Before #MeToo, There Was El Tendedero

DENVER/MEXICO CITY VIA EMAIL—Mexican artist Mónica Mayer has been highlighting the global problem of violence against women since her first iteration of El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project opened at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City in 1978. Most recently, El Tendedero, an interactive installation, is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington D.C. through January 5, 2018.


For the exhibition, a gallery wall in NMWA is lined with tidy horizontal rows of clotheslines with small slips of hot pink paper clipped brightly below. The clothesline (el tendedero in Spanish) is traditionally associated with women’s work but in this context it becomes an instrument of activism. On the slips of paper, women have written answers to questions about violence such as “As a woman, where do you feel safe? Why?” The questions were developed for the exhibition in collaboration with local artists, activists, and women from a D.C. area shelter as well as a health clinic, and are meant to spark conversation and incite change. 


While the exhibition wasn’t planned to coincide with the recent #MeToo movement—a hashtag used to demonstrate how prevalent violence against women is that went viral–it has been timely, providing many women with an opportunity to share their #MeToo stories. When’s Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp asked Ms. Mayer in an email interview if anything about the written responses surprised her, she stated that she’s always surprised by how similar the responses are whether she’s doing El Tendedero in a small town in Mexico or in D.C. “Most women have experienced violence,” she wrote, “and many have reacted against it.”     


Ms. Mayer discussed via email questions about her groundbreaking exhibition, feminism and feminist art. EXCERPTS: 


Prompts provided for visitors to answer

KIRSCH FELDKAMP: You describe yourself as a feminist and a feminist artist. What does it mean to you to be a feminist?  

MAYER: For me, being a feminist is being aware of the way gender works in our societies as a power relationship and acting against the inequalities it brings about in daily life, professional activities and community. In other words, it is one of the ways of working towards human rights. In art, for example, feminism has allowed many of us to make art about our experiences as women, to understand how the system has worked to “invisibilize” our work, to broaden our definitions of art and to rethink the art system.  


What drew you to feminism and art?  

I began considering myself a feminist artist in the early 1970s while at art school. A female student in my class gave a presentation on women artists, even though none of them had ever been mentioned in our art history classes. After she finished, the male students said women were less creative than men because of motherhood. In that moment, I understood that if I wanted my work to be seen I had do something to change these prejudices. Feminism became an act of self-defense. 


How has female art changed since you began working as a feminist artist and do you see generational changes in feminist art?  

First of all, I would make a difference between women’s art, which is art done by all those who are female whether by biology or choice, and feminist art, which involves a political stance. I would even say that feminist art is everything that anyone who assumes themselves as feminist does. However, in terms of feminist art in Mexico today, I find several generational differences.  In the 1970s and 1980s there were only a few of us, there was little or no information available on feminist art anywhere and we started by using our personal experience as a subject matter of our art work. Today there is a new generation of feminist artists who have access to books, archives and global information. They are dealing with a much broader range of issues and responding bravely with strong commitment in their art to problems such as feminicide, which is a very serious problem in Mexico.  


Artist Mónica Mayer.

You began El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project in 1978. How did the idea come to you? 

I was invited to participate in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and the theme was The City.  I decided to ask women of different ages, classes and areas of the city to write what they disliked about the city in order to talk about sexual harassment.  At the time it [sexual harassment] was so naturalized that it wasn’t even their first answer, but I would continue talking to them until the theme came up and they became aware of the problem.  


You have said that the project was like a prehistoric #MeTooWhat similarities and differences do you see between the virtual world of #MeToo and your tactile, physical wall of vibrant pink slips of paper 

Both the #MeToo hashtag and the Tendedero are devices that make violence against women visible by sharing personal experiences. They are both profoundly feminist, not just because of the issue, but because of their format, which is like that of original consciousness-raising groups, where women sat in circles sharing their experiences and listening to each other. El Tendedero is an art piece, but it has also been used as an educational and a political tool.  In that way they are similar. You might say they are different because one is virtual and the other one physical, but The Tendedero project also has a virtual life. Apart from having a blog which documents all the reactivations of the piece, I have a Facebook Group. But I would say that #MeToo and El Tendedero are different because the former is an incredibly successful political action and mine is a complex art piece that includes the workshops, exhibitions of other artists dialoguing with the piece, performances, the installation and different components according to each version. It is a piece that dialogues with each specific context and I am interested in how it works as activism, but also as art. I also think things like #MeToo can happen today because as feminists we have been working on these problems for several decades.  


El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project at NMWA.

How did you come up with the questions you use for prompts for the exhibition at National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA)? 

At the NMWA we had three workshops to determine the questions with women from the House of Ruth, La Clínica del Pueblo and with a group of artists and activists.  I told them about earlier versions of El Tendedero, heard about their work, interests and experiences and then we discussed what the relevant questions would be in this time and context. Two things were particularly interesting to me in these workshops. One was the idea of asking how to recover one’s joy after an experience of violence. Although I usually include a question about we what have done or could do against violence, I had never thought about the steps we need to take to heal ourselves. After the workshops, I also became more aware of the immense difficulties most women face to denounce violence, either because if they do they might be deported, it is culturally unacceptable in their communities or they simply don’t have the time, money or resources to do it.  


The current exhibition is in English and Spanish. What do you think the bilingual aspect adds to the project?  

It was important to have the questions in English and Spanish because of the communities and organizations we were working with and the current political situation in the U.S., also to underline the context I come from and where the piece originated. I think it is also a very valuable effort of the museum to open up to other communities in Washington.  


What exhibition or art event are you looking forward to in 2018? 

In 2018, I will be concentrating on publishing a book with a selection of my texts (lectures, journal entries, newspaper articles, texts for performances, texts as artworks, etc.).  I invited performance artists Julia Antivilo and Katnira Bello to plunge into my archive and make a selection and art historian and curator Karen Cordero to write the prologue.   

by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp

Photos: All photos courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).


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