining scenes of her own past inspire her work.
Dylan Hausthor: Could you give us a brief overview of Maternal Sheet? Where did it begin? Was there a particular image that you made that began to spark others?
Lindley Warren Mickunas: It began the winter of 2017 in Iowa. I had been envisioning these images for years, so when the time finally came out, I produced a lot of them very quickly. But it was “Mother and Daughter” that shifted things for me. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep that image—something about it felt too sentimental. But then I spent some time away from it, and when I returned I found that it held an entirely new meaning. Perhaps that image ended up being the guiding light that showed me how I could make images about what I wanted to speak to, without solely sourcing content from my own past.
DH: I recently put together a review of Zanele Muholi’s work, and it got me thinking about how photography might be an inherently queer and marginalized medium. So much of photographing is about performance and reclamation—rewriting personal and political histories. I really sense this in Maternal Sheet, especially after seeing your more “documentary” work. Femininity unapologetically haunts these images, and violence is certainly implicit. Do you feel as if you’re making this work as an act against something specific? Does it feel like activism?
LWM: The history of men portraying the female experience is so thick throughout art history that there is an enormous amount of room for women to make work about our truth. Every time a woman does this it is an act of resistance and repossession. Both as a researcher and practitioner, I look to feminist artists—especially those from the 70s who utilized photography in their practice—who paved the way for women today, and I am eternally grateful to them.
DH: What is your own relationship to motherhood?
LWM: The beginning of it all is in a womb. It’s a similar space to a creative mind—it is there that things form. Upon entering the world they are so malleable and given shape by the things that surround them. I became intrigued by the initial violence experienced at birth for both child and mother—the ripping apart of one being into two, the blood, the pain, the irreversible separation. And then throughout life, there’s a constant striving to reunite—an impossibility. This provided me with a way to somehow make sense of why I feel that I embody the abuse placed on my mother’s body that I witnessed as a child.
DH: I’m always interested in the threads that connect mental health to art. I think when we’re very young, we primarily use art-making as therapy, but when we get to a point of showing our work to others, meanings become warped and intentions are cross-wired. Artists begin to copy themselves, and socialized performance gets more evident. Trauma, mental health, and healing are clearly important in this work—do you use therapy more as inspiration or as content?
LWM: I read a lot of psychology articles and essays, and through doing so, I’ve found that it is very empowering to have the terminology to speak about what I’ve experienced, and to have a deeper understanding of my family history and its lingering effects. Likewise, in the photographic process, I utilize methods that are used in psychodrama, such as reenactments and surrogates. It is a potent experience to bring difficult memories back into physical existence—to control them and capture them all on my own terms.
DH: The individual identities of the people you’re photographing seem less important than the author’s voice in the construction of the scenes. It feels as if I’m looking through a two-way mirror at these images, seeing something through a carefully determined perspective while being unsure of my own culpability in what’s happening. Are you interested in putting viewers in a specific position?
LWM: One thing that pulls me in about psychodrama is the attempt to see things from another person’s perspective and thus gain empathy for them. It is a definite hope of mine that I have some capacity to move viewers out of an accustomed stance and into an unfamiliar space where they are able to experience things from a new viewpoint. But you’re also right in saying that the stories of the actual individuals photographed aren’t relevant to the work, as they’re all stand-ins for other people or concepts.
DH: How has making Maternal Sheet affected your relationship to family history?
LWM: Last night I saw The Last Black Man in San Francisco and it is a moving example of the way that family history can have such a stronghold over us. It can be incredibly difficult to face how bleak our pasts may be head-on. However, we must reclaim power over our own destinies in order to live without being haunted by the things we were never able to control. There is a brilliant scene where one of the characters, Mont, proclaims something along the lines of, “Let us give each other the courage to break beyond the stories we are born into!” We can’t change what we have been given—only how we deal with it.
Editor’s Note: If you’d like to browse the other images in Maternal Sheet, as well as Warren Lindley’s other projects, be sure to visit her personal website here.