Summer Session

Summer Session – Mónica Mayer: Si Tiene Dudas… Pregunte at Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo

In keeping with this month’s Summer Session theme of labor, today we revisit Tania Puente’s essay on feminist artist Mónica Mayer’s retrocollective at Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo. Among Mayer’s socially reflexive work is an emphasis on revealing women’s hidden labor, especially the emotional labor of motherhood, marriage, and sexual objectification. This article was first published on March 1, 2016. 

Polvo de gallina negra (Maris Bustamante and Mónica Mayer), ca. 1983; photograph.  Courtesy of the Artist and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

Polvo de Gallina Negra (Mónica Mayer and Maris Bustamante), ca. 1983; photograph. Courtesy of the Artist and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

Si Tiene Dudas… Pregunte [When in Doubt… Ask] at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) is a retrocollective of works by feminist art pioneer Mónica Mayer (b. Mexico City, 1954). “Retrocollective” isn’t a very well-known term[1] and certainly not one that many artists would choose to designate their career retrospective, but Mónica Mayer isn’t like other artists. Since the late ’70s, Mayer has been discussing, rethinking, and refuting issues that are fundamental to the Mexican sociocultural environment: gender, equality, violence, age, body, memory, intimacy, labor, social policies, representation, and all of their possible combinations.

Mayer’s artistic strength lies in the solid community she has formed around her activities, where friendship, empathy, and complicity play a pivotal role. As the exhibition title emphasizes, constant dialogue is her best weapon. It is indeed a Mónica Mayer show, but with a horizontal and collaborative discourse, which curator Karen Cordero Reiman successfully achieves. The exhibition stands as a recognition to the many contributors that have shaped these projects throughout the years. Their joint and fearless efforts have made visible what was previously disregarded from the canonical and patriarchal perspective.

When in Doubt… Ask follows a chronological order that highlights Mayer’s professional path. The body of works displayed in the exhibition cover a wide variety of mediums—from painting, print, collage, and photography to performance, video, TV appearances, mail art, actions, publications, and archives. The issues explored in her pieces more than thirty years ago still resonate today. Mayer’s acute awareness is the reason why the same questions are posed over and over again, though not without bitter taste.

Mónica Mayer. El tendedero [The Clothesline], 1978; installation view, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.

Mónica Mayer. El Tendedero [The Clothesline], 1978; installation view, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.

El Tendedero [The Clothesline] welcomes visitors into the exhibition. Located in the museum’s hallway, the installation is a reactivation of a piece originally presented in 1978 at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. Directly placing a domesticate chore into public space, Mayer addresses a common issue that mainly occurs on the street: sexual harassment. Clipped with clothespins, questions specific to experiences of harassment are written on small pink papers: “When was the first time you were harassed?”; “What is your latest harassment experience?”; “How would you react if you were harassed?” Visitors can respond to the questions on a computer that accompanies the artwork. Their devastating yet revealing answers are shared on the artist’s website and on the work’s Twitter account @Sitienedudas.

Mayer’s actions and practices are both individual and collective, oscillating between public and private stances. A Veces Me Espantan Mis Fantasías [Sometimes My Fantasies Scare Me] (1977) demonstrate her explorations into intimate lust and desire. Framed by a semi-open curtain, the piece welcomes the spectator’s gaze into a woman’s fantasy, displaying two photographs of male and female genitals, covered by a soft tissue. The use of materials, like fabric and thread, establish a critique about what is expected from a woman’s femininity. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the work, the eyes of a woman give a defiant stare.

Mónica Mayer. A veces me espantan mis fantasías, 1977; photography and objects on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

Mónica Mayer. A Veces Me Espantan Mis Fantasías, 1977; photography and objects on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

Students, mothers, families, teenagers, and elderly women are part of the groups represented in Mayer’s artistic practice. Along with artist Maris Bustamante, Mayer founded the first feminist art group in Mexico in the early ’80s: Polvo de Gallina Negra. The group sought to tackle many problematic aspects of social and political interactions. One of their most important projects was ¡MADRES! (1983–1987), a long-term collaboration that involved performances, mail art, and different actions that put motherhood at stake. ¡MADRES! considered the prejudices and discriminatory attitudes that women are subjected to after becoming mothers. Mayer returned to these concerns in her 2012 performance Maternidades Secuestradas (2012) [Kidnapped Motherhoods], in which she invited people to explain, while wearing an apron, what they considered to be a “kidnapped motherhood”—from the actual disappearances of their sons and daughters to the unfair working conditions that take a mother’s time away from her children.

Mónica Mayer. Lo normal, 1978 (detail); print intervened with stamps, 10 cards. Courtesy of the artist and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

Mónica Mayer. Lo Normal [The Average], 1978 (detail); print intervened with stamps; 10 cards. Courtesy of the Artist and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

Mayer’s work leaves room for appropriations and political critique. In Lo Normal [The Average] (1978), participants were instructed to answer specific questions by selecting one of Mayer’s emotive expressions, which were reproduced on a postcard. If participants wanted to have sex before getting married, for instance, they could choose the “dreamy Mónica face.” In 2015, María Rodríguez Cruz reinterpreted this work, using President Enrique Peña Nieto’s visage instead. The questions posed in Cruz’s rendition dealt directly with femicides and gender-based violence—both increasing problems in Mexico’s sociocultural climate. In the exhibition, Cruz’s piece is found next to Mayer’s original, establishing a relationship between generations and contexts.

By socializing thoughts, experiences, and feelings, When in Doubt… Ask unfolds a critical net, in which damaging behavior patterns can be analyzed and fought, and where constructive actions can be taken. Mayer’s retrocollective is a big celebration and simultaneously a reminder to keep on fighting for women’s rights. In our fragile and corrupt political condition—where students disappear into thin air, journalists are silenced with death, and femicides are denied by the authorities—we need counterparts such as Mayer’s to continue the claim for freedom of speech, memory, and justice. On an exhibition wall, one question asks, “Can art be both critical and warm?” After visiting Mónica Mayer’s exhibition, there should be no doubt in giving an affirmative answer.

Si Tiene Dudas… Pregunte: Una Exposición Retrocolectiva de Mónica Mayer was on view at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City through July 31, 2016.

[1] In this context, the term “retrocollective” was suggested to Mónica Mayer by the Argentinian art historian María Laura Rosa, who understood it as a vehicle for integration instead of exclusion.