The power in your hands

By Amy Reiswig, December 2015

45 Years of Fooling Around with A. Banana: a book and an exhibit.

The recent federal election refocused our attention on the mighty concept of democracy. At its root, the word doesn’t just mean rule by the people but also strength or power of the people. While we often associate that power with politics, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s new book Anna Banana: 45 Years of Fooling Around with A. Banana shows us the surprising and mighty effects of the democratic principle at play in art. 

Anna Banana is a Victoria-born and -raised performance and visual artist whose long career celebrates not just her own creativity but precisely the power of what happens when other people get pulled in. Banana (yes, now her official surname) actually calls herself a “conceptualist” because she’s interested not so much in making things as in making things happen. From community-scale performance pieces like the Banana Olympics to her longstanding Banana Rag newsletter or the intimate works sent and received through the international mail art network, interactivity is integral to Banana’s vision of herself as an artist and to what art truly is. 

“There’s still a schism between what Anna defines as her art and what people understand art to be,” says AGGV chief curator and book editor Michelle Jacques. The book tries to bridge that gap of vision. It provides not only colourful images from a lifetime of counter-cultural artwork—work that appears in more art collections than Warhol or Picasso—but critical, scholarly essays explaining the contexts and the importance of Banana’s playful, probing and always instigating oeuvre.

“I’m from Toronto and worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario, so Anna Banana was a known entity,” Jacques says, “but I had never really looked into who she was or into the question of how seriously I should take an artist like Anna Banana. Within ten minutes of meeting and talking with her, I was completely charmed. She is totally serious about what she does, so articulate about why she did what she did; it’s not all fun and games. It became immediately evident why it was a story to be told.” 

And it’s a story particularly important to be told in Victoria. Born here in 1940 as Anne Long, her persona of Town Fool was born in the early 1970s. Tables set up in Bastion Square offered painted beach stones, found objects, and a “Please Do Touch” sign alongside petitions against, for example, nuclear testing in Alaska. The book even has a photo of then-mayor Peter Pollen awarding Banana first prize for her Victoria Day parade entry in 1972. 

While her art career began in Victoria, she felt unaccepted, even rejected, by her home community. Banana has written: “I was tired of trying to explain myself and my activities to people whose idea of art was limited to objects hung on a wall or sitting on plinths.” And so she left, as Jacques writes, “in search of an art community where her lack of convention would be welcome.” 

Jacques’s approach is social and art history, and her essay focuses on the often political issues surrounding the artist’s production. For instance, she looks at how Banana’s seemingly absurdist work highlights the irrationality of the so-called “normal” and is premised on an implicit critique of capitalist society. 

Jacques also invited international voices to comment on the many facets of Banana’s prolific creative endeavours. One essay looks at the organic, democratic distribution of her “social sculptures” which travelled through the mundane channels of regular mail, bypassing traditional art institutions. 

Another contributor, the director of the Research Centre for Artists’ Publications in Bremen, examines Banana’s artist’s books and artistamps. Says Jacques, “I thought it was important to have that European perspective, where they are more aware of the artist book as a major kind of practice. Artists who create that kind of ephemeral material often don’t get taken as seriously as people who make paintings or sculptures or even videos.” In explaining the larger cultural concepts that Banana’s ideas push and pull against, the book shows just how far-reaching she has been—and still is—from our own Bastion Square to the streets of San Francisco, the galleries of Europe, and the postal service reaching the entire world. 

This career retrospective exhibition (a partnership between the AGGV and Open Space) has therefore been a kind of homecoming for an artist that Victoria now seems ready to embrace. “I think she felt that it had gotten to the point where she could work in an institution like ours because it’s become more open to having its structures questioned,” Jacques says. It’s certainly something Jacques has seen and worked to make happen in her curatorial role, advocating for the relationship between artists and audiences.

In a fortuitous twist highlighting one of the benefits of a small city like Victoria, I ran into Anna Banana (who now lives in Roberts Creek) while cycling to the gallery, just after I had started preparing this article. In her dark blue coat, not a flash of yellow in sight save for the glint of a bobby pin in her greying hair, Banana didn’t outwardly stand out from the street-crossing crowd on Belleville—except for what I now know she’s done, what she carries inside her. For what the book makes you realize is that her lasting impact ultimately isn’t about the costumes or the banana props. It’s the simple, enduring lesson that art and creative ideas belong to all of us, live in all of us. Banana has spent 45 years bringing her ideas out and, in so doing, has brought out the creativity of countless others as well. And so I think the book’s endpaper image provides the perfect conclusion to a walk through her work—someone is holding a banana, and on its peel is written: “The power in your hands.”

The exhibition runs at the AGGV until January 3, 2016.

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig eats a banana every day and opens them from the bottom, not the stem. As with much in life, what might seem weird is actually easier.