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The Artist As Many Other Things First

Holli McEntegart in conversation with Anne Noble, facilitated by Mark Amery.

Image: Anne Noble

Merging her work as an artist, mother and full spectrum doula, Holli McEntegart recently brought something remarkably different to the bustle of Wellington’s Courtenay Place, in an exploration of art as a social practice.

Providing a warm, calm space for participation, Inhabit brought together mothers and their infants to examine how community, cultural and whānau postpartum care has changed in Aotearoa, sharing experiences in real-time and as oral history. A private issue was brought into a public realm.

Rethinking the artist’s role in society, McEntegart was supported by artist Anne Noble in a project commissioned by Letting Space for vacant space activators Urban Dream Brokerage. McEntegart now has plans to bring the project to Auckland.

Here are Holli and Anne in conversation. Mark Amery

Anne Noble: Letting Space and Urban Dream Brokerage have made a really remarkable contribution to the Wellington art scene. Letting Space positioned itself as an entity that sits outside the conventional domain of the gallery, where the artist is mostly defined as a producer of objects and artefacts. They offered an experimental space and an invitation to artists to expand the ecology of contemporary art and provide support for them to provide a new kind of experience for communities and publics to engage with contemporary art. I see Inhabit as a perfect example of the kind of project that Letting Space and Urban Dream Brokerage were established to nurture, enable and support.

When I first thought about your ambition for Inhabit: to marry both your practices as an artist and a full spectrum doula, one of my first questions was about the expanded role of the artist in a social practice. How is your work first and foremost art while being shaped by other practices and concerns?

What came to mind was a book [^1] I’ve had on my bookshelf, which has on its cover The Artist As followed by a list: that includes such descriptors of the artist as .. producer; the artist as… archivist; the artist as… ethnographer; the artist as… catalyst; the artist as… orchestrator; the artist as… poet; the artist as… curator. And it ends with this really beautiful phrase in capital letters: AND MANY OTHER THINGS FIRST.

This points to the fundamental premise of your art practice - driven and formed by another whole domain of expertise, professional practice, experience and activist concerns.

Image: Anne Noble | Infant massage with Jo Chambers. From left: Megan Rodgers and Jasper, Jo Chambers from Blissful Bubs

You define yourself as a social practice artist but you also practice as a full spectrum doula. How did you arrive at the idea of merging your practice as an artist with your life as a mother, your interest in the post-partum experience and your activism in this space?

Holli McEntegart: You and I talked a lot about the artist as a conduit; or as activator. As a young artist I was always really interested in capturing images of moments that had complicated stories behind them. I realised that my interest was often more in the story; how we got to this point; the full stop. The work was always, for me, in the negotiation of getting to that image - with the image itself feeling lacklustre in comparison to that journey.

Then when I moved to Pittsburgh to complete my Masters I found that there was a greater focus on social practice as a role for the artmaker. The driving need for me has always been to build relationships, and therefore community. So when I was taking photographs I would spend months getting to know people, navigating the permission, not just to be there, but to be accepted; to belong. I’ve joined every group under the sun! A loon (an aquatic bird) counting group in Maine, a porcelain painting group in Mt Albert, a bluegrass group, banjo club and a barbershop quartet in Pittsburgh, and a cake decorating group in Otara, to name a few. But I didn't feel like I had the right to be there unless I was really an accepted part of the community. That came to a head for me in Pittsburgh when I joined a semi-gated spiritualist community called Lily Dale, and began making work out of the readings they were doing for me. I would spend eight months with them before I could make that work.

By the time I was living in New York there were many grants, residencies and galleries supporting a socially engaged framework of art making. My eyes were opened to the fact that this community exchange and the energy I was investing into relationship building was not only valid, it was the work.That really gave me permission to move past just documenting my work with photographs or videos and writing and to pull the focus back to the process, the making and the relationship tending.

Research is a huge part of my process, whatever I’m working on I’m always off down a research tunnel. So, when I got pregnant in New York with my first child Arlo I went on a huge journey to understand pregnancy, birth and everything that was happening to my body. I discovered that in New York City, the maternal mortality rate in pregnancy, birth and early postpartum is astoundingly high, and that black women are 12 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. OB’s are often pushing for a lot of unnecessary interventions within the hospital system and midwives are not as commonly used, though that is changing. I come from a family of home birthers in New Zealand, it was normalised and seemed like the obvious place for me to birth, but only around 1.5% of people give birth at home in the US, so it's quite a radical thing to do in that context.

I was so lucky that I had a neighbour and friend who was training to be a midwife and was working as a birth doula. Through her I discovered this group of folks called doulas. I started learning about the role they play in birth work, about reproductive and birth justice advocacy, and about everything I was going to need to know to birth my baby at home while being supported by a midwife and doula team.

Image: Anne Noble

To read the entire conversation, visit Urban Dream Brokerage


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