Where did you go? Exhibition on adoption offers sobering wake-up call

Summary

Illustrated with archive material, paintings, video and comic prints, Adoption: Between Adventure and Misadventure is a small but affecting exhibition at Museum Dr Guislain in Ghent

Between fiction and reality

What do the following have in common? Spider-Man. Mowgli. Oliver Twist. Tarzan. Superman. Harry Potter. Moses. Paddington Bear.

All were raised by people other than their birth parents, and many of them have special powers that set them apart – a common theme in culture down the years. And it’s the starting point for the latest exhibition at Ghent’s Museum Dr Guislain, a show that aligns with the institution’s continuing focus on identity, trauma and being an outsider.

“When we started out, we didn’t really realise how many of these characters had an adoption background,” says curator Sarah Van Bouchaute, who teaches history at Ghent University. “And they’re not obscure, they’re part of mainstream culture.”

Adoption: Between Adventure and Misadventure takes this cultural fascination and uses it to explore adoption more generally. How do adoption practices evolve? Are the interests of the child, the would-be parents or society at the centre? How do we handle the traumas resulting from forced adoption?

In November 2015, the Flemish parliament publicly apologised to the victims of forced adoptions carried out between the 1950s and the 1980s. A panel of experts produced a report, which among its observations said that Museum Dr Guislain would be a suitable location for an exhibition about the theme in its historical, societal and cultural context. 

Breaking the silence

Using paintings, photography, video, archive documents and comic prints, the result is a small but affecting exhibition. It begins with an early 20th-century portrait of a mother with her baby by Ghent-born Jenny Montigny.

“Montigny was unmarried and had no children, but she painted a lot of mother-and-child portraits. We show it at the beginning because it’s a kind of idealised image of how a woman should be,” Van Bouchaute explains. “A mother, married, taking care of children.”

It’s a societal standard that has seen unmarried women over the years forced to give up their children or face a life lived in shame. And the most moving part of the exhibition is a selection of archive documents concerning such women and their babies.

It was totally taboo and totally shameful, and women were left with no choice

- Curator Sarah van Bouchaute

There’s a letter from one of those children, now an adult living in America and seeking information from the institution where his mother gave birth, exiled from her family. A solicitor’s firm in Liverpool writes on behalf of a mother sent to give birth alone in Belgium, who signed her baby away without being told what was happening to her.

In another letter, an Indian agency responds to a girl's request for information about her birth mother, politely but firmly advising her not to disrupt the woman’s new life.

Glaringly absent throughout this section are the fathers. While it takes two to tango, the inconvenient results have always been something for women to face alone.

There are documents from institutions for unmarried mothers in the 1950s to ’80s, which women had to sign when they decided to give their children up. “You can see they’re pre-printed, standardised forms; it clearly happened a lot,” says Van Bouchaute. 

Finding oneself

 “Sometimes it was with the mother’s permission, but often not,” she continues. “It might be the decision of the nuns, or the family, or a judge, or because a woman couldn’t see how she could raise a child alone. It was totally taboo and totally shameful, and women were left with no choice.”

The texts are watched over by a sombre painting by French artist Edouard Gelhay, depicting a woman handing her baby over to an agency. Her face isn’t visible, but it’s easy to read the desperation in her body language.

It’s very painful to leave you, but I hope you find good parents and I hope to meet you again one day

- Letter from a mother forced to give up her child

A register from such an agency in the mid-1800s lists details of the children left in its care, including scraps of fabric taken from the clothes they were wearing at the time, and, in one case, even a letter from a woman to the child she was forced to give up.

“It’s very painful to leave you,” she writes, “but I hope you find good parents and I hope to meet you again one day.” It remained in the archives, and it’s unlikely the child ever saw it.

In Antwerp today there is still a “foundling drawer”, where women can leave their babies anonymously. “There is a debate – should we install more of these facilities or should we stop? It really feels medieval, but it still exists,” says Van Bouchaute. “It’s only very recently that the mindset around unmarried mothers has started to change.” 

Uncomfortably recent

While there has been a certain amount of societal progress, it’s far from universal, and some of the stories told through these documents feel uncomfortably recent.

Other exhibits include a striking photo of dozens of babies in boxes, strapped into aeroplane seats as they are evacuated to America and Europe during the Vietnam War; and images of children in one of Belgium’s Lebensborn institutions, housing “designer babies” conceived by German soldiers and local women and later given up out of shame by their adopted parents.

There is a collection of original drawings from comic strips from Belgium and elsewhere, featuring orphaned and abandoned characters – Suske, Largo Winch, Thorgal – and images of superheroes in desolate landscapes, emphasising their loneliness and outsider status.

Then there’s the issue of Belgium’s colonial past, with the children of white men and Congolese women left in limbo in a strictly segregated society. And, finally, a contemporary film featuring people with personal experience of adoption, whether as a child seeking their “true” identity or as parents desperate for a child of their own.

Until 16 April, Museum Dr Guislain, Jozef Guislainstraat 43, Ghent

Photos: Benoit Lapray, Marlene Dumas