In late 1997, following heated public debate – freedom of choice was enshrined within South Africa’s Termination of Pregnancy Bill. The tensions and controversial publicity generated by the abortion debate were useful for more reasons than their outcome. The open parliamentary process facilitated a public display that transgressed deeply held, extremely repressive taboos surrounding sexuality and the private domain. It was at this time, and in the context of the increased subtlety and complexity being forged in the relationship between the public and private realms in South Africa, that this project evolved.
In 1999/2000, informed by lively consultation with hospital staff, and working in collaboration with architect Nina Cohen, Maternal Exposures was permanently installed into the densely trafficked antenatal waiting area of Mowbray Maternity Hospital, in Cape Town. It was designed so that it related strongly to the function and uses of this hospital space, and interacted with the public in whom the work originated. The photographs and text derive from interviews I conducted at the same hospital over a period of six months; informal encounters with women who were pregnant, about to give birth or had just given birth. The text alternates between the three principal languages of the Western Cape (Afrikaans, English and Xhosa) and is conversational in tone. It threads through the installation and reflects a broad range of experience and opinion. At times provocative, poignant, humorous, brave, entertaining, sexy, sad and challenging. The text, and the red keywords are another layer, and intended to contradict the so-called ‘documentariness’ of the images, and raise questions about photographic meaning. Most particularly about the ways in which photographs of women with children are conventionally ‘read’.