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Artist Leah DeVun: On Photography, Motherhood, Brooklyn, and More

October 14, 2015

No matter what type of lady you are, having a baby shifts your entire identity over into the nebulous cloud of motherhood~ the giant, amorphous, overpowering cloud of motherhood, whose nature changes you- guaranteed. You may think, before you have your first kid, that everything about you will remain intact and only get “cooler,” but I have to break it to you- the badge of parenting comes with internal and external shifts that will surely shock and surprise. When I had my first baby, everything was so intense to become accustomed to, that it took about three years for me to resurface above the fray, back as a semblance of the old me. When I first saw the photography of Brooklyn artist and mother Leah DeVun, I was immediately reminded of the adventure. Not only did it speak to the new mom me, but even the old me. She is an extremely relevant artist whose work would surely be appreciated by all parents and women, as it wholeheartedly delves into feminism, sexuality, theatrics, and identity. Here is some of it, and some of what she has to say about it. Make sure, if you can, to check out her next show, PET (about our culture’s current relationship to its pets), on October 30th at DOSE Projects in Brooklyn, where she will exhibit photographs and sculptures made with collaborator Riitta Ikonen. Here is Leah DeVun, writing about her breastfeeding series. ~Rebecca Conroy

Speaking about herself as a woman, and artist:
Because of health problems that I had while I was pregnant, my experience of pregnancy and giving birth was very medicalized. I was living in Austin, Texas at the time, and everyone was focused on natural birth. My friends had midwives and doulas, people were doing things like giving birth at sunset in birthing tubs outside surrounded by nature, and it all sounded quite magical. One friend showed me videos of women delivering babies on the beach while inspiring music played in the background. Another friend described how life-changing her birthing experience was, especially when she reached down and delivered her infant herself without any assistance. Yet another friend told me she “saw God.” My experience was pretty much the opposite: I gave birth in a hospital hooked up to machines under challenging circumstances that were transcendent in their own way, I suppose. But instead of being depressed about the “failure” of my body to give birth “naturally,” I became interested in exploring how we think of pregnant and nursing bodies, and all their entanglements with what we might call the technological and artificial.
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The more I talked to other mothers, the more I was struck by how many aspects of pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding didn’t come naturally at all, and how this stirred up complicated emotions — mothers often were disappointed in themselves for failing to meet our societal demands for a certain kind of effortless or heroic childbearing experience.
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This set of photographs of breastfeeding mothers is intended to document the reality of that relationship between self and other, natural and artificial, success and failure, but it isn’t a rejection of the “unnatural” plastic and tubing in the photographs — it’s more a meditation on and an embrace of all the complexity of our bodily experiences.
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On her Photography work:
I’m a photographer and multimedia artist whose work mainly deals with questions about the body. I’ve been especially interested in feminist history, queer subcultures, communes and collectives, aging and beauty, reproduction and technology, and other similar topics. Much of my work is about subcultures of women and/or queers and tries to get at how they envision themselves and create community. I’ve photographed obsessive pre-teen fan-girls, sexagenarian ballroom dancers, and back-to-the-land lesbian separatists.
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I’m also interested in communities bound by intense commitments, whether political, aesthetic, or spiritual: I’ve documented the correspondence between teenage punk pen pals, practitioners of the religion Lucumí in Cuba, and extremely devoted pet owners.
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I’m also a writer and historian, and I teach women’s and gender history at Rutgers University. I’ve been lucky to be able to join together my different interests, often by doing exhibitions that involve not only photographs, but also dialogue and actions that allow me to have conversations with audiences, or that allow the people from the groups pictured in my photographs to speak for themselves.
I took studio art classes as a student at the University of Washington but I’m not a trained artist in the professional sense. I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University and training in art history and women’s and gender studies. I’ve also had the privilege to work with artists and curators as mentors and colleagues, and they’ve helped me develop my craft outside of a traditional school environment.
What she thinks about being a Brooklyn mother:
Being a parent in Brooklyn is a mixed bag. I’ve lived all over the U.S. and NYC is still my favorite city and, for good or bad, it’s the place I’ve lived longest and where I feel most at home. But the cost of living here has reached a level of absurdity that’s hard to reckon with. I first moved to NYC in 1996 so I have a fairly long memory of life in the city, and rising prices for housing and the erasure of longstanding and diverse communities through rapid gentrification is unprecedented in my experience, and terrible for the city. Families with children have extra space, childcare, and education considerations that make it hard to weather getting kicked out of your apartment on short notice (which happened to us), absorbing huge rent increases, or squeezing into a tiny space full of roommates or family members. Those of us without extended families in the area usually have difficulty making all the pieces of our home and professional lives fit together. I would love to see more organizing and tangible action to help make childcare and housing more affordable and accessible for everyone. On the positive side, my partner and I have met so many interesting and generous people here in the city who can relate to our experience as parents, or who support it even if they can’t relate, and who make it doable, especially since we’ve been able to help each other out and pool our time and resources.
On advice to young women artists in NYC:
My advice to young women artists in NY is to make your own events, communities, and audiences. Don’t just wait for someone to give you an opportunity. We need more perspectives and ideas out there, not just the ones that are favored by the more visible galleries and institutions right now, which have a dismal record of showcasing women and people of color. Keep doing it even if it seems like no one cares.
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I have a new show of photographs and sculptures, made with my collaborator Riitta Ikonen (http://www.riittaikonen.com), called PET — it’s a fun show about our current culture’s relationships with pets. It’s opening is 7-10pm on October 30th here in Brooklyn at DOSE Projects (300 Morgan Ave.): http://doseprojects.com for more information.