Reproducing as an Im/migrant: Young Joo Lee, Maria Kulikovska, and Coralina Rodriguez Meyer
During a talk at NYU, feminist post-Marxist scholar and author Silvia Federici said: “The image of the worker is not the image of the person at the assembly line; it’s the immigrant.” With this statement, she is referring to vulnerable migrants whose movements are fueled by the climate crisis, corporate control of natural resources, and economics. With her social practice project Mama Spa Botanica, Coralina Rodriguez Meyer attempts to recreate the bond between nature and the female body to enhance healthcare for black and brown pregnant women, empowering them to advocate for themselves and their communities within an inadequate maternal healthcare system. In her book, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism, to explain the link between migrants and reproduction, Federici cites “the war on human reproduction” which encapsulates the separation of people from land, soil, sea, and independent means of reproduction acted out by corporate interests. This is a separation that Rodriguez Meyer both highlights and resists in her work.
Maria Kulikovska, a Ukrainian artist, documents her fears in watercolors as she is living out the consequences of the Russian government that prioritizes land over people—forcing her to leave her country. With a different systemic approach, Young Joo Lee’s work investigates global and generational shifts in how women and immigrants are treated within their intimate family structures. Reproductive health and justice are often bypassed but should be integral when advocating for the rights of immigrants and migrants.
As part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone, the resistant pregnant body and the social structures women must navigate are front and center in Rodriguez Meyer’s retablo, tableaux, Santuarios Gestation Desmadres at Artist’s Alliance + Cuchifritos Gallery, Lee’s work <Disgraceful Blue> in Parasites and Vessels at Accent Sisters, and Kulikovska’s watercolor series in Conflictual Distance at EFA Project Space. Co-curator Anna Mikaela Ekstrand interviews the three artists about their work that centers on themes of reproductive rights, pregnancy, and motherhood.
Your work dealt with the female/pregnant body, even before your own pregnancies. What does the pregnant body represent to you? How has your relationship changed since your pregnancy and childbirth?
MK: I started working with the body—physicality—and the life of a human being, particularly women, a long time ago. Even while studying architecture, I was most interested in the body in space and how one affects the other. Beginning in 2009, I have worked extensively with body casting, including in Army of Clones, and Homo Bulla, where I used soap as material—I even cast my own body. Before casting the molds, I usually sketch out in watercolor or pencil to visualize the sculptures. When Crimea, my hometown, was first occupied by Russia, I experienced war and became a migrant for the first time. So, after a decade of processing a woman’s body, which is not pregnant but which is full of injuries, pain, its secrets, and even pathologies in the female organs, a woman’s body, which fights with power, borders, for its right to exist, with migration controls and frameworks. I started to imagine what it would be like if I was a pregnant migrant or if I already had a child.
At this time, I met and fell in love with my partner. Although I had terrible premonitions of an imminent full-scale war, our love motivated me to build a home and to create a real base in Kyiv—a permanent studio and the experimental art space Garage33, a gallery-shelter, where we as artists could be free to reflect on the world. I wanted a child with my partner but was unsure if my body would allow me to carry a baby to term. My frustration kept on building during multiple attempts to conceive, fueled by personal physical pain, fears of war, the memory of once losing a home, the fear of losing my partner, the lack of a sense of support and security, and the bitterness of migration. If I were to get pregnant, what would happen to me, to us? What would it be like to be without a partner, without a home, without friends and family, without the right to see a doctor, the right just to be? During this time, I obsessively painted pregnant bodies, romanticizing them while visualizing my fears. These pregnant motifs appear in the Migration Papers, 888, and Swimming in Freedom.
Painting helped me process, and I allowed myself to accept that perhaps I would never get pregnant, but then it happened. From the first day, my pregnancy was a struggle to preserve and carry the child—I suffered unbearable pain, loss of functional capacity, and prolonged hospital stays. Despite this physical discomfort and maintenance, I was happy that there was life inside me. For the first time, all my fears and depression simply crashed on the rock of determination and love.
On the birthday of our Eva, I begged the universe not to start the war. Her birth was traumatic; it did not go as we had agreed with the doctors. I was met with passive-aggressive bullying from the medical staff—for them, birthing children is a business and an opportunity to earn corrupted money. I had a cesarean section, lying there, cut open, legs paralyzed, unable to get up and feed my child, not allowed to see my loved one—a lot of everything—I thought about the fears that I used to draw and how they came together here and now and that they were real, physical, and so big. Coming home from the hospital, we started to learn how to live together, and every day, I asked the universe to give me a little more time. I wanted to start walking normally again, take care of myself, and establish breastfeeding before the Russians would start bombing Kyiv. I needed to be able to run from our twenty-first floor down to the basement and keep my baby nourished while we were there. From the child’s birth, all my premonitions of an imminent war were so exposed that it sometimes took my breath away. But the new little child gave me the strength and resilience not to despair but to live on.
Because of the full-scale invasion, my partner and co-author, Oleg Vinnichenko, and I have been forced to separate—he cannot live with me abroad. We now dream of installing a cast of my/our pregnant body across multiple sites.
YJL: I am interested in how culture, social norms, beliefs, and systemic rules shape a person’s idea of the world and self. As someone who grew up in a patriarchal Korean society and who experienced eating disorders as a teenager, early on, I was interested in the female body, its social and cultural aspects, and as a personal medium. I investigate how media, religion, and everyday experiences control the female body in different cultures. I am also interested in imagining alternative perceptions and versions of the female body. Before I became a mother, I saw the female/pregnant body as a culturally and socially charged image. Being pregnant and becoming a mother, I now see the female/pregnant body as a conduit to empathy and memories deeply ingrained in humankind, partly due to the pain and suffering women generally go through during pregnancy and giving birth. It’s also because one shares one’s body with another living being for nine months. Breastfeeding and caring for a baby takes a lot of endurance, patience, empathy, and nonverbal communication skills. Having a female/pregnant body is a burden but, at the same time, a privilege.
CRM: Soon after my life-threatening delivery during a tropical storm in Miami in 2018, when I met Griot/Doula Nicky Dawkins, my activism, archive research, and art-making processes merged. She guided me to transform my trauma into power by employing Ital/Caribbean to Tinkuy/Andean practices, rituals, and rites passed on by my mother. We formed the Mama Spa Botanica workshop to transgress conflicting social and environmental justice movements that incorporated cultural traditions to preserve life developed over millennials within our Q+BIPOC immigrant, mixed-race communities. The documentary photography, sculptures, and multi-sensory retablos we create together resist internalized stigmas that breach an intersecting reproductive health and climate crisis in America. In addition, our work critiques the American caste system as a form of social, environmental, and internalized violence to evolve self-regard as an extension of community care. The Mother Mold monuments, Linea Negra photographs, and Folliage Obscura retablos render the texture and complexion of our ancient rituals into an entire spectrum of habitats for cultural medicine.
Looking further back, I started working with pregnant bodies in my Linea Negra series of photographs and moving images in 2008 after receiving my infertility diagnosis while struggling with other major physical and neurological disabilities. While working in architecture by day, I found documentary photography to be an accessible medium for connecting with my chosen family, with whom I developed therapeutic techniques to transgress my trauma through mourning and our neighborhood self-regard. The series began in 2008 with Claire, an Indigenous Hawaiian, and Aki, a Japanese-American, two friends pregnant with a boy and a girl, respectively. They both had prominent Linea Negras and experienced increasing discrimination while pregnant. They shared an urgency to resist old wives’ tales, maxims, slogans, and the barrage of “advice” demanded of a stigmatized body. The project began by investigating the inception of ranking systems in American mythology via the Linea Negra, or hemispheric melanin line that appears on the body when pregnant. Linea Negra is the first collaborative mark on the body made by the fetus and its mother—an original Pieta. Creating human life in post-reconstruction America demands a diasporic mother to develop a transgressive process for identity reconstitution in trimesters. This radical act of agency building profoundly influenced my work as an activist, artist, academic, and architect. The labor of a pregnant, mixed-race body is inseparable from democratic fertility.
When I became pregnant, I utilized my architecture degree, worked in real estate development, built a skyscraper, and taught and organized a community through my Arpilleras Americanxs project. I was forced to confront the burden of labor I had inherited when becoming pregnant “miraculously” and was diagnosed with Hyper Emesis Gravidarum, a life-threatening medical condition during pregnancy. Digging myself out of economic, social, political, cultural, and gender debt while debilitated was a way to confront my late indigenous mother’s life-threatening delivery to me in a car in the Everglades swamp. A decade after its inception, the Linea Negra series photographs evolved into the Mother Mold monuments when I began excavating my own family’s history within the structural violence of Miami Reaganomics while simultaneously celebrating my pregnancy with a vernacular belly cast. During a birthing class, a hospital nurse informed me that I should bank or donate my cord blood because black/brown infant and maternal mortality rates in Miami were reaching alarming rates. I knew I had to continue to work with our communities living within this maternal healthcare crisis, and there is still much to be done.
How do tradition, technology, feminist practice, and ancestral knowledge interplay in your work?
CRM: Artificial and ancestral Intelligence is a pietà in the Mama Spa Botanica workshop—but pop culture is also present. The Mother Mold birth mask is a popular sculpture from Cardi B’s belly cast to Rihanna’s post-apocalyptic drone birth canal at the 2023 Superbowl halftime performance. Through the workshops, we link these contemporary practices with historical precedents. Most diasporic families don’t know that by making belly casts, they practice cultural rituals dating thousands of years before colonization when our societies were moving, trading, and translating cultural values across geospatial and architectural boundaries. Pregnant belly casts are a form of mummification and fertility effigy creation, and creating them extends the ancestral infrastructural history of Huacas, pyramids, and burial traditions.
In the past, many of today’s “universal” lifesaving reproductive and environmental health practices were propagated by matriarchal social structures. Although biomimicry is prostituted as a new technology, black and brown matriarchs have cultivated evolutionary medical advances across millennia. For example, jack fruit is a natural pitocin used in Ital and Tinkuy cultures to induce labor. It can also be used as an abortifacient. Traditionally, our Griots, Quipucamayocs, and Curanderas have cultivated plants or people simultaneously. Unfortunately, the separation process between humans and the nature of assimilation has proven deadly for our human race and other species. The immersive retablos we create refigure white cubes, hospitals, and institutions into culturally enhanced public and environmental health habitats.
Within Western art history, Death Masks was one of the first global public art exhibitions emerging from Europe to demonstrate the inception of democracy brought on by the Haitian revolution. Before the invention of photography, French revolutionaries paraded portrait casts called “Death Masks” of guillotined aristocrats to prove the possibility of democracy. Today, our Mother Mold monuments are birth casts celebrating survivors of intersecting climate and reproductive health crises in America. At the same time, the Mama Spa Botanica translates macabre statistics, or deadly statutes, into fertile statues that both welcome and warn future ancestors of our abject state of democracy.
YJL: I always struggled to identify as a feminist, perhaps because feminism didn’t originate from South Korea, where I was born and grew up. However, I am always keen on learning from other women. The stories of my mother and grandmothers (biological and from history) matter a lot because I find myself anchored to these roots, which helps me see where I want to go. My experiences as a woman are an extension of theirs. I am also interested in the places and spaces in which their stories take place.
Enlivened by charcoal drawing, photographs, and sound, my video work <Disgraceful Blue>, included in the biennial, uses a digital animation technique of a long scroll storyboard that references Korean/Asian traditional hand scroll paintings. I found the scroll format fascinating as a way of exploring space and time, so in this work, I use this format, mixing domestic spaces and landscapes. Thus, I annex the traditionally male-dominated genre of painting and expand on its lexicon of idealized landscapes to reflect my reality. The landscapes in my animation works are psychological spaces. In many video artworks, looping is used for exhibition, often because in an art gallery, the viewer comes and goes, thus missing the beginning or the end. I conceptually implement this idea of loop in the work’s narrative structure. The daughter becomes “I,” a mother who gives birth to a daughter. I also think about resilience and passing on tradition, memory, and mother-daughter relationship knowledge. The mother and daughter evolve together through generations to create a spiral shape. So, the loop I am trying to depict extends into space rather than staying on a two-dimensional surface.
What does it mean to have a child during wartime?
MK: Carrying myself and a child and our three suitcases that fit our lives is exhausting. Not having a permanent home and constantly moving for exhibitions and teaching exhausts me; I can’t imagine how our little girl feels as an adult. It is difficult to ask a child to choose 1-2 favorite toys and leave all the others repeatedly—I can’t bring it all. When she started to speak, it was in Ukrainian, but she is surrounded by different languages that she does not yet understand, and often, others do not understand her—this makes me very sad. Home is two-fold; secondarily, it is wherever we stay for more than 1-2 days, but primarily, it is somewhere constant, which does not yet exist. When she gets tired and can’t handle her emotions, she asks to go home, and at that moment, I feel despair as I am lost between borders. I don’t know in which city or even country our new home will be; I am lost between borders.
For three weeks in April this year, we went to Kyiv and lived in our apartment. We were fortunate during this time as there were almost no air raids and bombings. These were the happiest moments not only for me but also for our daughter. She still remembers it and sometimes asks to go back to Ukraine because there she had her own space, many toys, a routine, and people who support her—all the things that foster the freedom just to be.
The heaviest burden is that we are strangers everywhere. Each new place requires us to start from zero and always be grateful and happy. We must understand the rules of each new country better than their citizens, and we are expected to behave perfectly, yet we will always need to be better to be locals.
Diaspora emerges as an important theme in your work, sometimes in roundabout ways. Please speak about how you negotiate and navigate this term.
CRM: Coming out as Tinkuy (Queer) was as much a process of diasporic inquiry as the inquisition of class passing during the assimilation process that defines our binary racial constructs in the American caste system. When I received my DNA test as siting my heritage from Africa, America, and Europe, I felt vindicated that the technology did not reveal any more about myself than my abuela taught me. Our families, history, and Linea Negra are not black or white: they are full spectrum. Although the etymology of the word diaspora in Greek/Latin refers to people spreading or dispersion of pueblos, the Mama Spa Botanica project is focused on our collective entropy. How do we motivate our most unvanquished species or neighbors to build agency during their most vulnerable moment?
My collaborator Dawkins—who modeled for the Linea Negra photograph Double Consciousness Infinity Mirror—described the experience of being photographed before giving birth as an infinite self-reproduction or “becoming her mom.” At the time, she divided and conquered her fear through advocacy and action to help her baby, herself, and her doula work survive. During a birthing crisis in Miami, Dawkins led political movements within the Southern Birth Justice Network and Period Miami while delivering babies. She has now established Period Market—an accessible reproductive health forum. Our lives are not static—we can lift each other. In Miami, Creole, Caribbean, and Latinx culture is diaspora; immigrant experiences may determine your status, class, or time in ICE prison, but it does not define your interior imagination or movement.
Young Joo Lee, Maria Kulikovska, and Coralina Rodriguez Meyeri are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here.
About the Writer: Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Swedish/Guyanese writer, researcher, and curator interested in feminism, social practice, decolonization, and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. Anna Mikaela holds dual master’s degrees in art and design history from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center. Her latest books are “Assuming Asymmetries. Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects in the 1980s and 1990s” and “Curating Beyond the Mainstream,” published by Sternberg Press in 2022. She is co-curator of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone and the organization’s Associate Director.
Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this interview is part of an interview and review series that will be published throughout its programming.