Mitochondrial Madonnas

A painter reinvents the Madonna and child genre using imagery from genetics

By | October 27, 2006

It's been a long time since the artist Chris Twomey studied any science in an academic setting. She doesn't have a PhD, and she wasn't even a science major in college. But, as a keen amateur, she has in recent years become obsessed with the role DNA plays in our make-up. That obsession is at the root of her latest project, the Madonna Series, currently part of an art exhibit at the New York Hall of Science and on view as a solo show at the Tribes Gallery in Manhattan throughout November. The images in the mixed-media paintings, which use digital photographs of Twomey and various friends with their babies, echo the Madonna and Child pose familiar from countless Renaissance pictures. Twomey's twist on the iconic subject was to paint into the background an imaginary phylogenetic map showing the child's haplogroup as traced by mutations in the mother's mitochondrial DNA. "In each painting I have notated the mutations which put the particular Madonna and child in her haplogroup, giving her and her child an identity in context to the whole of humanity," Twomey explains in an artist's statement on the work. "I have also traced her ancestral journey on the maps around the picture's edge." To find a model on which to base the maps, Twomey said she relied partly on the work of Vincent Macaulay, from the University of Glasgow, whose research focuses on prehistoric human demography inferred from mitochondrial DNA variation. Macaulay creates skeleton phylogenies of human mtDNA that looked to Twomey like art. "From early on, I've always been thinking about the effect of science on art," said Twomey, who did her undergraduate degree at Ramapo College, New Jersey, and her MFA at the Pratt Institute in New York. "I'm struck by the importance and significance of science to us as a species, and I think we have a permanent obligation to educate ourselves," she told The Scientist. To teach herself about genetics, Twomey read materials including Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, the popular book by Matt Ridley. "I'd always been interested in identity," she told The Scientist. "Tools to define ourselves are rampant. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, selfhood became even more fascinating and complicated." Twomey is particularly inspired by the thought that tiny genetic mutations can be responsible for striking differences between people. Her next project, "The Triumph of the Double Helix," still in its embryonic stages, is also DNA-inspired. The Madonna Series took off once Twomey's interest in DNA collided with a long-term photographic study of working mothers, including herself. She has three children, now ages 15, 13 and eight, and is pictured in the Madonna Series nursing her youngest when the child was an infant. "I was raised to be an Amazon, a great working woman," said Twomey, who was brought up all over the eastern seaboard, moving every two years as her father changed jobs. "It was pretty tough combining a career and motherhood." Her thoughts on the all-consuming power of motherhood were amplified by the events of 9/11, when she found herself stranded in New York, unable to reach her children. "It made me start thinking about my mortality," said Twomey, "And the clash between religion and science. Here was a perversion of the Islamic religion bringing about killing and destruction. It reminded me of Galileo almost being excommunicated for his scientific thought." In the Madonna Series, the strength and dignity of the working mother is accentuated by the random beauty of the genetic maps. "The maps are so beautiful that I sent off my own saliva to be analyzed for its genetic make-up," said Twomey, "My own haplogroup was late-evolving. I don't go that far back, but I love how vestiges of the past are in our DNA today. We can see where we evolved from. All these religions have some afterlife concepts. And DNA is our own sort of afterlife. We don't die when we die. Our cellular knowledge and our DNA go on and on." Arthur Warwick Links within this article: Madonna Series Bio/Med SciART exhibit Tribes Gallery exhibit Madonna and child pose L. Pray, "Phylogenetics: Even the Terminology Evolves," The Scientist, June 2, 2003 I. Ganguli, "The Name Game" (blog), The Scientist, Feb. 21, 2006 Artist's statement on the Madonna Series Vincent Macaulay A. Constans, "2003 Readers' Choice Awards," The Scientist, Dec. 15, 2003 M. Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (paperback), Harper Perennial, 2006 T. Hollon, "Ancient Ancestry," The Scientist, Dec. 10. 2001

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