Ana Mendieta: Traces
IN Cuba in 1948, and sent, at the tender age of 12, with her 16-year-old sister Raquelin, to Iowa as part of Operation Peter Pan, Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) spent the most part of her formative years in exile, as a ward of the Catholic Church, living in orphanages, foster homes, and institutions. Her mother and brother joined them five years later, but her father, a political prisoner, was not able to reunite with his family until 1979. It is perhaps not surprising then, that Mendieta later spoke of her earth-body sculptures (as she termed her best known series of work, the Silueta, for which she made increasingly abstracted imprints of her body’s outline in nature, using earth, flowers, pebbles, moss, mushrooms, sand, and, later, even ice, fire, and gunpowder) as a search to reunite with her roots. Her interest in Santéria, an Afro-Cuban religion with links to Catholicism, further increased her references to nature and the universal processes of life, death and rebirth. ‘All of my life,’ she said, ‘is about those […] things – it’s about eros, and death and life.’
In spite of this, Mendieta’s work has suffered the fate of many women artists of the time, and has been viewed largely through the lens of feminist art, assumed to pronounce some comment on society’s view of women, with her deliberate absence from her images seen as an anti-essentialist statement. Although she belonged to the women’s art collective, Heresies, for a short period in the late 1970s, and also held an exhibition at the women-led gallery A.I.R. in 1981, she nevertheless remained critical of the feminist movement which, in her opinion, failed to remember women of colour.
Autobiography has both thwarted Mendieta’s legacy, bringing about the tendency for a short-sighted interpretation of her works, but also kept her name alive, owing to the controversy which ensued from her death, tragic and untimely, falling from a 34th floor window of her artist husband Carl Andre’s apartment block, just eight months after they married, and six years into an increasingly tempestuous relationship, fuelled by her increasing success. Andre was charged with her murder but acquitted after the third trial.
Since Mendieta’s works were largely ephemeral in nature, of the majority there remains no original to be put into an exhibition today. Thankfully, however, alongside notebooks and sketches, Mendieta also left behind a substantial archive of photographs, 35mm slides and Super-8 films. Some might question whether this can ever be more than just documentation, but Mendieta herself made explicit that she considered the photographs and films as much a part of the work as the earth-body sculptures themselves.
The current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery is a long overdue solo show which showcases not only plenty of these photographs and films, but also pays homage to Mendieta’s own views of her work by recreating two of her lifetime solo exhibitions, one held in 1977 at the Corroboree Gallery of New Concepts, University of Iowa, in which Mendieta presented 27 small-scale colour photographs, unframed and mounted on board, of her Silueta works from the previous two years, and the aforementioned A.I.R. Gallery show from 1981, by which point the photographs, now taken with an upgraded camera, had grown in scale, but been turned from colour to black and white to afford the artist further control over what detail the audience might see.
Although the photographs in the first few rooms are not much larger than the reprints in myriad monographs and catalogues, the life-size prints in the A.I.R. recreation, and the later works, comprising tree trunks burnt into with handmade gunpowder and body-sized Neolithic flat-to-the-floor pieces, baked from dried earth and sand, offer an incredible sense of being in the artist’s presence. Her earliest works, made whilst still studying for her second masters on a new Intermedia course at the University of Iowa, remain as shocking as ever, with their rape reenactments and images doused in blood, and the films in which her silhouette burns or erupts against the night sky are powerful even on small monitors. In addition, there is, at the end, a whole room given over to research and to uncovering some of the contact sheets and slides in her archive which have never before been seen.
When the Guggenheim Museum in New York inaugurated its (short-lived) SoHo gallery with a Carl Andre exhibition in 1992, the most memorable thing about the opening was the picket line of feminist protesters outside holding banners asking: “Where is Ana Mendieta?” Their fears that the art world had forgotten this young Latina livewire, who loved to socialise and regularly challenged her friends about their opinions on art, have hopefully, with the efforts and scope of this exhibition, been belatedly allayed.