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It is rare when a retrospective exhibition centers on collective artistic production rather than the traditional focus on a singular (and most frequently male) artist. Si tiene dudas . . . pregunte: Una exposición retrocolectiva de Mónica Mayer / When in Doubt . . . Ask: A Retrocollective of Mónica Mayer, held at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, successfully worked to highlight a pioneering figure in feminist art practice in Mexico while it simultaneously destabilized expectations of the retrospective format by emphasizing the role of collective artistic practice in Mayer’s work. Since the mid-1970s, and like others of her generation, Mónica Mayer (b. Mexico, 1954) has utilized strategies of performance and intervention both in museum institutions and in public spaces, often engaging directly in community activism or protest.
Curated by Karen Cordero Reiman, the exhibition brought together a vast selection of works drawn from the artist’s impressively multidimensional practice and was supported by archival material largely pulled from the project Pinto mi raya (I Draw My Line), which she began in 1989 with her partner, Víctor Lerma. Though Mayer was featured in recent exhibitions of feminist art such as WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution and was the only Mexican artist included in the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Feminist Art Base, a digital archive of women artists, the exhibition at MUAC was extraordinary for having allotted significant gallery space to an artist whose work is primarily focused on feminist questions and concerns, when currently, women artists comprise only around thirty percent of exhibitions worldwide (85; free catalogue download here).
The first half of the exhibition’s title derived from an ongoing public intervention in which Mayer inserted herself into an already occurring performance by another artist. She stood near the action, holding a sign reading, “When in doubt . . . ask.” This prompt served as a guide for the entire exhibition, as the show rested on the platforms of interactivity and education. A “recipe for viewing a feminist art exhibition” was positioned at the entrance to the galleries and instructed visitors to interact with the materials through lines of inquiry. The use of the prompt was an overarching strategy that Mayer has applied since the 1970s, and the exhibition made clear that the creation of spaces for dialogue and expression is of primary concern for Mayer. The second half of the title, which designated the exhibition a “retrocollective” as proposed by the Argentinian art historian María Laura Rosa, turned the Western concept of the retrospective on its head, seeking to reveal and reconfigure structures of power, from museums to the larger socio-political sphere (33–34).
The exhibition took a loosely chronological approach to the vast array of work (indeed, the amount of material was at times overwhelming), but was ultimately reliant on specific themes—such as feminism, motherhood, marriage, and the relationship between the personal and political—as organizing principles. It symbolically began and ended with an installation in the corridor outside of the gallery space: El Tendedero (The Clothesline) (1978, 1979, 2009), a project that spans nearly the entirety of Mayer’s career. The first version of the clothesline, for the exhibition Nuevas tendencias at the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1978, was one of the earliest institutional interventions in Mexico to so directly engage with the everyday experiences of women in society. Mayer solicited responses from women to the prompt: “As a woman, the thing I detest about the city the most is:,” and the participants wrote their answers on note cards that were then pinned to an improvised clothesline, a symbol of what is traditionally identified as belonging to the woman’s sphere. The responses revealed the pervasive violence women experience on city streets or even at home. A new installation of the clothesline, created specifically for this exhibition, asked women questions about their first experiences with sexual harassment. This contemporary clothesline revealed that not much has changed over the last few decades as this violence persists and at alarming rates. Many answers revealed that such traumas tragically begin at a very early age; many described physical molestation or verbal harassments beginning in primary school.
El Tendedero also demonstrated Mayer’s early engagement with feminist networks outside of Mexico, as the clothesline was first presented as part of Suzanne Lacy’s 1979 Making It Safe project in Los Angeles, where she questioned women in the community. Significantly, Mayer would go on to study at Woman’s Building Los Angeles and the Feminist Studio Workshop, and in 1980, she completed a master’s thesis entitled “Feminist Art: An Effective Political Tool” on these experiences in California, which, as Andrea Giunta notes in her catalogue essay, grew into another important collaborative project present in the exhibition, Translations: An International Dialogue (93–94). The project brought together transnational activists to participate in community workshops and dialogues in various locations across Mexico in 1979.
While a large percentage of the work in the exhibition focused on Mayer’s engagement with collective action, there was a careful balance struck with the inclusion of examples of her individual, two-dimensional practice that fluidly moved between drawing, painting, collage, and text. This included the sometimes witty and at times deeply personal works on paper that reflect on the daily experiences of women and the effects of gender stereotypes. This is expressed in Lo Normal (The Normal), a collection of postcards from 1979 that take the form of a survey, like those commonly found in women’s magazines, asking how she would like to make love. Also compelling was the collage series Diario de las violencias cotidianas (1984) in which Mayer used photocopied images of herself in the guise of the Virgin Mary (and sometimes Virgin and child) alongside her confessional impressions of each day. These projects result in a kind of diary recording her daily experiences, while using humor to debase, subvert, and reimagine images of women promulgated by mass media. While their presence importantly amplified the context in which Mayer also works collaboratively, their thematically determined placement within the gallery alongside her performance and activist practice rather than as a practice of its own, worked to question the supposedly private or personal qualities once deemed inherent in art produced by women. This further signaled a challenge to the autobiographical nature of feminist art through the parodic embrace of biography and identity, particularly the mainstream definitions of motherhood and marriage.
Mayer’s willingness to both play with and to interrogate her identities of mother and wife was perhaps the most notable and progressive aspect of her work, and the most compelling passages of the exhibition were devoted to these themes. With fellow artist Maris Bustamante, Mayer formed the collective Polvo de la Gallina Negra (Dust of the Black Hen—a substance believed to ward off evil) in 1983. They were among the first Mexican artists to tackle explicitly feminist issues, employing performative and interventionist strategies both artists had already developed (and there were striking comparisons to be made to Bustamante’s earlier work with the group No-Grupo), including performance, text, mail art, and even a letter writing competition for children. Mayer and Bustamante were also some of the first artists to utilize television as a possible platform for dialogue and exchange. Much of their project ¡Madres! (Mothers; 1983–90) was well documented in the exhibition and included their notable performance on the television program Nuestro Mundo (Our World), during which the duo invited the host to wear a pregnancy prosthetic and placed a crown on his head, declaring him “Queen of the Home.” Mayer’s 2012 collective intervention in the Zócalo of Mexico City was smartly installed in dialogue with her work with Polvo de Gallina Negra. Protesta del día después (The Day after Protest) appeared as a natural extension of the ¡Madres! project in that Mayer asked participants to wear aprons, typically associated with domestic workers, that were emblazoned with the text “No to Abducted Maternities”; these were also utilized in a performed public protest that deconstructed the effects of patriarchal control over women’s bodies and identities.
Another compelling performance presented here was perhaps the most didactic expression of Mayer’s impressive ability to meld the personal and the political; Las Bodas y el divorcio (The Weddings and the Divorce; 1980–2015) is a declaration of art as life and life as art, in which Mayer turned her wedding to Victor Lerma into a kind of birth announcement for “Mrs. Lerma,” writing a text that explained her reasons for embracing this new identity as it might serve to make “Mónica’s” life less complicated by navigating the world as a married, rather than single, woman. Her collaborations with Lerma warrant future exploration as these projects further point to Mayer’s dedicated integration of personal life, art practice, and activism.
Mayer’s “retrocollective” was an extraordinary step toward the growing analysis and research of this significant artist, and in the end, the act of questioning and collecting responses proved to drive not only Mayer’s work, but the exhibition itself. The reverberations of the work Mayer began in the 1970s could not be more prescient nor the significance of her legacy more palpable. The past couple years have seen an almost unprecedented acceleration of protest movements in Mexico targeted at violence against women, spurring protests in the streets and on social media with hashtags such as #NoEsNo (No Is No); #VivasNosQueremos (We Want Ourselves Alive); and #NiUnaMás (Not One More). Perhaps the most gripping when considering the continuing impact of Mayer’s work is #MiPrimerAcoso (My First Harassment), in which women took to Twitter and Facebook to confess their experiences of sexual violence. Like Mayer’s Clothesline, these social media movements force the raising of a collective conscious around women’s rights. It is clear that Mayer’s work as artist, collaborator, educator, activist, and advocate is far from finished, and the questions she has raised must continue to be asked.