On Why Debbie’s Nothing Really Matters Truly Does

Somewhere, between the science and the art

As one with a curious mind, I have always been equally fascinated with the magic of science and art. It is little wonder that, when Giulia Privitelli, curator of Debbie Carauana Dingli’s latest exhibition ‘Nothing Really Matters’ got in touch to invite me to participate in a live-streamed panel discussion, with herself, the artist and a family psychologist, to explore the central themes in Debbie’s work, and in her own words, to ‘bridge art and science quite nicely’, I was besides myself with joy.

When Giulia first stumbled upon my profile, she did not know that I have admired Debbie’s talents and her paintings for quite some time, or that I have been totally in love with all the naked women in her majestic ‘The Life Class’ from the 2019 exhibition Xebgħa Nies 2. Giulia was also not aware of the funny fact that this famous bridge she wanted to build with our discussion is such a personal object in my mind that in one of my writings I say, with some certainty, that ‘between the science and the art…lies another dimension’. Then, when she explained that the exhibition is about “imagined” mothers whose child has been convicted of some crime and sentenced to prison, and that the works externalise what the artist, as a mother herself, imagines these mothers might go through – the avalanche of emotions – unnoticed by society, and that it would be lovely if I could bring in my perspective as a socio-biologist in the equation, I could not think of a better time when fate was kind enough to hand me something that is as close to my mind as it is to my heart.   

Meeting Debbie in person was simply the cherry on the cake, because apart from being in a class of her own, Debbie is a lovely person, as they say, inside and out.  

That beautiful product of evolution

On the day of the discussion, we took off by diving into the evolutionary properties of things, starting with the idea that in looking at art through this filter, we are presented with two options. We can either agree with cognitive psychologist and advocate of evolutionary psychology Stephen Pinker, and see art as an accident of evolution, a by-product that we as humans have invented because we have learned how to push the right buttons that give us pleasure, in the same way we consume cheesecake, or we can take evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s view and think of art as a true adaptation that evolved for a specific reason. Miller has no doubt in his mind on what this function might be; like the peacock’s tail, he reminds us, art is a biological signalling system that grants sexual advantage to those who master it. This explains why many major works of art are created by young men (as opposed to women and older men) who are eager to display their fitness and superiority.

A window on their mind

As a woman with a mind of her own, (here the reference to the book ‘A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women’ by the highly-esteemed academic specialising in evolutionary psychology, Anne Campbell, is very intentional) Debbie has turned this around. With the same highly sophisticated skills of a great artist, she takes herself out of the scene, recedes in the background, and uses her brush to display the humanity of women and of mothers who are experiencing their motherhood through suffering and pain. Whether art is a true adaptation or not does not matter. What matters is that, through her art, Debbie has put these mothers on the stage, and shone a light on their experiences and emotions. We can see them in one of her works entitled ‘The Waiting Room’, where they are all lined up and waiting for our judgement.

Like evolutionary psychology, in this case, art becomes the window through which we can take a more compassionate look at the human condition. Not only. This body of works is also a window on the nature of the artist as someone who has chosen to use her creativity for things that matter.  

Why Mothers Matter Most

As we approached the theme of motherhood, I scanned my mind for shortcuts. Otherwise, how was I to tell the story of the primary social relationship in the briefest of times?

I started by saying that although parental care is not universal, meaning it is something that some species find too costly to engage in, it should be obvious that nature would design parents to be motivated to take care of their own children, because, by being genetically related to them, children serve as vehicles for parental genes to make it to the next generation.

Next comes the issue of parental inequity, the phenomenon whereby fathers, although quite competent, do parenting less often. Speaking about why mothers are the heavier investors is like touching a very hot button, which is why it becomes tempting to blame patriarchy, constricted gender roles, and maternal guilt, rather than point towards a set of biological realities that are based on the differences in the sexual strategies of men and women. This is the reason why, as in Campbell’s chapter on women and parental investment, ‘Mothers matter most’.

If evolution has crafted a ‘maternal brain’, bestowing upon women a special interest and emotional mind reading that make them better parents, and if, for many species, the mother is the whole environment – it is her luck and how well she copes with the world that determine the fate of her child – using a sprinkle of poetic license we could say that it is the child that makes the mother, so that when the child is broken, the biggest damage is to the mother. She is no more.

This is the tragic story in Debbie’s masterpiece ‘Nothing Really Matters’, in which we come face to face, in vivid detail, with the silent despair of one of our protagonists, a mother whose son has been found guilty. As she walks through the busy crowd, naked in her glory, clutching at the straws of her shopping basket, silently screaming the words ‘nothing really matters’, this woman is a perfect picture of the whole hopelessness that descends on those with nothing left, nothing that matters.

A sea of emotions

In approaching the conclusion of our spirited discussion, we made a wish to have our time doubled. How else to fit in all the thoughts about all the emotions that play leading roles in all the pieces surrounding us on the walls of the Spazju Kreativ at Saint James Cavalier? It is true that, from an evolutionary point of view, emotions are programmes of fitness; adaptations that help us defend ourselves from dangerous situations, and motivate us to repair the damage. But this is not what matters here. With her art, Debbie gives us the opportunity to navigate the very powerful world of the self-conscious emotions that these mothers are experiencing, as they deal with the fear, shame, isolation, loss, and despair, a world with no colour and no meaning, in which they have no other option but to withdraw, to hide, and to lie outside the circle of the community, such as the mother in Debbie’s painting ‘Alone’.

We could, of course, offer a consoling hand and tell this mother who is sitting on a bench, with her back to everything else, that socialisation is also responsible for what her child has grown up to be. It still feels like a drop in the ocean. With this premise, however, we could begin to invite some of the people inside the circle to doubt the validity of their own emotions, as they point their fingers with contempt, and ask them to carry part of the burden. Instead, in shock we witness ‘The Stoning’, in which a frantic crowd of maddened creatures discharge their sins by throwing stones at the mother.

It is in the midst of all this horror that we turn to Debbie, so that she can enlighten our perspective with her own emotions, with all her sympathy, her empathy, and, above all, her great compassion. Debbie is not only inviting us to share her own insights, and to feel for these forgotten mothers; she is inspiring us to change the narrative in our minds, and to be motivated to ask ourselves how we can support these mothers who are suffering in ways that we cannot imagine. It matters to Debbie. It really matters to us all.

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