- “Mother Superior”Maternity and Creativity in the Work of Yoko Ono
Hours before his assassination on December 8, 1980, John Lennon posed for Annie Leibovitz’s camera. Just as he had on the newly released album Double Fantasy, Lennon insisted that his wife and artistic collaborator, Yoko Ono, participate in the photo shoot with him. In the iconic image that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone’s tribute to the slain ex-Beatle a month later, he appears naked, curling around his fully clothed wife in a fetal position. Ono appears indifferent to the fervent kiss Lennon plants on her cheek. Her eyes gaze past him. Her arms, casually crossed behind her head, do not return his embrace. She appears cool and in control, he fragile, clinging, and vulnerable. Lennon told Leibovitz, “You’ve captured our relationship exactly,” suggesting a childlike dependence on his wife.1 Indeed, Lennon once said of Ono, “I occasionally call her Mother because I used to call her Mother Superior—remember ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun.’ She is Mother Superior, she is Mother Earth, she is the mother of my child, she’s my mother, she’s my daughter. . . . The relationship goes through many levels.”2 Ono’s maternal role in Lennon’s life is often the subtext of vitriolic attacks against her as “the woman who broke up the Beatles.” In some analyses of their marriage, she wielded a sinister power over him, smothering his creative impulses to single-handedly dissolve the world’s most beloved rock band. During a cameo appearance in Justin Timberlake’s 2013 single “Murder,” Jay-Z names Ono as the epitome of the dangerous seductress described throughout the song: “Know that shit gotta be lethal / If that pussy broke up The Beatles.”3 [End Page 57]
Despite such portrayals of her as rock’s mortal enemy, Ono has gained wider appreciation over the past two decades. She has earned belated respect as a godmother of punk and “world” music thanks in part to rock journalists such as Jonathan Cott, one early defender of what Lennon called her “sixteen-track voice.”4 Fellow musicians from Ornette Coleman to Thurston Moore to Lady Gaga have also recognized her importance through collaborations and tributes. (Moore’s 1995 song “Ono Soul” begins with the lyric: “Bow down to the queen of noise.”)5 Ono’s work as both musician and visual artist was institutionally recognized in 2001 with the acclaimed yes Yoko Ono retrospective and in 2015 with the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of her early work, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971.6 In the past decade, she has attracted the attention of prominent music scholars. Tamara Levitz reads her collaborations with Lennon as expressions of gender and racial equality.7 Barry Shank explains her incorporation of aesthetics and singing techniques from the Japanese traditions of Noh and Kabuki.8 As part of her ongoing work on “migrant cosmopolitanism,” Brigid Cohen documents Ono’s friendship with composer Stefan Wolpe, with whom she bonded over their shared experiences of displacement in 1950s New York City.9
This essay explores what Lennon identified as Ono’s polyvalent role as mother, tracing the maternal as a recurring topic in her music, art, and biography. Ono’s portrayals of motherhood in different media begin in the early 1960s and extend to recent work with the newly re-formed Plastic Ono Band. Some pieces contain heart-rending depictions of lost or absent children, while others suggest that childrearing is the ultimate act of artistic creativity. These divergent, sometimes contradictory portrayals of maternity reflect the range of Ono’s personal experiences and of contemporary second-wave feminist discussions of motherhood, which depict the womb as both the root of woman’s subjugation and the source of her power. Ono aligns the exclusively female experience of birthing and the historically feminine work of mothering with creativity and avant-garde artistic production.
Ono articulated her ideas about motherhood through the unlikely idioms of avant-garde art and rock music (and hybrids of these two). Neither creative realm is known as a platform for feminist positions. The avant-gardes’ aesthetic [End Page 58...