Ana Mendieta: Traces of Life

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, October 2013)

Whoever is familiar with Hermann Hesse’s book Pictor’s Metamorphoses will see immediately the relationship between the human being and the earth, and will quickly relate it to the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948–1985), the creator of “earth-body.”

Although her short career  – she died at the early age of 37 by falling from the window of the 34th floor-apartment in New York where she was living with her husband the artist Carl Andre – Mendieta left a prolific amount of work.

By joining human features like blood and primary elements such as fire, water, and earth, she creates a unique language which is provocative, impacting, and at the same time intimate and engaging.

Mendieta was born into a politically active Catholic family in Havana under Fidel Castro’s regime. Immediately before her thirteenth birthday, she was sent with her sister to America, where  she studied art in Iowa.

The pain and the separation from her country created a cultural displacement and exile inside her that she used and developed in her creative process, which she named “earth-body.” She perceived this separation from the family (she rejoined her family in Havana after 18 years) as a sort of orphanhood and used this suffering as a driving force for her art — opening a dialogue between the landscape and her own body. This dialogue was the main component of her work and is present in all her oeuvre.

Her performances and sculptures are a combination of the Afro-Cuban ritual santería and a metaphor of death, life, rebirth, and spiritual transformation. Always interested in themes such as identity, female violence, displacement, and physical transformation, Mendieta created work such as Rape Scene (1973), a documentation with slides of violent crime, using her own body and her own apartment. Inspired by santería, a Yoruban-Christian religion practiced in Cuba, as well as by her Roman Catholic education, Mendieta used ox blood in her actions and performances to create stains of her body, to trace the contour of her body or create an image of her body, as in the work Untitled (Self-portrait with Blood) (1973). She stated that the blood was not a negative force.

 

Alongside her interest for the Afro-Cuban spiritual ritual, Mendieta was interested in ancient and indigenous cultures. Witnesses of these interests are works such as Bird Transformation (1972), a performance concerning transmutation in which she is naked and her body is completely covered with feathers.

As an exile from Cuba, Mendieta found solace in Mexico, where she spent a lot of time during the 1970s. The parallelism between Mexico with her native Cuba was an inspiration for her. There she created body-works rooted in the ritual Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead celebration.

Her most famous work was Siluetas, a series of one hundred works that she created between 1973 and 1981, and that become the center of all her practice.

A special significance for Mendieta was the work Arbol de la Vida (1970) a work that embodies both wisdom and knowledge, a binomial that is encountered in any culture and religion.

All her oeuvre refers to the universal process of life, because Mendieta believed that you cannot separate life from death. As she said: “All my work is about those two things – it’s about eros, and death and life.”

Although Mendieta works were mainly sculptural, she recorded everything in photographs and video. The process and the documentation of the same was essential for the artist.

Mendieta’s relation with the earth was unique and singular; her relation with nature was the source of inspiration for her creativity. Likely, this attachment for the earth derived from her sense of displacement and for her search to find her place in this world. She left us numerous works that are currently being exhibited at Hayward Gallery in London.

Mendieta is only another great sample of a woman, of an artist, of a daughter that dedicated her life to what was most significant for her: earth and body; earth as synonyms of house and body as synonyms of life and death.

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