Wittily described as a ‘retrocollective’, ‘Si tiene duda ... pregunte’ (When in Doubt ... Ask), Mónica Mayer’s retrospective at MUAC, emphasizes the collaborative aspect of the artist’s 30–year career. The exhibition charts the course of feminist art since its early days: a fulgurant start in the politically charged 1970s was followed by a period of productive stability in the ideological 1980s, then a lapse of international interest from the 1990s until the mid-2000s, when Mayer and many others were invited to participate in ‘WACK!: Art of the Feminist Revolution’, curator Connie Butler’s seminal 2007 show of feminist art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Mayer first became acquainted with feminism during her training at La Esmeralda school and, later, at the Academia de Arte de San Carlos, in Mexico City. In the 1970s, Mexican art mostly fit into two camps: traditional painting and sculpture informed by either mimesis or abstraction, and non-object based, socially engaged practices that aimed to change the world through art and activism. Apart from a series of intimately scaled collages and drawings, which expresses the conflicts inherent to a young woman’s life, Mayer has primarily focused on organizing interactive installations and performances in public spaces. In the early performance El tendedero (The Clothesline, 1978), whose documentation and ephemera open the exhibition, Mayer asked women in the streets of Mexico City to respond to a prompt (‘as a woman, what I hate the most in Mexico City is ...’), writing their answers on small sheets of paper and hanging them on an outdoor clothesline. The work gives public visibility to specific female experiences of oppression. Through such early performances, Mayer met Judy Chicago, who encouraged her to attend classes at the legendary Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. During her two years there, Mayer studied with Suzanne Lacy, whose teachings reinforced her interest in consciousness-raising, collectivist projects such as ‘Translations’ (1979), a series of lectures and workshops organized for female artists from various countries that reflected on cross-cultural challenges to feminism.
In the 1980s, as the Mexican art scene became more market-oriented with movements such as neo-Mexicanist painting, Mayer felt that artists were trading revolutionary politics for economic stability. She also became a mother, an experience that further politicized her practice. Under the collective name Polvo de Gallina Negra (Black Hen Powder), Mayer and fellow artist Maris Bustamante produced text-based works and performances that ironically appropriated tropes from popular culture in order to critique the patriarchy, such as ¡Madres! (Mothers!, 1983–90), a series of handmade flyers depicting mothers as superheroes, which is also on display in the show. Polvo de Gallina Negra openly threatened to use black magic to exact revenge on rapists and violent husbands, and challenged the host of a national television programme to become a ‘mother for a day’ by donning a prosthetic stomach, apron and crown. They also organized a festive protest against the traditional Mexican ‘Quinceañera’ celebration – a lavish wedding-style ceremony that recognizes young girls’ completion of puberty – because they felt it encouraged female submissiveness.
The energy and excitement around Mayer’s early career subsided in the 1990s and early 2000s, when institutional interest waned and she turned her attention to teaching and mothering. The retrospective is a welcome corrective, but it characterizes Mayer’s career as one of continuous production, concealing the fact that female artists’ careers are often discontinuous due to competing familial obligations. How can an exhibition accurately render the complicated biographies of artists like Mayer, without forcing them to fit art-historical narratives? This question hangs heavy in the show. But then, such is the challenge of being a feminist artist.
First published in Issue 180