A Guide to the Banana In (Feminist) Art History
And no, we don't talk about Gwen Stefani.
Sarah Lucas, Eating a Banana, 1990, Black and white photograph. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery
It’s been about ten days since the first set of eyes were lain on Comedian, the readymade art piece by Maurizio Cattelan, at Art Basel Miami Beach. Since then, we’ve heard critical affection equally as much as we’ve heard critical scorn, seen it ignite a protest from underpaid janitors in Miami, inspire a spectacularly luxe selfie from Brooke Shields, attract massive crowds to the fair, and, inevitably, get eaten off the wall.
How the hell could a banana—literally, just a banana—ignite so much controversy? It’s hard to say why, but it is worth noting that it has happened before—historically with female artists.
As critic Roberta Smith wrote on her Instagram account, “While the art world ODs on testosterone, phallocentricity and stupid people tricks please remember that there’s more than one way to use bananas — and that the Guerrilla Girls have done so for decades.”
The piece to which she’s referring, made in 1989, riffs on Andy Warhol’s iconic cover art for the Velvet Underground’s eponymous album which featured a banana front and center. The radical collective used two bananas to form a big fat zero—emblematic of the number of works by female artists that were in the art collections of Warhol and the lauded collection of Emily and Burton G. Tremaine. The poster became one of the group’s seminal call-to-action artworks demanding more female voices to be recognized in the canon of art history.
One female voice that was able to cement itself into the textbooks, however, is that of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo employed the banana in her work The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened from 1939, painted in the traditional still life style.
Bananas are notably missing from many of the male-centric still life artworks from the 17th and 18th centuries, due to the fruit simply not being present in the parts of the world that the movement was happening. However, The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened depicts several fruits that are indigenous to countries closer to the equator and far from the institutions that now hold most of those recognizable still lifes. Emphatically, a bunch of bananas is seen next to a split open papaya. This rich, lurid tableau presented these fruits as testaments to the strength of human sexuality, which intimidates the doll-like bride in its left corner.
Unafraid of her own sexuality is Sarah Lucas, the YBA who saw her much-lauded first survey in the US at the New Museum in 2018. In the retrospective, several self-portraits of the androgynous artist glared defiantly into the eyes of attendees, including one from 1990 titled Eating a Banana. She’s leather jacket-clad, sporting a tomboyish haircut and sneering with, er, is the term Big Dick Energy out of vogue? Lucas reclaims the masculine aspects of her identity by chomping down on a phallic symbol of it. Lucas paid homage to the portrait again in 2017, for a much more sexually overt portrait, Eating a Banana (Revisited).
Kara Walker employed the history of the banana’s movements around the globe as a commentary on colonialism and slavery in her blowout installation of sculptural works at the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn back in 2014. Apart from the mammoth Sphynx-like piece made of raw sugar that brought the show worldwide acclaim was a smaller figure, made partially with molasses and sugar, of a boy carrying a bundle of bananas on his back. The piece, African Boy Attendant Curio with Molasses and Brown Sugar, from "The Marvelous Sugar Baby" Installation at the old Domino Sugar Factory Warehouse (Bananas), sees the child’s body lean to carry the bananas from the torso up, with strong legs planted firmly in the ground. His physique equally denotes a burden being carried as well as steadfast strength.
It is worth noting that the banana as readymade object, presented within a white cube, has happened before. In 2008, Adriana Lara charged museum employees with eating the meat out of a banana and casting the peel onto the floor of the New Museum triennial for a work called Installation (Banana Peel), an absurd work challenging viewers to consider what we think of as trash, but also perhaps to slip on it Buster Keaton-style. Ten years later, Karin Sander tacked one to the wall of the Carolina Nitsch Project Room, among a smattering of other produce, with the aim to show how the living organisms decay over time. Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit displayed fruits already on their way towards decomposition strewn across the floor, strangled by threads in a sort of ramshackle casket, a meditation on death and mortality.
There are these examples, and many more, of how the banana has been used as a symbol of life, sex, death, tragedy, and comedy, through the annals of art history. Cattelan’s piece added one more to the growing list: a symbol of the absurdity of the art market, which is a worthy endeavor. While we add Comedian to the checklist of bananas seen in art history, let’s not forget the many women who came before it.