“You know that expression, ‘just don’t go there’?” Janet Braun-Reinitz asks, her voice rising with excitement, certainty. “Well we are the ladies who indeed go there.”
Braun-Reinitz has been “going there” her whole life, from the time she was nine years old, questioning why her avid baseball fan family was discussing not Jackie Robinson’s talent, but his race. In the ’60s, Braun-Reinitz was a Freedom Rider, a civil rights activist who rode interstate buses into the segregated south, challenging non-enforcement of Supreme Court decisions that made segregated buses unconstitutional. She was arrested and jailed in Little Rock, AK. In her mugshot she’s wearing hoop earrings and a “fuck you” expression.
Today, after decades of collaboration, painting murals in more than 50 communities from New York City to India, Ghana, England, Georgia, Italy, and Nicaragua, the nearly 80-year-old Braun-Reinitz says she has tried to take a vacation from art. “The news is unfortunately an inspiration every day,” says Braun-Reinitz. “I keep trying to take a day off, entirely from the news. But then we had the whole take a knee thing, and I had to include that.”
Braun-Reinitz, along with up and coming progressive U.K. mixed media, visual, and performance artist Sarah Maple, has been drawing from the news and current events to create postcards for their internationally traveling show, Ladies Who Go There. The exhibit touches on national and international social justice issues of racism, sexism, natural disasters, immigration, and war.
“They’re really very various in size and cover all kinds of subjects,” says Braun-Reinitz. “Some are really hard to look at and some are enormously funny. Some have big text that hit you, others you look hard to see ‘reading is sexy.’ It’s a challenge for the viewer, and there’s something for absolutely everybody.”
Braun-Reinitz says she and Maple are an “unexpected” duo. “She’s a rising star,” says Braun-Reinitz of the 30-something, “and I’m almost 80 but we met at an artist residency and had an immediate affinity.” Maple would surely have joined Braun-Reinitz as a Freedom Rider in another life, giving the finger to the oppressors.
In a 2015 Guardian article by Nell Frizell, Maple, whose father is white and British and whose mother is Iranian Muslim, says that her controversial pieces have led to bricks thrown through her window and death threats. Maple is often the subject of her portraits, in one wearing a hijab and smoking a cigarette, in another wearing a hijab and cuddling a pig. In a triptych, “Menstruate With Pride,” Maple stands, fist raised, in a white dress with blood driping drown her front. She’s surrounded by men and women looking away, making disgusted faces. A young child stares in awe. “I’m interested in women being shamed for just having functioning parts,” Maple tells Frizzell.
In Ladies Who Go There, we see an amalgamation of fierce artistic response from across generations — they may be years apart, but Maple and Braun-Reinitz are still fighting the same fight. While Braun-Reinitz wants the viewer to be moved, impacted, confused, and maybe a bit shaken, she also wants them to act on these feelings. “The whole point is to get people to look at them and they choose one and write a message back to us,” says Braun-Reinitz. She and Maple are creating a living catalogue of human response, giving voice to everyone who wants to speak.
The interactive exhibit invites viewers to select a postcard — all postcards are hanging horizontally, from a clothesline, to emulate the idea of classic women’s work — then write a message, visual or textual, on the back. Participants return the postcard to the clothesline and receive, in turn, a badge or button with sentiments like, “Question Authority.”
The nature of the traveling exhibit means sometimes Braun-Reinitz cannot physically be at the gallery, cannot observe the interaction in process. “Right now the postcards are at a show in Boston, they’ll be traveling to the International Nasty Women’s Convention in New Castle, U.K. So we hope they travel far and wide,” says Braun-Reinitz. “But as a mural painter, as a community artist, when I send work out to shows in various parts of the country and I never see the venue it feels … impersonal. I will be delighted to spend a couple of days [in Charleston] and meet people and read reactions.”