Conversation with Monica Mayer
Miriam Mabel Martínez
Where are all the women in Mexico’s art collections? Parting from this query, Museo Kaluz launched a review of its own collection with the objective of questioning art narratives from a gender perspective. The result is (Re)generating… narratives and imageries. Women in dialogue, in which we are invited to reflect on the work of women artists through a dialogue with the collections of contemporary artists, collectors, and other museums.
Curated by the renowned feminist art historian and academic Karen Cordero Reiman, the exhibit is presented as a point of departure to interrogate and reimagine art history as well as possible futures for Mexican culture and society. It is, at the same time, an effort to question and dismount some of the hierarchical relationships implicit in our culture and art system.
The following conversation between Miriam Mabel Martínez and Mónica Mayer, two contemporary artists whose work is featured in the show, forms part of the catalogue for the exhibition which will be open to the public through April 30, 2023.
Run, See, and Tell . Does the work of female artists contribute to transforming Mexico?
Mónica. I’ll start with a confession: The idea that art contributes to transforming Mexico or society makes me feel uncomfortable. I accept that everything we do as people affects our environment. I also understand that those of us who work in this field contribute to the definitions of art, to its themes, techniques, forms of production, and distribution. Accordingly, we contribute to culture, which is the essence of societies. However, I know that the artistic process is a strange and complex thing that we pour all of our experiences, reflections, yearnings, and desires into, and that there, using the tools we have available to us, we produce something. Often, we don’t know what this work will be or what will come of it because we have to place it in different contexts…and sometimes they are generous, but others are rather treacherous. To top it all off, evaluating social transformations is nearly impossible. So, facing such uncertainty and seeing that there are pieces by Lana Desastre [Wool Disaster] in this exhibit that I love, such as Sé-Nos, I’ll ask, do you all do your work to transform Mexico and, if so, what are you seeking to transform?
Miriam. When I met my fellow members of Lana Desastre, especially when I had my first encounter with Annuska Angulo, I started untangling ideas and actions, and then I understood how much knitting and crocheting had transformed me. I learned to knit and crochet around the same time that I learned to read and write. Maybe that’s why I brought them all together into one. Without realizing it, one day, I found myself interwoven in other narratives like those of our collective. What unites us is a passion for making and inhabiting public spaces—this has been our driving force. Outside, we have come across many individual inner-worlds that, more than transforming us, have brought us together, as if we were a blanket like those that, in the collective imaginary, only grandmothers knit. And it has been in the process of our pieces that we have found ourselves transformed. I don’t know if we have transformed something. What I do know—because I have seen it and sensed it in the multiple knit and crochet sessions that we’ve held—is that the simple act of being together, listening to each other, and accompanying each other is a transformation in itself. I don’t know if I answered your question, but another one comes to mind: Do you believe transformation should be conceived for the future or acted on in the present?
Mónica. Yes, you answered it. First, we change ourselves and transform our immediate surroundings by creating networks with other women. For me, this seems paramount, because we generally think of art as the finished products and not as the processes that bring them into existence, which are transformative on many levels. We need to broaden the perspective on what we consider to be art, on who can make art, on our relationship with cultural institutions, on how we position ourselves in public spaces or in political movements. Perhaps this is the meat of the matter of transformation in a broader social sense.
Ever since I first saw works by painters like Lilia Carrillo and Cordelia Urueta, I started growing as an artist. They let me understand form, color, composition, and movement in another way. There are transformations on a social level, but they also come about from our contributions to art itself. But your question is very interesting to me. I think that, as a feminist artist, our efforts are like a three-dimensional game of tic-tac-toe. We must change the narratives of the past that made us invisible or considered that what we did as women was less relevant (for example, the divisions between art and handicrafts, the little importance that has been given to works using techniques from the family of knitting, crocheting, and weaving in general, and so on). We must act in the present, and we must think toward the future, to form ties with the youngest artists and leave traces of our work so they don’t make us invisible so easily again. This means leaving our mark within publications, creating organizations, changing the narratives, and whatever else might present itself. From the viewpoint of art, many of us imagine another society as artists. In this way, I ask myself and I would ask you, will imagining in itself be a way of inhabiting the world and transforming it?
Miriam. As women, we have been tasked with the job of imagining—we are the dreamers. Personally, I don’t want to imagine myself with the life mission of being the mother of fantasy. For me, imagining is doing, and it is also the effect of observing. We observe what happens and, as you say, the processes that bring things into existence. There, in that present tense that is being built day by day, is where imagination lies for me.
How does imagination turn into ideas? When I see the work of Cordelia Urueta, I can make out a world that has already been transformed. The same thing happens for me with the work of Lilia Carrillo. What did they imagine? Did they imagine? I see their pieces and, like the pieces by Mariana Gullco, what I envisage are many imaginations that are not entangled, but that are interweaving ideas, concepts, flaws, thoughts, proposals, actions, questions, emotions, visions, contributions, theories, formulas. This, I believe, is how we imagine as women.
Perhaps in the patriarchal world it is more convenient to shut ourselves up in the fantasy of watching ourselves imagine other idyllic worlds rather than seeing ourselves create with aggression and determination in the concrete world. Women will no longer settle, if we ever have, for spinning illusions. We weave together ties, networks, stories, processes just as our grandmothers and great grandmothers and so on have done. I think that cracking the codes of the collective imaginaries that come before us to spin them into our present is what transforms us. We should not separate ourselves out from these other imaginations that—whether they are different from or similar to our own—state and reflect a present. Imagining is an action, and the action is happening at this very moment. And I’ll ask you, does one imagine outwardly or inwardly?
Mónica. I don’t know if one imagines outwardly or inwardly, but it’s clear to me that it is impossible to transform the outer world if there is not an in-depth process of questioning and inner change. Over my decades as a feminist, I’ve always said that it has been harder for me to get rid of the cobwebs of internalized oppression as a woman than to fight for the demands of the movement. The bombardment about how we supposedly must be, think, feel, and act as women is so overpowering, and it cuts so deep, that it requires constant questioning.
Something I love about the work of many artists is that their pieces open my eyes and allow me to see beyond my own experience. For example, I love the works of artists—such as Carol Espíndola or Guadalupe Carpio y Barruecos—that put themselves in the center of their pieces, just the way they are, and look us right in the eyes. They are no one’s model. They speak in the first person. They imagine themselves and they make me see myself. Some take a different path and use objects to bring out what is inside.
For example, the work of María Izquierdo—with her peculiar perspective of objects—makes me feel uncomfortable, trapped. Or there’s the work of Magali Lara, in which objects have a life of their own and turn into characters. Now, this is on a subtle plane of existence, but in the face of the violence we experience as women in this country—with an average of ten feminicides a day—how can we react from the viewpoint of art? By denouncing? By creating images that embrace us? By imagining other ways of relating to each other?
Miriam. As an observer, I especially like to examine absences. What’s missing? What’s not being mentioned? What materials are not being used? What isn’t pictured in the photo? For me, these absences are denunciations. For Giorgio Agamben “the contemporary are they who firmly hold their gaze on their own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness.” There’s a minority of us women who have been the darkness; a majority have been made invisible if not erased. And yet, in the acts of these few—barely perceptible in a patriarchal world—the reality of their present appears.
I think about the writer Inés Arredondo and her short story “La sunamita” [The Sunamite], which, for me, is one of the most truthful and crudest documents about systemic violence. And, on this same path, I’ve encountered the work of Manuela Ballester—what a way to portray solitude! Or Cuerpos vulnerables [Vulnerable Bodies] captured by Lorena Velázquez, the work Mujeres frente al tribunal [Women before the Court] by Carla Rippey, Cascos protectores [Protective Helmets] by Tania Candiani, or Magali Lara’s plates. There are not only diverse ways, mediums, formats, and techniques in them, but the traditional is the great absence. These pieces give voice to feminine universes. There is no status quo. What we see is these other women breaking free from the corset of the ideal woman. Idealization is not present, and neither is divinity or magic, but rather there are female bodies, flesh, entrails.
And, to me, these other ways of making art already seem like a denunciation. We denounce by saying that we want to use other tools, that our strategies are different, that—although they may not want to see us—we exist, we have names, we are. I am distressed by the feminicides—they can no longer be denied as they had been denied for decades and centuries.
As female artists, I believe we have always denounced the reality. I don’t know if we create images that embrace us, and I don’t know if, when we create, we imagine other ways of relating to each other either. What I do know is that, when we observe one another attentively, we are capable of following that imperceptible glimmer of light in the dark, which leads us to other sites to explore. This is how I came upon your work. Did you ever imagine that it would embrace so many of us?
Mónica. As a feminist artist, I have always wanted my work and that of other female artists to reach as far as possible. Yet, I never imagined the paths it would take and that works like El Tendedero [The Clothesline] would be adopted by many women as a tool for social struggle, even without knowing its origins and authorship. I never imagined it, but I love it. What I did understand from the start was the richness of working collaboratively and of creating networks. I don’t know if I imagined it, but I undoubtedly wished for it. It amazes me to see how my bonds with other women have been strengthened, and it’s something I’m incredibly pleased about. And I’ll end with the same question: Did you ever imagine that your work would embrace so many of us?
Miriam. I learned to knit and crochet and write simultaneously. Writing and working with yarn have been my way of telling stories, but knitting and crocheting have always involved a bond. By working with yarn in this way, I learned to share, and I learned the meaning of collective. Authorship does not exist. It doesn’t matter who invented the plain and purl stitches. What’s important is that anyone can replicate them to create anything from a garment to a theory. I grew up feeling like part of a secret guild. I felt fortunate and conspiratorial when, at a notions store or on public transportation, I would cross paths with another member of that knitters and crocheters club. Now that textile creations are also occupying the streets, I feel happy to participate in a movement that embraces us all, regardless of sex or gender, and that recovers our textile heritages as ways of thinking. As members of Lana Desastre, we never thought about what would happen. However, it has always been clear to us that, as knitters and crocheters, we are the next stitch for others. There is always a stitch before us and another one to come.
Miriam Mabel Martínez es escritora y tejedora. Aprendió a tejer a los siete años; desde entonces, y siguiendo su instinto, ha tejido historias con estambres y también con letras. Entre sus libros están: Cómo destruir Nueva York (Conaculta, 2005); los ebook Crónicas miopes de la Ciudad de México y Apuntes para enfrentar el destino (Editorial Sextil, 2013), Equis (Editorial Progreso, 2015) y El mensaje está en el tejido (Futura libros, 2016). Coordinó las antologías Oríllese a la izquierda y Mujeres (2019) y Mujeres. El mundo es nuestro (2021) ambas bajo el sello Universo de Libros. Forma parte del Colectivo Lana Desastre con el cual ha participado en “El Panal Monumental” (2017); un mural tejido para la Central de Abasto (2018); “Manta por la Sororidad” (2019) y “Data: Cambio Meta Tejido” (2019), entre otros. Pertenece al Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte.
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