Photo by Portia Priegert
Anna Banana outside Open Space in Victoria with an artifact from her immense archive of banana paraphernalia.
I’m not sure what to expect when I go to meet Anna Banana. What to make of an artist who adopted this loopy name as her artistic – and legal – identity, then turned it into her life’s work by creating everything from the Encyclopedia Bananica to the Banana Olympics? And why bananas? There’s something absurd about them, for sure. Not only the shape of those dangling appendages, but the slipshod skins that have propelled so many slapstick gags. And don’t get started on the sexual innuendo. You don’t so much peel a banana, as strip it: Down, right down, to that pale flesh, tender yet firm, for that first luscious mouthful.
Anna Banana has heard it all. “People aren’t comfortable with my name,” she says during a long and gossipy interview. “And, often, it goes to sexual things. Or it’s goofy and childlike.”
Banana is happy to mug for photos, but is more serious than you might expect, given that she once declared herself to be Victoria’s town fool. She’s also surprisingly candid (for women of a certain generation, of course, the personal is the political). Still, there’s no banana suit, not even a yellow sweater. Just a small banana pin discreetly fastened to the vest she dons for the quick walk to lunch.
Working for more than four decades on the fringes of the art system, Banana gamely created public performances, sent vast quantities of mail art, and amassed an astonishing archive of images, newspaper clippings and other miscellany about bananas. We meet at Open Space, the Victoria non-profit artist-run centre that fits her avant-garde practice like, well, a banana skin. One wall of a back room is stacked with boxes overflowing with banana paraphernalia that she culled from a larger collection in the basement of her home in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver. Most of it was gifted to her, including a rather limp hand-sewn banana that seems determined to split from its peel holster. She keeps stuffing it down, and up it pops, again and again.
These boxes hold the makings for the Encyclopedia Bananica as well as Regifting the Bananas, a new downsizing project that lets visitors take home a piece of her collection. Both will be displayed at Open Space from Sept. 19 to Oct. 24 as part of Banana’s upcoming retrospective, Fooling Around with A. Banana. It’s organized by Open Space’s director, Helen Marzolf, and Michelle Jacques, the curator of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where the second part of the show runs from Sept. 19 to Jan. 3. This venue will display photographs and other documentation of various art projects, including the 1975 Banana Olympics in San Francisco, and the 1980 reprise in Surrey, B.C. Also on view is an interactive project, A Celebration of Mail Art, which includes public workshops.
Over the years, Banana has poked her fingers into many alternative practices. She connected with artists Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, whose claim to fame includes running as Mr. Peanut in Vancouver’s 1974 mayoral election. The contacts she made via their Image Bank Request List, a mail exchange network, led Banana to become a key figure in mail art, an informal movement of artists, both professional and amateur, who swap their work via the postal service. She pioneered the artistamp, her take on postage stamps, and was also a small-press publisher, with projects such as Vile magazine, which focused on mail art, and her own newsletter, the Banana Rag.
Banana’s work shares ground with the early 20th-century Dada ethos, which embraced chaos and the irrational, ignoring conventional aesthetics and challenging traditional bourgeois values. But her longtime interest in social engagement moves her trajectory forward too, twining her practice with critical strands of contemporary art. Indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to see her work as a precursor to current projects in relational aesthetics, a term proposed by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud to describe projects that advance the idea that art’s aim can be simply to engage human relations in a social sphere, through activities such as dinner parties.
Jacques, who oversaw production of a 176-page book about Banana to coincide with the retrospective, notes the artist’s long practice, her important role as an innovator, and her interest in helping people from different walks of life access their creativity. “It’s a good moment to understand how prescient Anna’s work was,” says Jacques. “She made it at a time when a lot of people might have had trouble accepting the Banana Olympics as an artwork. But, in current times, that kind of participatory project, where artists are primarily concerned with engaging their audience in active ways, has become way more prevalent.”
1975 Banana Olympics
Blind and Balance Race, Banana Olympics, Embarcadero Plaza, San Francisco,1975
Banana also produces political art. What she calls security blankets, for instance, are woven from strips cut from the patterned snoop-proof linings of business envelopes. One piece features the words “Our Saviour” and an image of Ronald Reagan, the former U.S. president. Banana’s voice drips with sarcasm as she describes it. One senses there are few places she would be unwilling to tread. “Anything is fair game – not that I’ve exploited it all,” she says. “There’s so much.” Or, as she offers later in the conversation: “It’s not all jab, jab, jab. But mostly it is. Because there’s so much to jab.”
Born in Victoria in 1940 as Anna Long, Banana is of an age when artists’ thoughts turn to preserving their legacy. This show will aid that process, providing critical attention to a career often guided by love and laughs. “The bottom line on my work is interaction,” Banana says, wistfully recalling the community she found in San Francisco, a counterculture epicentre in the 1970s. “They were up for any public nonsense I could dream up.” At the Banana Olympics, for instance, events included the overhand banana throw. Winners were often chosen based on their costumes.
Horses Asses artistamps
Still, legacy – especially a permanent home for your work – is hard to come by when you’ve spent much of your life in the underground scene. Sure, there was the European tour Banana organized in 1978 with her second husband, Bill Gaglione, a Dada-influenced artist based in San Francisco. She met him after making the difficult decision to flee an early first marriage and motherhood. Along the way, she spent two years at the Esalen Institute, the famed retreat centre in Big Sur. California was also where she adopted her new name after falling into a box of bananas at a party.
To hear Banana tell it, that European tour has the makings of a movie script. Her second marriage was imploding and epic battles were interspersed with Futurist sound performances in one dingy basement after another. When they went behind the Iron Curtain, they were vetted by officials to ensure they wouldn’t start an uprising. Banana enjoys telling these stories. Life in Roberts Creek must seem dull, indeed, by comparison.
Again and again, I’m struck by Banana’s timelessness. Sure, her hair is grey and her face lined, but her eyes are bright with a mischievous sparkle. It’s easy to empathize with that generation’s female artists, the often tough either/or choices they faced about motherhood and career, and how often their ideas were credited to the men they loved, their creative labour just dust on the history books.
“You’ve had a fascinating life,” I say at one point. She nods. “I’ve really loved what I’ve been. It’s fun and it’s thumbing my nose at the straight world.” Mostly, Anna Banana seems at peace. If she had the chance to do it all again, I doubt she would change much.
By Portia Priegert