Post-Partum Document, 1973-79



Mary Kelly was one of the highest profile artists to come out of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain. In this film you can hear her talking about her work Post Partum Document.

Documentary experience

Mary Kelly was a member of the Berwick Street Collective, a London-based film collective that released the radically innovative Nightcleaners Part I 1975. This film documented the experience of women working the night shift cleaning office blocks in London, and covered the struggle with unions and the conditions under which the cleaners worked. You can find out more about the Nightcleaners campaign in Activism.

Post Partum Document

Mary Kelly became more famous for her conceptual work Post Partum Document, in which she documents the early years of her son’s life (1973–9). The whole work was displayed at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in 1976. It caused uproar in the press because of Mary Kelly’s inclusion of one of her son’s dirty nappies. She was deeply influenced by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–81) and was a member of a feminist discussion group that analysed his theories. These investigated the gendering of early child development and the unconscious.

Why do you think the inclusion of a dirty nappy in a frame at the ICA in the 1970s was so controversial? What do you think about this reaction?

What images of mothers, mothering and children have you seen in an artistic context? How do you think Post Partum Document challenged traditional representations of the mother-child relationship?

Film credits
This extract is taken from the film Mary Kelly, Fyra verk i dialog 1973-2010 (Four Works in Dialogue 1973-2010) for the Moderna Museet Stockholm. Producer: Ulf Eriksson © Moderna Museet



Those kinds of debate that were current around domestic labour came together with my personal experience and generated something which I really hadn’t anticipated the complexity of. It kind of ran against the grain of a certain common sense argument about the division of labour, suggesting that it would be enough just to understand this in terms of equal pay and equal work. And I think it made me much more aware, along with you know some other women at the time that you needed to try to understand what the psychological underpinnings of this actual social division of labour was. And I was having a child myself so I set out to really document what that minute kind of daily activity meant in relation to the child. When I first started to take down exactly the sorts of things you’d be told to do anyway by the doctor, like ‘let us know what you’re feeding the child’, so I just did it every hour of every day and then I thought well the only way you have of knowing how good you are at this is what comes out. So I didn’t really use the stained nappy liners, the infamous nappy liners, because I was trying to be sensational but because they were the record, they were the evidence. And it was also related to another rather important strategy for me, which was how to do this without a conventional image of the mother and child. I didn’t want to use figurative image so I wanted to use this kind of juxtaposition of narrative elements and found objects - really in the category of memorabilia - to signify something about the mother’s experience, and to put the spectator in the position of hearing her rather than looking at her. That is, thinking about the subject rather than the position of objectifying her. I mean this is well understood now, it’s no big deal to say this, but at the time it was quite controversial and I just ended up making almost everyone unhappy with that work. Because all the theorists would say oh it’s great, you know the critics said ‘I like the theory, but what do you have to have this stuff in there for?’ And then the women would say ‘well, I can relate to the experience but why have you got that theory in there.’ So it was almost the fact that you had this limited audience in one way (artists, women involved in those issues that could perhaps get it), but in a very important way it kind of stretched the audience out in these very very different directions and I was somewhat unprepared for that in the beginning. But I feel now that my specific site that may have come out of that movement generated the questions. It’s like the first question was what this thing is called femininity, and what specifically is maternal femininity? And then after that the question is okay what falls outside of this kind of maternal relation, what other kinds of object choice are there? And then again that question led to well, you know, what about assumptions of masculinity in my later work? And by that time we’re up to the nineties and women asking for the right to go to the front and kill. So you obviously have to reconsider.
Post-Partum Document, 1973-79
© Moderna Museet Stockholm
Held by
Moderna Museet Stockholm

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