In 2011, the International Labour Organisation’s convention number 189 recognised the rights of domestic workers worldwide, over 75% of whom are women, and over 80% of whom are informally employed. As their report ten years later indicates, the vast majority of these workers—who cook, clean, and care for dependents in private households around the world—have not secured formalised employment, fair pay, and decent conditions. Caught up within racialised systems of migration control and exploitative global economic relationships, many of these workers are doubly and triply marginalised: as racialised women, as irregular or precarious migrants, and as the global poor. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic shed new light on the politics and realities of cleaning and care work, domestic workers continue to be invisibilised, mistreated, and exploited, while simultaneously providing some of the world’s most essential labour.
The history of domestic work, and child-care work in particular, has finally become a robust and growing field in academic history, but it is still rare to see care workers represented in museums, in historical television series, and popular history books. And so it is wonderful to see a new online exhibition focus on some of the most historically invisible care workers: the Ayahs and Amahs who cared for white (and sometimes other) children in India, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Australia, and Britain. The women featured in Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Journeys were part of a highly mobile army of female workers – mostly from the Indian subcontinent and East and Southeast Asia – who travelled and lived with white colonial families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taking care of their children. The online exhibit is beautifully designed and accessible, bringing histories of care work, and the women of colour who were such a vital part of that story, to a wider audience.
Ayahs and Amahs were most commonly photographed – usually unnamed – in carefully fashioned portraits of colonial domestic life. Despite persistent attempts to push them into the background, they and their work are conspicuously present: their arms around children, their faces turned toward them, their hands supporting little, unsteady legs.
Sometimes, the Ayahs and Amahs were front-and-centre in exoticised postcards of empire and in the gaze of artists. They appear as regular fixtures in children’s books and stories. The conspicuous presence of the Ayah in art and literature is on the one hand a testament to the way that empire infused so many aspects of British life, and serves an excellent example to reach for when pundits point to supposedly ‘woke’ misrepresentations of historically diverse Britain. On the other hand, the Ayah’s place in the imaginings of empire is also a reminder of the emotional salience of these care workers in the minds of white imperial children, for whom the relationship was often one of the warmest and safest they knew. Behind the exaggerated images of the ‘tender, loyal and brave’ Ayah who would throw herself in front of tigers and mutineers to save her little charge, often lay complex affective relationships, reminding us of the emotional labour as well as the physical toil undertaken by these travelling carers.
Through a careful balancing of representation and the realities that underlay them, the Ayahs and Amah’s exhibit illustrates the pervasive anxiety produced when a society finds itself desperately needing the care-work of ‘intimate others’; of the tensions of having to rely on people who have been racialised and marginalised to care for the empire’s most precious commodity: their children. Imaginations ran amok, envisioning Ayahs stealing children, sacrificing them to other gods, inculcating them with the customs and beliefs of the country, being an unruly fifth column in the colonial home. These anxieties have not gone away, as the West continues to engage in anti-migrant rhetoric while simultaneously relying on exploited migrant workers to supply the labour that ensures our food, goods and services are affordable and available. The Ayahs in the background of white colonial domestic life are a moving illustration of the global networks of exploited and badly-paid work that sustains well-being and affluence in the metropole.
There is perhaps no historical actor who better inhabits the image of the subaltern who cannot speak than the Ayah or Amah. But, as this exhibition shows, when you scour the archives looking for traces of their experiences and voices, you can find them. They are only traces, of course, but they are precious ones. Ayahs and Amahs showed agency, determination, and even sometimes the power to testify against their abusive employers. We see care workers who took work in order to travel, to escape from agricultural labour, to better their own lives and those of their family. We see women navigating complex migration systems, and standing up to bureaucracies. Sometimes – as in the remarkable recordings from the National Archives in Singapore that are featured – we even hear their voices. Most of all, we see their years of hard work.
The online exhibition shows the figure of the Ayah and Amah in different visual forms. Named and unnamed, beautiful and garish, humane and caricatured. My favourite is the watercolour ‘Ayahs with their charges’ (1887) by Walter Taylor Pritchard. It is not a particularly moving work of art. But, in contrast to the more typical image of these women as isolated Brown faces in seas of white ones at train stations, on beaches, and in family portraits, this painting shows a group of Ayahs gathered together in a busy town scene, wholly part of community life. Pritchard’s image makes it easy to imagine the unseen and unremarked networks these women built together. If we listen, we can hear the gossip and the conversation, and imagine the way that women engaged in mutual support, shared their work, and complained together about their white employers. Although it was only in 2011 that care workers and other domestic workers gained recognition of their rights (and, of course, this has yet to dramatically their working realities), the image of these Ayahs talking and working together reminds us that everyday solidarity and community is a historical practice of resistance. I hope moments such as these brought some joy and care to those who spent so much of their lives caring for others.
Visit and explore the online exhibition Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Journeys (September 2022 – September 2023).