Mary Kelly

Important early film by 'the mother of all feminist artists' donated to Brighton Art Gallery writes: An important early film by Mary Kelly, Antepartum, 1973, has been acquired for the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove’s Fine Art Collection through the Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society initiative.


The museum is receiving the work through this scheme after making a strong case for addressing the representation of women artists within their existing collections. To allow viewing during the lockdown, the Contemporary Art Society will be screening Antepartum on their website as part of its #CASatHome series for 72 hours from midday on 6 May 2020 to midday on 9 May. The film will be accompanied by the pre-recorded In-Conversation with the artist.

Mary Kelly was renowned early in her career for introducing feminist concerns into the male-dominated conceptual art world in the 1970s and Antepartum forms a prologue to her iconic Post-Partum Document, 1973-79. This six-year project saw Kelly, influenced by psychoanalytic theory, explore and document the mother-child relationship.

Composed of a black and white single close-up shot, Antepartum portrays a pregnant stomach at full term. Action is minimal – the woman’s abdomen rises and falls with each breath and the baby’s foetal movements are at times visible under the surface of the skin. The short film is projected as a continuous loop which enables viewers to feel they are watching a pregnancy in real-time.

Inspired by contemporary experimental filmmaking, Kelly refuses narrative and encourages the viewer to understand the image as a material two-dimensional visual presence rather than a representational component of a larger story. Such an aesthetic reflects earlier durational film-works such as Andy Warhol’s iconic films Sleep and Empire (1964). However, Kelly uses the film to communicate a female experience that lies outside of conventional narrative language and makes visible what was invisible in the art world at the time. She encourages a re-thinking of conventional concepts of what constitute ‘creativity’ and ‘productivity’. The ‘objective’ disengaged view of the camera revealing only the abdomen focuses attention on the bodily experience, whilst resisting an essentialist reading.

Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society is a joint initiative of philanthropist Valeria Napoleone and the Contemporary Art Society. The scheme purchases and donates a significant work by a living female artist each year to a UK museum that has made a strong case for addressing the representation of female artists within their existing collections.

Past acquisitions have included work by Bernie Searle for Manchester Art Gallery, Martine Syms for Leeds Art Gallery and Aliza Nisenbaum for Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

Mary Kelly, Artist said: "I am delighted that 'Antepartum' has been acquired by the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. England was the birthplace of my career as an artist and it is especially fitting that the very first work in my extended project on the mother/child relationship should be available to audiences there. I am grateful to the Contemporary Art Society for their enthusiastic support and to Valeria Napoleone for her important patronage of women artists."

Caroline Douglas, Director, Contemporary Art Society, said: “The importance of Mary Kelly's short film ‘Antepartum’ is in direct contrast to its apparent simplicity. Its repeating 90-second cycle is mesmerising - it is at once a deeply personal expression of the primary experience of pregnancy, a political statement about the marginalisation of the female in public life, and a powerful example of the experimental film making that was taking place at the time. It is a radical intervention in the art history of the nude, and a milestone in empowerment of women artists.

I'm pleased that this acquisition will throw a spotlight onto the role of female artists in the early development of moving image, and that this particular work of Kelly's can now be understood in relation to her ground-breaking ‘Post-Partum Document’.”

Cllr Alan Robins, Chair of the Tourism, Equalities, Communities & Culture Committee of Brighton & Hove City Council said; "We are very thankful to Valeria Napoleone and the Contemporary Art Society for their support. Mary Kelly’s film Antepartum will comment on and enhance the museum's existing film and painting collection including its many historical depictions of women. The Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society award proves a milestone in RPM’s efforts to diversify its collection and increase its representation of women artists."

Valeria Napoleone said: “The mission of VN XX CAS is to create a more balanced representation of female artists in our museums, so to bring such a remarkable masterpiece in the genre of conceptual and feminist art to Brighton was particularly exciting. This acquisition highlights Kelly’s central interest to illuminate the complexity of social inequalities and brings women's experience to the forefront of conceptual work, focusing on feminism, psychoanalytic nuisances, domestic labour, mother and child subjectivities - concepts rarely discussed in the 1970s. This powerful and lucid picture of the unborn baby's movements increases the attention of the viewer to the invisible, both physical and metaphysical: the relationship between mother and child.”

To celebrate the acquisition of Antepartum, the film and an In-Conversation with Mary Kelly; Jenny Lund, Curator of Fine Art at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery; and Valeria Napoleone, hosted by Caroline Douglas, Director of the Contemporary Art Society has been made available to view online.

7 May 2020