Whitehot Magazine

m OTHER: Blakelee Pieroni's Exploration of Stepmotherhood

m OTHER, curated by Blakelee Pieroni. Photo: Julian Lazaro @julianlazaro.

By VICTOR SLEDGE March 26, 2024

“I am the mother here, but I am not recognized as such,” says dancer, painter and curator, Blakelee Pieroni.

This isolating, heartbreaking realization propelled her into curating an ongoing exhibition that reveals to the world that while that experience itself is isolating, it actually unites so many stepmothers in our society.

The multimedia exhibition, m OTHER, is search in practice: search for community, identity, understanding, a voice – all revolving around the experience of being a stepmother. Pieroni, who became a stepmother at 24-years-old, has established an exhibition that helps anyone who has ever experienced the nuclear family structure understand what that title means, both physically and emotionally.

As an artist who has used dance and movement so integrally in her creative work, the physical implications on a stepmother’s body aren’t lost on Pieroni. In her own experience, she realizes that there is a covert element of physical labor to becoming a stepmother that was imperative to include in the exhibition.

“There’s such a heaviness that comes from the strain and invisible labor of motherhood,” Pieroni explains. “I incorporated performance art because I think that invisible labor needs to be visible.”

There is a physicality to how we understand motherhood that is so salient in Pieroni’s dance background. A part of our traditional thoughts behind motherhood are expectations that, if possible, a mother will choose to carry a child until the point of birth, where she will then take on these tactile responsibilities of breastfeeding, rocking, changing diapers, wiping faces – in our society, motherhood all but forces a mother to connect her body to her baby’s.

m OTHER, curated by Blakelee Pieroni. Photo: Julian Lazaro @julianlazaro

To honor those implicit demands on a mother’s body, Pieroni included Personhood, one of the most crippling pieces of performance art in the exhibit. The piece consists of trained dancers taking all their skill and their extraordinary connection to the body and using those only to clean mirrors for five hours straight.

The exhausting chore the dancers are forced to repeat is only a singular aspect of Personhood’s weight. It’s a flustering piece that forces the audience to take a peek behind a stepmother’s home to see the wear and tear of the work they do to feel and to be seen as worthy of respect in our nuclear family structure.

“It was so much more than the symbolism of domestic labor. It was asking ‘Where is your identity if you don't have something in your hand to clean or take care of?’”

The work in m OTHER suggests that for many stepmothers the answer to that question is illusive. In the exhibition you see corporeal, stifled performance art that feels bottomless and makes the performers feel nameless (in fact, many of the participating artists have asked to use pseudonyms).

It creates this parallel of what the stepmothers participating in the exhibition have experienced all too often: the feeling of fighting a losing battle, working tirelessly to fulfill a virtually unattainable role in the home. The work Pieroni curated for this exhibit explores that frustration.

“You do lose your identity, but mothers often get this opportunity to grow into something new whereas stepmoms are unsure of where to become and where to evolve,” Pieroni says.

Even past their artistic connection, the artists exhibited in m OTHER are able to resonate with each other through these feelings of a void identity that becoming a stepmother can create.

“We are acknowledging more and more how difficult it is to raise children, but the stepmom is not included in that conversation,” Pieroni explains. “There is not the same acceptance of the learning curve, the new mother anxiety, or the depression.”

This rejection and ostracization Pieroni describes reveals even more why she and other step mothers would be eager to find support in other people who share in that experience. The deeper you explore m OTHER, the more you realize that the exhibition is enriched by that sense of sisterhood Pieroni is trying to establish. It elevates the experience.

m OTHER, The Misunderstood Other Mother. Director: Clare Louise Cheyne. Photo: Tianna Brown, Kayla Naije, Maya Dwyer.

From the start, m OTHER was born out of Pieroni trying to claw her way into her own personhood as a young stepmother, searching for a community of people trying to unearth the same sense of identity in themselves. She’s curated performances that strike some of the most quieted, private moments of a stepmother’s work in the home, and these strike a chord with stepmoms that helps to illuminate these shared struggles.

“The effort is monumental because I’m catering to each individual artist. I want so desperately for them to have a community,” she says.

And a part of Pieroni’s work in building this community has also been building protections around it to make sure it will thrive.

She quickly found when she first spearheaded this exhibition last year that there is very little work that openly addresses the stepmother experience in our society. Through factors like financial dependence or a fear of court issues with the biological mother, art as intimate and sensitive as this takes insurmountable bravery to exhibit.

Even as a means of reclaiming one's own personhood, Pieroni found that artists working around these experiences are particularly reluctant to take their work public.

“I thought stepmoms were going to be able to share their experience and their personhood through their artwork. And I was wrong,” she says.

In fact, Pieroni herself struggled to convince herself to pursue this exhibit for almost five years.

“My whole career has been putting my private life into my work, and I really fought this for about five years so that I would have some separation from it,” she says. “But my mental health was struggling drastically, and I think it’s because I always turned to my craft to process, regulate and accept the things going on in life.”

Despite her own reservations, however, Pieroni has grown this exhibition to new heights since it began a year ago.

The exhibition has expanded into the documentary, m OTHER: The Misunderstood Other Mother, directed by Clare Cheyne, which was shown at the 2024 Through Women’s Eyes Film Festival and has expanded the exhibition’s notoriety and credibility in the stepmother-centered media space. It has garnered support from major voices in stepmother media, including Wednesday Martin and Naja Hall, both of whom were featured guests at this month’s exhibition alongside others like author Chloe Caldwell, Brenda Ockun and Dr. Lisa Doodson. And the number of artists willing to exhibit their work has grown significantly since the opening exhibition.

And even with the work Pieroni and the artists involved have poured into this exhibition, Pieroni can’t help but notice that the search for the community that mobilized her into this work is still missing. And she’s still fighting to change the way our society – legal entities, medical professionals and family members – views stepmotherhood.

“It has been just as difficult for me this year as it was last year, and I have not found the validation, acknowledgement and acceptance that I really need,” she says.

But her drive for that community and helping other stepmothers who pay the emotional toll of this lack of support is what is going to keep this exhibition going.

“That’s my focus – improving my mental health around this subject matter through sisterhood – that’s the goal. And I think I’ll keep doing it until I find that and then go from there,” she says.

To learn more about Blakelee Pieroni, please visit her website here. To watch the trailer for m OTHER: The Misunderstood Other Mother, directed by Clare Cheyne, please click here.


Victor Sledge

Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia.  He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic. 

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