Art can be a powerful tool: in tandem with the history and politics of gender-based violence, it lends much-needed perspective to unspoken issues affecting women. Mexico City-based feminist artist Monica Mayer’s "El Tendedero (The Clothesline Project)," currently being exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., does precisely that.
Mayer's work screams at spectators, jolting her audience to question their beliefs and look deep within. What sets the 62-year-old's work apart is how she blends her experiences as an artist, activist, art critic and theorist. From these emerge holistic, out-of-the-box functional pieces that are both conversational and contemplative.
"The Clothesline Project" originated in the late 1970s but remains relevant to this day. It seeks to understand the different types of violence to which women are still subjected, questioning the issues, societal norms and, perhaps most importantly, coping and healing mechanisms.
In this exclusive interview with teleSUR, Mayer discusses the project, her life as a feminist artist, and how she transforms her experiences from "personal" to "political."
teleSUR: In your current exhibition, "The Clothesline," what is the significance of the clothesline used to display the questions and answers central to the work?
Mayer: I used a pink clothesline because it represents a stereotypical image of women’s work, which then contrasts with the content of the answers, which refer to what happens in reality in terms of violence against women.
However, my clothesline structure is similar to the consciousness-raising groups that were fundamental to the early feminist movement, when we would sit in groups and each one of us would have the same amount of time to share and listen to each other on different issues. This allowed us to understand how the personal is political.
In "The Clothesline," participants have the same amount of space to share their experience. In my work, I have often used structures that include different voices. I think both the content and the form of the piece have a feminist message.
teleSUR: What were some of the most memorable moments for you during the making of this project?
Mayer: Every time I do "The Clothesline" piece, I learn different things. In Washington, after facilitating three workshops with women from The House of Ruth, La Clínica del Pueblo and with a group of artists and activists, two things surprised me. The first was the question: 'What did you do to regain your joy after experiencing violence or harassment?' I thought it was a wonderful question because it goes beyond sharing what we can or could do to stop it, which is what I often ask, and straight into healing processes. A woman who had had acid thrown at her face shared how she chose not to be a victim.
teleSUR: Two questions you incorporated into the project really stand out: 'How do you recover your joy after going through an experience of violence?' and 'What have you done or what could you do to stop violence against women?' Can you elaborate?
Mayer: Over the past few years, I have included the question 'What have you done or what could you do?' because it turns victimization into agency. It is also invites men and women to stop being passive bystanders. "The Clothesline" focuses on women, but this does not mean men cannot answer the other questions. Although in much smaller numbers, men also experience sexual violence and they have an even harder time talking about it than women.
This is the first time I included the question 'How do you recover your joy?' It came up during the workshops I facilitated with women from the House of Ruth, La Clínica del Pueblo and a group of artists and activists. It really made me stop and think about getting to the other side.
Another question that came out of these workshops was 'As a woman, have you/would you denounce violence or harassment against you? Why?' During the workshop, it became very clear to me that, for most women, it is impossible to denounce sexual violence. If you have two jobs and little money, or if you are undocumented and terrified of being deported, the price to pay for speaking up can be catastrophic. If it has taken women in show business and the art world so long to start speaking up, it is clear to me that it is still very difficult if not impossible for most women.
teleSUR: The high-profile sexual harassment cases emerging in the United States and Europe, along with the social movement '#Me Too (Yo Tambien),' demonstrate the insidious nature of the issue. What can we do to maintain the movement's momentum?
Mayer: There are short-, medium- and long-term things we have to do. Creating awareness about these issues is basic: I know, because my when I did my first Clothesline piece in 1978, hardly anyone could even identify sexual harassment. This has slowly changed and seems to be gaining momentum with recent events.
However, we won’t really change things if we don’t undertake deep educational processes that make us understand why so many men are brought up to believe harassing and other forms of sexual violence are an adequate behavior, or how as women most of us are taught to accept this violence as something natural and to keep quiet about. Most importantly, we have to reeducate ourselves as a society so we stop being silent bystanders.
teleSUR: You also lead the feminist art collective "Polvo de Gallina Negra (Black Hen Powder)."
Mayer: Maris Bustamante and I formed this collective in 1983. "Polvo de Gallina Negra (Black Hen Powder)" is a remedy against the evil eye. We thought it was hard to be an artist, even more difficult to be a woman artist, but attempting to be a feminist artist was such a challenge that we had better get a name to protect us from the start.
We worked for 10 years doing performances before live audiences, demonstrations and media requests. We always used humor as a tool because it was a good strategy to overcome the audience’s resistance. Our most important work was a long-term project on Motherhood, which began with an in-depth field study when we decided to get pregnant with the help of our husbands Rubén Valencia and Víctor Lerma, whom, as artists themselves, were totally supportive of our piece. As feminists, we evidently had daughters and we were so scientific that our daughters were born three months apart.
One of our performances in 1987 was during Guillermo Ochoa's primetime television program "Nuestro Mundo," where we named him "Mother for a Day." You can see the video here. It is currently part of the exhibit "Radical Women, Latin American Art 1960 – 1985" at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
teleSUR: Violence against women is a universal issue. What can be done to end it?
Mayer: I have no doubt that more and more women will speak up, especially if we find ways of supporting each other and speaking up along with each other. The problem is will the media and authorities listen? For example, thousands of us have been protesting the femicide epidemic we are suffering in Latin America, where 12 women are murdered every day just because we are women. Not much has changed. The issue circulates in the media for a while, but then it just blows away. That is why I insist a real commitment to education is so important.