Rineke Dijkstra's name sets off a series of associations for me tied to my earliest impressions of Europe. I first encountered her photographs at the Centre Pompidou in Paris when I was 21 and nearing the end of eight months studying abroad. Five years earlier the Centre Pompidou had introduced me to contemporary art while I was visiting Paris with my mother, in Europe for the first time ever. I know how to pronounce her name because she's Dutch like my mother. And here I am 20 years later, a mum myself now, without a mum, having followed my family roots back to this continent to make a life.
Every now and then some detail - a sight, sound, or smell - will remind me of the flavour Europe had for me in those early days when it was still new. Well, 'new' might not be the best word. My mother's nostalgia for this continent formed a backdrop to my childhood that made it feel like home even before I'd ever stepped foot here. But it was still very different from the place I was raised. I will be teleported back to the feeling of those early days, the first impressions, by anything from a whiff of laundry detergent while walking down the street to watching the countryside whip past me on a train.
That's what happened when I saw Rineke Dijkstra's photo of Tecla, Amsterdam, Holland, May 16 in this fabulous article about motherhood in art by Zoe Williams in the Guardian. Williams does a brilliant job of expressing what captivated me the first time I saw the photograph all those years ago:
The physical toll of the whole messy business is there in a single track of blood down the model’s leg; visible and shocking, after centuries of an aesthetic norm in which the tribulations of Christ were fair game but the trials of childbirth mainly taboo. … Dijkstra’s subject is also visibly frightened, which is perhaps the greater taboo – that while the role might be genetically predetermined, that doesn’t mean you know how to do it or that you take naturally to the erasure of your former self. The tenderness is there, but is the source of her terror; even as she stands naked, it is her tiny baby that is her undefended flank.
Twenty-two years later I would argue it's still taboo to suggest women don't just take naturally to motherhood. This is one of my favourite things about art: its ability to capture so much more than words ever could about the human experience, and in this case the achingly raw tenderness of new motherhood.