Three nuns in colorful habits trudge down a long desert road—but they are not alone. Not far behind them stalks a skeleton, who relentlessly pursues them as they clamber over boulders and menaces them while they sleep. The skeleton represents something more profound than death: it is the “spectre of extinction” that “hovers over our world.”
This is the story of Memento Mori, an artist’s book created by the Sisters of Survival in 1984. The group’s members, Jerri Allyn, Anne Gauldin, Cheri Gaulke, Sue Maberry, and Nancy Angelo, were one of the last performance groups to emerge from the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. Their work was inspired by anti-nuclear demonstrations in Europe and they based their striking visual identity on a dream Angelo had of nuns in habits of the colors of the rainbow in a peaceful cloister setting in Italy.
Thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, researchers will soon be able to explore the archive of the Sisters of Survival, as well as other artists affiliated with the LA Woman’s Building. Founded in 1973, the Woman’s Building offered women a space to grow as individual artists while also emphasizing the importance of cooperation and collective achievement.
The Sisters of Survival were deeply concerned by the prospect of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the early ‘80s, they used their art to educate the public and build community with other anti-nuclear artists and activists around the world. Although most anti-nuclear artwork of the period had a dark tone, the Sisters of Survival wanted their work to be uplifting and sometimes even humorous. For example, at the June 12, 1982 peace march in New York City, Jerri Allyn led rows of rainbow nuns as they danced joyously down the street to Chubby Checker’s hit song “The Twist.”
In addition to performances and exhibitions across the United States and Europe, the Sisters of Survival spread their message by producing postcards, buttons, T-shirts, and artist’s books like Memento Mori. It was printed at the Women’s Graphic Center, one of the major programs run out of the Woman’s Building.
The idea for the photo shoot at Joshua Tree National Monument was largely conceived by Nancy Angelo, who was inspired by her childhood in the Nevada desert. The deep purple cover is stamped with gold leaf and the font and layout of the pages are intended to evoke an illuminated manuscript.
The book shows three women dressed as nuns in habits of different rainbow colors to signify sisterhood and celebrate hope and diversity, as they are chased across the desert landscape by a skeleton. The photographs are accompanied by a meditation on despair in the face of the existential threat of nuclear war: “The spectre of extinction…accompanies us through life, from birth to death.” Despite the heavy topic, the book ends on a hopeful note, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all living things and the need to work communally to create a better world.
The archive of the Sisters of Survival contains a treasure trove of other materials that show how the group developed the idea and produced the book, including the original proposal to the Women’s Graphic Center, page sketches, and the wood printing blocks with the designs that frame the photographs and text.
While only eleven photographs ultimately made it into the book, the collection has hundreds of additional slides from the Joshua Tree photo shoot that tell a more complete story. In this extended narrative, the skeleton mischievously steals the nuns’ food and pours out their water while they sleep. The nuns engage in a ritual with mirrors, flowers, eggs, and other objects, and eventually, the skeleton joins them. The nuns wipe away the skeleton’s makeup and dress her in a red habit, and she accompanies their trek through the desert.
Less than a decade after Memento Mori was published, the political landscape had changed considerably. The Soviet Union collapsed and fears of imminent nuclear war began to fade from public memory. The Woman’s Building closed in 1991, and apart from a few later collaborations, the Sisters of Survival mostly went their own ways. Yet in an age of climate change, pandemics, and global instability, the message of Memento Mori still rings true: we all need each other in order to survive.
The Sisters of Survival records are still in process and will be available to researchers in 2021. Subscribe to the Getty Research Institute newsletter for updates.