Between the lines

Soumitra Das | Updated on: Dec 28, 2018

Washed away: Mexican artist Monica Mayer’s installation, The Clothesline, at the ongoing fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale;

Mexican artist Monica Mayer’s installation at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale strings together emotions and learnings from the recent Kerala floods

What did the flood give you? A new perspective; An open mind; It taught me what people are and how meaningless our fights in the name of religion are; A new hope; A broken home.

What did the flood take away from you? My dream; It took away my flower and vegetable garden. We lost all of our hens and also our loving dog.

Printed in both English and Malayalam, these are samplings of the questions and the responses to them that hang from clotheslines in Mexican artist Monica Mayer’s installation at the ongoing fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Mayer is a feminist whose art, activism, blogs, newspaper column, books and performances, often in collaboration with other artists, are centred around the hazards, oppressions, tribulations and crises that women and the marginalised people in her country and elsewhere face daily.

After the catastrophic earthquake in Mexico in 2017, Mayer had posed similar questions to those who suffered, and that elicited replies very much like those voiced by the recent Kerala flood survivors. The direct reference to the deluge in Mayer’s biennale project, The Clothesline , was echoed in the address of V Venu, former principal secretary of Kerala and CEO of “Rebuild Kerala” Committee, at the talk Art in Difficult Times , organised by BMW : “It is a celebration of the resilience of the state and its people and also of art.”

This is also in keeping with the belief of Anita Dube, the biennale’s first woman curator, that “through the potential of social action, coming together, we ask and search for questions, critical questions, in the hope of dialogue.”


Monica Mayer


Mayer could not make it to Kochi for health reasons. In an interview over the phone and by email, she spoke about her art and her activism. Quite at variance with the image of the po-faced activist, Mayer can make light of the most serious issues, as demonstrated by her in Madres , a prime-time TV programme she produced in collaboration with colleague Maris Bustamante in the 1980s, in which a male celebrity TV anchor is made “pregnant”. It was an effort to make public what is considered a private experience. “In my work there is an overlapping of art, activism and pedagogy. The Clothesline , for example, has been used as all three,” she reflects.

Mayer was born in 1954 in Mexico City. When she was training as an artist there, women artists were invisible. Even Frida Kahlo was known then only as the wife of muralist Diego Rivera. In art school, the “progressive” male peers told the women they were less creative because “they lost their creativity with motherhood.” These “unscientific and dumb” comments pushed her to join Woman’s Building, a feminist art school in Los Angeles.

In 1978, Mayer was invited to participate in an exhibition at Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art that featured performance and installation art. The theme was ‘The City’, and that’s when she decided to do El Tendedero ( The Clothesline ). She asked women what they disliked about the city. “I moved around in public transport all the time and sexual harassment is very bad. At the time not even the feminist groups were talking about this issue because there were very, very few of us and we were dealing with issues such as abortion, forced sterilisation and rape. The shape of the clothesline, apart from aesthetic issues, represented a traditionally female activity, but also reflected a basic activity in the feminist movement... allowing us to learn to speak up and also listen to each other,” she says.

Mayer has worked individually, collectively and collaboratively. Her two longest collaborations were with Bustamante, with whom she founded the first feminist art group in Mexico, the Polvo de Gallina Negra, which means ‘black hen powder’ — a means of protection against “evil” eye, according to local belief. “We felt it was difficult to be an artist in Mexico, harder to be a woman artist but almost impossible to be a feminist artist, so we decided to give our group a name to protect us.”

In Pinto mi Raya, Mayer and Víctor Lerma, a Mexico City-based contemporary artist, put together a performance titled Abrazos (Hugs). “We asked our friends in Mexico to share stories of the most important hugs for them and we take them to these other contexts. One of us ‘narrates’ the hug, and the other one gives it. It is a simple gesture of recognition and sharing as human beings,” says Mayer. They have performed in other countries too, on invitation, but say it is “strange” for them to do the piece in another context and country on short notice, because they work specifically with the art community in Mexico.

When Mayer was invited to the Kochi Biennale, she was perplexed because she did not know either the context or the local language (Malayalam). “But sharing experiences can build a bridge between our cultures even if we are at the other side of the world. I asked my friends through Facebook to share their experience about the earthquake... and I asked the team at Kochi to get in touch with flood victims,” she says.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

Published on December 28, 2018
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