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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In Conversation with Sarah Maple

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

Why do you define yourself an artist? And what is the role that art has in your everyday life?

I think it is there in my everyday life because I see art in everything…especially conversations. I always pick up on things people say and use them in my work, or they inspire a piece. Everything I see everyday from TV, advertising, the internet, family and friends, all these things influence me and inform the decisions I make as an artist.

Why do you consider yourself a “Feminist?” And what is for you “Feminism?”

To me feminism is a much broader term than what it is perceived. For me it all about equality, equality between all people. It’s funny how so many people agree on these principles but so scared of the word ‘feminism’. In my work I use humour and other ways to getting across this message, like a trojan horse.

I know you use art in different ways: paintings, video, photography, and performance… What work do you most enjoy doing?

It’s hard to say because I love them all, I take joy in them all. I always saw myself primarily as a painter but photography opened up so much for me as well. I love how each media can say and do so much used in the right way.

What do you want to achieve and/or demonstrate with your art?

For me the most important thing about the art is the message, I want to make people think and I want to bring about change. I want my work to challenge what is seen as ‘the norm’. I always aim to make my viewer question the world around them. I’m not sure art has the same power that it used to, but I try my best!

I have seen in your work that ‘Islam’ is a repeated topic, I know you have a mixed religious background , but why for you is it so important to talk about it?

I haven’t made work on this theme for a few years now, it was something at the time that I felt the urge to speak about and comment on. Not only was I commenting on the world around me but on my own life experiences with I felt was a reflection on the current political climate. People often ask if I will return to this theme….as a muslim it is part of who I am so I think I will return to it at some point but not right now. I felt I’ve said what I needed to say.

What do you want to denounce in your performance  It’s just like any other job really – dedicated to world peace?

The piece was inspired by artist Santiago Serra who had a successful show in London at the time. I found the great thing about performance is that you can have an idea about what you want to say and how you want yourself/viewers to feel, but you will only really know the impact when you are performing. In this piece we had 30 girls doing a ‘Miss World’ catwalk and then standing silently against a wall for a whole day. It looked incredible but was very hard work, 5 girls fainted. The gallery was all glass and the viewer had to look from the outside, like we were untouchable in this goldfish bowl. It was a very surreal experience, being watched in this way….definitely an experience I won’t forget!

Can women do everything?

Yes!

“Menstruate with pride” would you talk about it?

This piece was inspired by a group called ‘Adventures in Menstruating’ who I saw perform in New York. They spoke about the shame women are made to feel about this, mainly through the media and advertising. It made me think about this on a wider scale, how women are made to feel bad and ashamed about their bodies. Ultimately it is all to make us buy things. It also reminded me of menstruating in religion and how it is perceived as dirty, especially in Islam. In my piece I wanted to subvert this. The women in the centre is proudly menstruating, whilst all the others around her are shocked and horrified. I also wanted to emulate the classical religious paintings. Instead of mocking her, we end up laughing at the crowd….it makes us question why they are reacting this way. A lot of my work is like this – instead of bringing attention to the taboo itself, we question why it is a taboo.

 

You have been named “The heir to Tracy Emin’s throne.” What do you think about? Are you happy of this title or are you disturbed of being identified with someone else’s art?

It is very flattering as she is such a well known artist however I do find it funny also. They never compare me to a man, I would never be ‘the next Damien Hirst’. They feel they must compare me only to another woman. I always get referred to as a ‘female artist.’ You never hear the term ‘male artist.’

You use your image in all your work. Is that your way to interact personally with the world? Why? Is it a sort of re-appropriation of female figure?

I use myself because it feels natural to do so, I don’t think that a model could put across the things I want to say in EXACTLY the way I want them to be seen….it’s all about the look in the eye and only I can get that perfect because only I really know what I’m trying to say. I love being in the pieces and I suppose it is a personal touch, however I don’t want to be too personal, if I see my own eyes or facial expression in a picture I would never use it. I am always acting in all of my pieces, there is a cool detachment between myself the person and the character of me as an artist.

The Artist is present

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

The artist is present is an excellent documentary about the powerful and controversial performance by the charming, courageous and outrageous, Yugoslavian artist Marina Abramovic.

For nearly three decades Abramovic’s work redefined what art is and Marina is now considered one of the most compelling artists of our time. The use of her own body as a vehicle, embracing to the limits of pain and physical and mental endurance, confer her the title of grandmother of performance art.

The performance took place in 2010 in one of the most important art venue in the world the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For three months, from the beginning of March through the end of May the daughter of two national heroes of General Tito’s Yugoslavia, is sat solemnly and silently for seven and half hours, every day, without food or water, in a wood chair, still, emotionless and gazing into the eyes of hundreds of visitors who sat opposite her only for the opportunity to see Ms. Abramovic face to face. This exchange of glances for some induces tears, for others, a smile.

While she performs on one floor of MoMA, on another floor utilizing both videos and photos of her old works, a group of 30 young artists, disciplinary trained for endurance and concentration, by the same Abramovic, during a rural workshop based on yoga, zen, breathing, and all this sort, recreate 5 performance pieces that characterized the artist’s career. The documentary, evidences the genesis of that work and also provides, through interviews and archival clips, a synopsis of Abramovic’s career.

In the retrospective there is a fashinating section about her love and artistic collaboration with the German performance artist Ulay, that unbeknownst to her takes part in the performance.

A powerful moment, in which the artist left the place to the woman, in which either her recognized stamina has raised the white flag.This sublime and touching moment in which her tears gently slipped down her face made this performance even more real, the artist herself stated that “performance is always a state of mind.” And, forgive me the romanticism, I would add: “the state of mind is always driven by heart”.

The whole retrospective and the performance itself revolve around the obsessive question that the artist has been covered in all the years of her career : “Why is this art?” And the answer is veiled in the events and experiences she creates with her presence – as the title itself expresses – a live self portrait, rather than paintings and sculptures we are used to recognize as art.

Performance art emerged in the 60s as a result to painting, and whatever it was, was not something you can hang on the wall. And Marina Abramovic knows pretty well how to use the human body. A medium, to make statements, to be directly provocative and sometimes violent and sharing the experience with the audience make her works unique.

The Artist is present destroys the Barthes’ statement that in his famous essay[1] supports the tendency towards the ‘desacrilization of the image of the Author’. He argues that the author is a modern figure, created by society, and that the author, in relation to the text, is a closure. He considers the work as a place where the multiplicity meets, and that place is not the author, so far as has been stated, but the reader. On the contrary Abramovich’s performance is based on her presence, even better her presence is the performance itself. Her emotional approach is a directory, a kind of dialogue with the public that receive and partecipate to it. Abramovich with her performance unifies in a single work Barthes’ thought: the unity of a text (artwork) is not in its origin but in its destination.

“Artist has to be warrior, has to have this determination and has to have the stamina to conquer not only new territory but also to conquer himself and his weaknesses. “[2]


[1] Barthes, The Death of the Author, p.144

[2] Marina Abramovich, The Artist is present, 2010.

In Conversation with Raeda Saadeh

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

Why do you define yourself as an artist?

Actually it is very sensitive for me when I say I am an artist, because when I look at the art history for instance Michelangelo, I question myself: who am I? Am I an artist? It is not easy for me to say I am an artist. Though, I have this feeling when people talk about my art, when I do an exhibition and others speak of me as an artist, in those moments I recognise myself as an artist.

I teach in two different universities in Palestine and in Israel, in two different languages, and the students are just starting to study and they already say “I am an artist”. So I think it is not difficult to say, “I am an artist.”

What is the role that art has in your everyday life?

I brief art. I don’t have a studio at home, but I have my sketchbook always with me everywhere I go and I am always writing my ideas. I am always talking about art, through which, with Palestine occupied, we can express our problems through art.

Do you consider yourself a “feminist”?

When I am with other artists, we always talk about feminism. For me there are so many things to talk about before talking about feminism. The right of a woman of being considered a human came before feminism in my opinion. This is the concept I am dealing with. I am talking about women that cannot study or work, because their families are really poor. I am talking about something that is normal in other parts of the world, but that here is more difficult. I am talking about being. Feminism is a further step for me to talk about.

For instance, last week I went to this place and I worked with two women of 60 and 70. They didn’t have food to eat. I guess this is a priority, rather than think about feminism. There are many things to work with right now that I cannot focus on feminism. I am more concerned about the problem of being a human.

You use your image in all your work. Is that your way to interact personally with the world? Why? Is it a sort of re-appropriation of female figure?

The way I do my art it is always with me. I am in my art. I always put myself into it. I use my image. I am always performing. When I take a photograph for example I feel myself as if I am doing a performance. For me my artworks are my babies. I am art myself.

Do you think it is correct to label the art of Middle East artists as “Arab or Islamic” art? And, do you define yourself as “Arab” artist?

I am Muslim, I am Arab, I am from Palestine, but I don’t like being labelled especially as “Islamic artist” as I don’t feel I am showing Islamic art.

I can accept that I am a Middle Eastern artist, and I am happy and proud of it, but how could I be defined as an Arab artist? What does it mean? There are many Arab artists that never lived in an Arab country, but they do art. What to call them? How can you define their art as Arab? This identification is very sensitive.

What do you want to achieve or demonstrate with your art?

I am trying not to be identified with anything. I’d like to be universal and seen as any woman in the Universe. Any woman in India, in the US, so they can identify themselves with my art. I want my art to be for all women. I would like to be successful. To be good at what I do. It is not easy for me as a Palestinian artist to be teacher at the Israeli University, and to teach in Hebrew. But when the students look at me they see a Palestinian that teaches in their language and tries to reach them with their same language. This is a great success for me.

I have seen in your work that ‘virginity’ is a repeated topic, I suppose that is because it is still a taboo in your country, but why for you is it so important to talk about it?

Once I did a project that was about ‘virginity’ in Ramallah. It was a competition and when I told the jury I would talk about ‘virginity’ they told me: Are you crazy? Do you want to talk about virginity in this Country? And I answered: I am not going to do a revolution, but as a woman I feel I need to talk about it. I feel I must talk about it, because there are almost 20 women that are killed each day by their families that suspect they are no longer virgins. In all my art I try not to be “the other” in relation to the public, I always try to communicate, I want to talk, not judge, eye to eye. It is not something I want to change, I do not judge, but want only to show that they are judging not me.

It is not good to point out their mistakes as if I want to teach them, but only try through my art to talk to them and to show them another point of view. I started to deal with virginity in 1998. I conducted a huge research about this concept and I discovered that there are so many girls that die at their families hands for saying they are not virgin, but when the hospital checks the bodies they find they were virgin.

Also I met a lot of girls who lost their virginity, but before marriage do the surgery at the cost of $200.

I met a girl once who divorced the same day of her marriage, because she did not bleed, and her husband did not believe she was a virgin.

They judge whether she is a good woman or not, if she is clean and pure, if she is Tahara(h) طهارة‎ as they say, based on her virginity. But she can buy her purity, and for only $200 she can lie to her husband forever. A woman can buy her purity for the cheap amount of $200.

What do you want to denounce in your performance “The Tree of Wishes”?

I made the dress and it is around 60 meters in diameter and the idea I want to show is that you come to me, I am the God and you make your wish. I am powerful and strong, I am in the middle, I am the God here, and I have the power of making your wish come true. So the role of the women once again, of being only related to a secondary role, here is broken. I want to perform it around the world. I did it already in 4 different Countries: the next will be in Marseilles, and the last show I would like to be in Jerusalem.

It is interesting to see the wishes in the different Countries. In some Countries, the wish of most girls is to get married; but it is very fascinating to see how the wishes change in each country. So I see the differences also in the culture of the Country in which I am hosted.

In Tunisia for example, without knowing I was Palestinian, one of the wishes was: Free Palestine!

Some people take it very seriously, some cry… In Turkey, there is a tree where people make their wishes. Also in Italy, in Rome, at Fontana di Trevi, you throw in a coin and make your wish. It is a belief and a hope.

Speaking about your performance “Dance with me”, you said: “ Women can do everything, the skeleton is alive, I am giving him his life” what do you want to symbolise with it?

I see a lot of young people that say: we cannot! There is a kind of resignation, they don’t believe in the possibility of doing. Many female artists when they get married don’t continue their careers. But I believe WE CAN, for example me: I am a mother, I am a wife, I teach in Jerusalem, I teach in Ramallah, I am also a director of an Art Centre, I do my art, I cook at home everyday, I do the cleaning… You can do everything.

Your work “Vacuum” symbolises impossibility and endlessness. I guess, it has a reference to the political situation in your country, Palestine, if so, how do you feel about it?

(The video Installation was shot in the desert between Jericho and the Dead Sea in Palestine. To create an authentic experience, 400 meters of cable was connected to a generator, so that the soundtrack and the act of cleaning were genuine. This performance aims to recall The Mith of Sisyphus, the condemnation of an absurd endless work, repeated and repeated that has to be done in order to survive in Palestine.) In all my work I usually talk about politics through my female perception, here it is really Palestine I am talking about. The desert is exactly our reality here in Palestine.

Photographer, installation and performance artist Raeda Saadeh was born in 1977 in Umm Al-Fahem, Palestine. She received her BFA and MFA from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and spent one year as an exchange student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She now lives and works in Jerusalem.

A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America

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

A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America (2006) by Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco (born 1960 New York City) is a powerful performance inspired by Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, which deals with women and war.

The show begins with the artist wearing the typical U.S. army uniform, and she is on a stage performing the role of an interrogator. The American flag opens behind her and two screens: one projecting the traditional image of the eagle, the emblem of United States, and the sentence: United we stand. The other shows a CCTV live video of a prisoner in an interrogation room of Guantanamo. In this setting, Fusco makes the traditional military salute.

As a whole, the flags, the salute, and the other symbols transmit the same feeling and pride that reigns among the American soldiers, and their belief in a mission of developing civilization and democracy in the name of freedom.

As part of the performance, there is a manual in a PowerPoint presentation entitled, A Field guide for Female Interrogators’ describing the ‘tactics’ of interrogation. The use of this manual is and employs the hegemony of the power. In her speech, she satirically emphasizes the great achievement on the part of women and the use of their femininity in joining the war.

The entire performance addresses the Guantanamo Bay Camp and Abu Ghraib and is focused on the “Arab subject.” The manual refers to Arab inhibitions in relation to sexuality, exposure, homosexuality, nudity, shame, and taboo; and arrogant women half-naked making explicit sexual gestures against the prisoners and violating their “religious doctrine.” The woman is playing the role of a heroine, who triumphs against evil Muslims.

Through her work, Fusco reminds us that the conquest of sexuality has nothing to do with reversal roles of power and submission, and that it is not a competition of physical attributes.

A Room of One’s Own addresses the theme of military interrogations and demonstrates that the mission of civilization hides a policy of oppression, which leaves very little room for the value of democracy, freedom, and respect of cultural and gender diversities.

Coco Fusco is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. Her work combines electronic media and performance in several formats and explores the relationship between women and society, war, politics and race. She is a recipient of a 2003 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. Fusco’s performances and videos have been presented in two Whitney Biennials (2008 and 1993), the Sydney Biennale, The Johannesburg Biennial, The Kwangju Biennale, The Shanghai Biennale, InSite O5, Mercosul, Transmediale, The London International Theatre Festival, VideoBrasil, and Performa05. Her works have also been shown at the Tate Liverpool, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona.

Fusco is the author of English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (1995), The Bodies that Were Not Ours and Other Writings (2001), and A Field Guide for Female Interrogators (2008). She is also the editor of Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas (1999) and Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (2003). Coco Fusco received her B.A. in Semiotics from Brown University (1982), her M.A. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University (1985), and her Ph.D. in Art and Visual Culture from Middlesex University (2007).