Milk arcs across the canvas from the breasts of a naked woman stumbling through a pile of bed sheets as an infant is placed under her armpit to suckle. The woman in Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto’s painting is Juno who is the wife of Jupiter, an unfaithful husband and god of the sky. It was Jupiter who carried his half-mortal son, Hercules, toward Juno’s breast so the child could obtain full immortality from her divine milk. Startled from slumber, jets of her milk streak across the heavens, each terminating with a star. According to myth, these traces formed the Milky Way. Indeed, the root of the word “galaxy” comes from the Greek gála, which means milk.

Milk is not only humanity’s food but also a liquid dripping with symbolism, from spiritual salvation to maternal devotion. Human breast milk is liquid gold, a magical substance that has been celebrated over centuries and is long known as a medical remedy as well as an infant foodstuff.

For much of Greek and Roman antiquity, milk was thought to be menstrual blood transformed by the heat of childbirth, transported from the uterus via a special vein. As such, it was viewed with suspicion, as a possible contagion. The potential for milk to transmit physical or moral characteristics is evidenced in the strict advice on finding suitable wet nurses that can be found throughout history from disparate continents the world over.

Today, breastfeeding itself is also an emotional and sometimes divisive topic. Generally presented to new mothers as the best thing they can do for a baby’s development, parents often lack practical support, which would allow them to establish and sustain breastfeeding. This can leave parents facing numerous challenges, including balancing the demands of breastfeeding with paid employment or being asked to leave when nursing in a public place.

Throughout art history, we can find depictions of divine or mythological milk, like the aforementioned painting Origin of the Milky Way (1575). Or gushing breasts as a manifestation of nature, as in the 16th-century Fountain of Neptune in Bologna. Though idealized for centuries in Madonna and Child imagery, the corporeal, emotional, and practical realities of feeding a baby remain less often explored. 

Eva Zasloff, “Reflections of light on breastmilk particles” (2018), images taken by microscope of light reflections on breastmilk particles at 750x magnification

Other bodily fluids, typically blood or urine, have been used by artists since at least the 1960s, such as Richard Hambleton’s Bloodscapes series (c. 1992–1994), Antony Gormley’s use of his blood and semen in his Bodily Fluids series (1986–1992), and Portia Munson’s “Menstrual Print With Text” (1993). Paleolithic painters mixed pigment with their own spit. 

Because of its associations with the maternal body, it is unsurprising that human milk — as both subject matter and medium — still represents something of a taboo in contemporary art, so much so that artists Oona and Lori Baldwin were removed from the Scope Gallery’s Art Basel exhibition due to claims that their performance was too controversial. “Milking the Artist” (2022) involved Oona producing breast milk while talking about the fetishization of female bodies, then auctioning glasses of milk to the audience for up to $200,000.

Was seeing someone express milk, albeit from a prosthetic breast, that provocative? Or was it the discomfort of monetizing milk, which in turn places a monetary value on caring labor? Or was the milk itself controversial? Can milk be considered a medium, as much as blood or spit? 

Breast milk intervenes in the celluloid in Jennifer West’s handmade film, “My Milk Is Your Shit/Nirvana Alchemy Film 2” (2007), where the artist freezes 35mm film in breast milk. Eva Zasloff’s “Reflections of light on breastmilk particles(2018) took images of the microscopic particles and projected them into an intimate space at MIT. 

This telescoping in on breast milk offers shifting perspectives on what it signifies, as delicate orbs float across the field of vision like stars. A galaxy of proteins, minerals, fats, antibodies, and bioactive components — which makes milk a living substance — are revealed in this close examination. Responsive to a baby’s needs, every mother’s milk is different. Zasloff herself cares for families as a physician in the postpartum period, and her art is a reminder of the scale and specificity of maternal work. 

Jess Dobkin, “The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar” (2006), promotional image advertising the public tasting (photo by David Hawe)

Aimee Koran explores the unpredictability and generative aspects of the lactating body, especially in her ongoing series Milkscapes, elegant drifts of drying milk magnified in wall-hanging prints with opaline echoes of Hambleton’s otherworldly forms. In 2022, her prints of curdling spilled milk were made into eight flags, and hung outside Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition’s Early Head Start Building, capturing transitory moments of maternity and appearing like the surfaces of another planet.

Approaching breast milk as a medium allows us to reconsider it as a subject matter too. Breastfeeding is often thought of as a process; rarely do we think about the product — milk — outside of child-rearing contexts. What are the origins of milk itself? Under what conditions is it produced? What value do we place on the labor of lactation and how taboo do we really think the final product is?

Ine Poppe caused a storm in the Netherlands when, after the birth of her child in 1983, she began to explore what it meant to be a milk-producing being. She started collecting her milk and used it to make cheese. “Dutch Mother’s Milk Cheese” (1984) formed part of a multimedia project that spanned audio, video, publications, and performances. Photographs show milk being expressed from the artist using glass pumps, sometimes with the help of men dressed in lab coats and surgical masks. Mainstream Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant claimed the work “makes us puke.” 

This shock value of breastmilk hasn’t abated, as countless headlines attest. For example, a deli in Covent Garden, London, made the news in 2018 when it added breast milk ice cream to its menu. Parents who breastfeed an infant beyond babyhood are often met with disapproval and sometimes outright hostility.  

Jess Dobkin, “The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar” (2012), performance at Usine C, Montreal (photo by Valerie Sangin)

The idea for a milk-tasting session, based on the idea of wine tasting, came to Canadian artist Jess Dobkin while she was pregnant. Offering audiences the chance to try different kinds of milk-centered concepts of hospitality and to probe group and cultural dynamics.

The first Lactation Station “happening” took place in Toronto in 2006 as part of a broader program of performance art around the theme of “taste.” Using donated, pasteurized breast milk, Dobkin set up bar areas in gallery spaces, and small groups were invited to try two samples each, served in a shot glass.  

Lactation Station also involved in-depth interviews with milk donors, whose stories played over video in the gallery during the tastings. The responsibility and care Dobkin afforded her donors were meticulous, yet a high degree of trust was placed in the tasters, too, who were assumed to be respectful.

Dobkin was aware that the setup was an invitation to engage in a taboo activity, and this meant the happenings were designed to create a sense of order and normality, complete with menus and a maître d’. The gallery context was less about delineating the experience as “art,” and more about creating a sense of control with clean, white walls conveying hygiene, playing with the “indecency” (to some) of expressing milk in public.

In her hosting, Dobkin reciprocated the enormous generosity and trust donors and samplers placed in her. But the focus was ultimately on the milk itself, each sample differentiated by a unique name and backstory, based on interviews with the artist. As people drank from tiny plastic glasses of “Sweet Fall Harvest” and “Passion’s Legacy,” she advised them on the woman’s diet at the time of expression, the age of their child, and details of the women’s experiences with breastfeeding. 

Mother Artists Making Art (MAMA), “Milkstained” (1998), performance (photo by Tadayuki Miyashiro)

Lactation Station was staged three times, in 2006, 2012, and 2016. The artist sensed the cultural shifts that were taking place over this period, with women appearing more confident in breastfeeding, largely ascribed to the rise of social media and the potential for online connectivity, support, and conversation. 

Dobkin placed emphasis on isolating the donors from their milk. They were alluded to through the naming of milk and their testimonies on the gallery walls, but their actual labor was kept private. The final product served as a bodily commodity removed from its means of production. 

It is a reminder that for all the recent glamorous photoshoots of women wearing breast pumps, expressing milk remains an activity that is often hidden from view. Dobkin plays with this idea too, allowing the promotional posters for Lactation Station to be ribald as a counterpoint to the care and sanctity of the act itself. The striking promotional image shows the artist topless, manipulating her own breast to jet a substantial arc of breastmilk into a wine glass. The wine glasses point to instructions from Toronto public health authorities for the gallery to place highly visible signs around the space forbidding minors to sample the breastmilk. Milk was for adults only. 

In “Baraka” (2013), Lynn Lu stood in front of an audience at Arte Nomade in Alma, Canada, and read an academic paper on breastfeeding and wet nursing in Islamic culture while connected to a breast pump. After the readings, the milk was poured into porcelain spoons, and the artist fed members of the audience. Milk is a gift, an act of hospitality, drawing attention to what we ask of our caretakers and how this labor is often overlooked or taken for granted. 

Lu’s work is an invitation to intimately connect and join a community of “milk-kin.” In Ancient Egypt, for instance, biological children of wet nurses to the royal family were allowed to call themselves “milk-kin” of the king.

Mother Artists Making Art (MAMA), “Milkstained” (1998), performance with Deborah Oliver pictured (photo by Tadayuki Miyashiro)

Allyship was a driving force behind the formation of the Los Angeles-based group Mother Artists Making Art (MAMA), who came together in the 1990s to support one another in investigating invisible or taboo aspects of the maternal experience.  

The collective, comprising the artists Lisa Mann, Athena Kanaris, Karen Schwenkmeyer, Deborah Oliver, and Lisa Schoyer, worked on a number of projects that explored breastfeeding. The maternal response to their new postpartum bodies, transformed into a source of nourishment, was the subject of “Milkstained” (1998), a multisensory performance at the Electronic Café International in Santa Monica, which was also live-streamed on the internet as part of a festival celebrating video and new media art. 

The performance began with a naked woman lying on a white pedestal, her back to the audience, white cloth draped over her buttocks and thighs. Soon, the visual flow of the body’s odalisque pose was disrupted by white liquid pouring down her back as damp patches blossomed on the white cloth. More women joined the stage, some hand-expressing milk from their very real breasts, others pouring milk into a fountain of cocktail glasses. Spoken word, the sounds of a baby feeding, and the unmistakable whir of an electric breast pump echoed around the small gallery space. In the end, the audience was invited to taste the freshly expressed milk. How different is this experience from Lactation Station, given that tasters heard the rhythmic whir of a breast pump, saw the nipple distend and stretch, and the milk spray into the bottle?

The perceived disarray and sensuality of the birthing body, the cultural taboos surrounding human milk, and the censored dimensions of lactation are rife with possibility. To give space to fully explore the political, poetic, and literal messiness of milk in all its forms, we need to expose the oversimplified dichotomy of breast versus bottle feeding and demonstrate that our individual actions as parents exist within societal structures that must be interrogated and improved.

Joanna Wolfarth is an art historian and writer. Formerly Visiting Lecturer in Southeast Asian Arts at SOAS, University of London, she now teaches Global Art History at The Open University, UK. A specialist...