In 1978 — three years after the United Nation's first International Women's Year congress was held in Mexico City — Mónica Mayer took to the streets of the capital with a stack of pink sheets of paper, asking women to write about their experiences of sexual harassment. It was the first iteration of El Tendedero (The Clothesline Project), an ephemeral art project, which, four decades — and now, thousands of #MeToo stories — later, is still going strong.
Not long after this installation, Mayer traveled to Los Angeles, where she studied at the Woman's Building — a hotbed for feminist artists and thinkers spearheaded by Judy Chicago, among others. Returning to her native Mexico in 1983 with fresh perspectives on art and social engagement, Mayer cofounded the country's first feminist art collective, Polvo de Gallina Negra (which translates to"Black Hen Powder," titled after the group's self-prescribed remedy against the "evil eye"), with fellow artist Maris Bustamante.
Until the early 1990s, the duo indulged in subversive interventions and participatory performances at the intersection of art, media, and the social realm. For their most ambitious, long-term work, ¡MADRES!, the artists used their own pregnancies as an art project — a way of integrating life and art while commenting on the condition of women in our patriarchal society and male-dominated art world. They even turned a celebrity anchorman into a "mother for a day" on live television, persuading him to don an apron and a prop pregnant-belly.
As Mayer's work is currently being celebrated at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., I sat down with a pioneer of Mexico's feminist-art movement to talk about the politics of visibility, childbirth as art, and why men, too, need to speak out against harassment.
Benoît Loiseau: You studied art in Mexico City in the early 1970s, at a time when few female artists were discussed within the establishment. What was that like?
Mónica Mayer: No women artists were ever mentioned in my art-history classes; there was a complete invisibility of their work. But it was also a time when the feminist movement became more present, and as women we were very much aware of it. Not just myself, but other artists like Magali Lara, Jesusa Rodríguez — we all knew each other and were talking to each other. On the one hand, it was about confronting this invisibility, and on the other, it was about finding each other and proposing different kinds of works together.
BL: Then a few years later, in the late 1970s, you went to LA to study at the Woman's Building, the nonprofit arts and education center, sometimes referred to as a feminist Mecca. What impact did that have on you and your conception of feminist art?
MM: It was clear to me from the beginning that feminist art was anything that feminist artists wanted it to be. We were in a process of opening up, not closing the definition of feminist art. I came from the generation of los grupos here in Mexico, a generation interested in political art and collective work. So working with Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz — of all the different possibilities of feminist art in LA — was what I was most interested in, because it was public art. They were doing work for television, for the streets, for demonstrations ... It was like redefining what art was. And that was a lot of fun, but it was also a very intense moment. I think it was one of those few moments — probably like the Russian revolution, or the Mexican revolution — when art had a social meaning beyond its realm. An exhibition like Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979 was visited by nearly a hundred thousand people. It meant something for a lot of people.