Turning a Clothesline into a Powerful Feminist Statement

Artist Mónica Mayer’s multifaceted El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project uses a symbol of domesticity to generate dialogue and support taking ownership of feminist issues and experiences.

Installation view of Monica Mayer’s El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project

When I think about clotheslines, I don’t think about Washington D.C. I think about that time in 2009 when I lived in southern Spain and we didn’t own a dryer. Or I think about my mother, hanging clothes on the line on her tiptoes when we lived on the small island of Dominica. Hanging a clothesline in the middle of the capital, airing the voices of female-identified experiences with violence and harassment is radical in its geographic placement. Mónica Mayer’s exhibition El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NWMA), presents an opportunity for female-identified participants to share their experiences and perspectives on violence against their gender.

While my personal memories of clotheslines are fond, the cultural imagery surrounding them is complex. As feminist movements have evolved, the understanding of domestic objects and activities has begun to take on different meanings, ranging from the rejection of domesticity, to the praise and reification of domestic practice. Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s maintenance art honors domestic labor by elevating acts of home care as performances of art.  Mayer also reappropriates the clotheslines as a space for women to air out their grievances, the final space in the cycle of cleansing: hanging to dry on the line.

The piece began in Mexico City in 1978 as Mayer’s response to her own experiences of harassment as a woman. At the time, this premise for an art project was provocative — street harassment was not something people openly discussed. More than a response to her own experiences, the artist wanted to create a platform to invite other women to share their stories and hopes for change.

Installation view of Monica Mayer’s El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project

This community engagement component is critical to El Tendedero/The Clothesline ProjectMayer intentionally seeks out local women’s organizations to initiate the project in each new site. In Washington D.C. she held workshops with artists, activists, and support organizations. La Clínica del Pueblo in D.C. and The Living Well in Baltimore have even hosted their own clotheslines, which have been integrated into Mayer’s growing piece at NWMA. Mayer notes that the piece changes from site to site based on the culture and the women she engages in these workshops.

The  entire exhibition is bilingual, with all wall text and participatory instructions in both Spanish and English, affirming the importance of Latina voices. Many of the activists and organizations the project engaged in workshops were from immigrant communities, and images from these workshops play a prominent role in the exhibition.

The  exhibition incorporates a soft purple cove that greets visitors with the bold question printed on the wall: “what did you do to regain your joy after experiencing sexual violence or harassment?”

The center of the room holds a table with printed questions and writing utensils, prompting visitors to reflect and hang their stories by clipping their response to add to the clothesline, an act of both catharsis and solidarity. The questions included: What have you done or could you do to stop violence and harassment against women? As a woman, have you ever experienced violence or harassment? What happened? As a woman, where do you feel safe? Why? As a woman, have you/would you denounce violence or harassment against you? Why? And lastly, the question also printed largely and looming over the show, As a woman, how did you or do your joy after experience violence or harassment?

Bilingual prompts for visitor participation at Mónica Mayer’s El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project

Amidst what can feel like a Sisyphean battle for the right to make decisions for their own bodies, and stories that may be disturbing, triggering, and challenging for women to share, there is a tenderness that runs throughout. Participants begin responding to each other’s stories, share messages of support and love for the sisters they have yet to meet. You feel you are not alone. I am reminded, too, of a tenderness in which my memories of clotheslines are wrapped. They require care; they require time, not unlike the time it takes to share stories, of the time it takes to regain lost joy.

Surely this is the right time to be talking about violence against women. Multiple politicians from Senate nominee Roy Moore to president Donald Trump, high profile entertainment industry professionals like  Harvey Weinstein,  and Louie C.K., newscasters like Matt Lauer ,and ArtForum publisher Knight Landesman have been accused of sexual misconduct. So, because this is showing up in the headlines daily, this seems like the “right” time to talk about the treatment of women. But of course all the time is the right time. Every day is the right day. Until maybe it isn’t, isn’t needed anymore. And isn’t that arguably the point of good social practice art, that the work moves conversations and action forward towards social change until the social ill is cured? At a panel discussion, Mayer said “What has changed in 40 years? The one thing that’s different now is that I’m not the only one doing it.” Perhaps the point of El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project is to put itself out of business.

El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project continues through January 5 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, D.C.).

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