PIONEERING FEMALE ARTISTS: ANA MENDIETA

Amelia Rawlinson, January 2018

I was confronted with a photograph of a naked Mendieta lying on her front covered with grass and moss; the odd flower placed candidly on her back. Mendieta spiritually cleanses herself at natures altar with mud, twigs and leaves, connecting herself to nature by becoming a part of it. In doing so, she becomes almost invisible to the eye. Sean O’Hagan, writing in the Guardian in 2013, quotes a statement made by the artist in the early 1980s in which she writes that her art “is grounded on the belief in one universal energy which runs through everything… from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.”

In Hojas Rojas Silueta (Quemada alrededor), 1977, the image of Mendieta’s silhouette is given a sentient presence through the fire that rages around it, symbolic of ritual fires, of warmth and comfort. The presence of the silhouette itself is one which bolsters her union within her surroundings. Be it in snow, sand or gunpowder, Mendieta’s female presence is embossed onto the surface. The female body is under continual scrutiny, both in art and in life. The breasts and vagina are sexualised. Internal processes, such as menstruation, are deemed abject. This dichotomy between lust and repugnance is ignored in Mendieta’s drawn silhouette. Her work can be described as presenting themes universal to all bodies irrespective of gender. She allows the silhouette to be destroyed by nature itself, alluding to the decay of corporeal bodies. Nature is given control over these silhouettes; for example, if drawn in sand, Mendieta allows the waves to wash it away.

In Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints), 1972, a suite of six colour photographs, Mendieta creates surreal, biomorphic forms by pressing and spreading parts of her body such as her face, stomach and breasts on glass.

Ana Mendieta, Guanaroca (Esculturas Rupestres), 1981, Estate print 1993.

Black and White photograph. 135.9 x 99.7 cm. Edition of 3.

Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. 

It was last year when I attended Ana Mendieta’s exhibition Metamorphosis at the Alison Jaques Gallery. Of Cuban heritage, her body of work anchors itself in themes of identity, feminism and ritual. Her motifs famously revolve around her relationship with nature and the environment, a connection which is symbolically representative of her trying to reattach herself to her cultural and ancestral roots from which she was separated when she was a child. The photographic images that comprise her famous ‘Silueta Series’, some of which were shown in the exhibition, depict the artist in a range of different natural and rural environments in which she camouflages herself or draws her silhouette against, so her image is preserved within the landscape.

The images depict a distorted view of the female body, examining the effects of glass on the skin, the liquid-like shapes created against the two mediums combined. She turns the traditionally sexual connotations of the female body on their head, experimenting instead with the versatility of the human body and looking at its limits and features.

 

Mendieta represents nature’s ability to reincarnate life both organically and spiritually. In her performances, Mendieta references rituals and sacrificial ceremonies. In Death of a Chicken, 1972, and Blood and Feathers, 1974, Mendieta holds a newly beheaded chicken. It’s blood splatters over her legs and over the white wall behind her. In Blood and Feathers, she covers herself in the chicken blood, using it symbolically as a glue to paste the feathers of the chicken to her body. In doing so, she creates a phoenix-like image of herself transforming into the victim of sacrifice. 

I see these performances as a ritual of purification using chicken blood, and it is through these works that blood becomes her most powerful, symbolic and philosophical medium. In the performance Death of a Chicken, Mendieta urges viewers to ruminate the interconnectedness of life; the performance presents a cycle of life and death, suggesting that the death of one being benefits the life of another. She uses the medium of blood carefully by respecting and understanding the sacredness of its liquidity.

 

Further examples of Mendieta’s experimentation with blood can be seen in works such as Untitled (Self Portrait with Blood), 1973. In this work, Mendieta trickles blood down her face and neck and rubs it through her hair, allowing it to dry. Here, blood appears to be used as a metaphor for pain, torture and sacrifice. In Body Tracks, 1974, Mendieta highlights the materiality of blood by smearing it in patterns on a wall. 

Ana Mendieta, Hojas Rojas Silueta (Quemada alrededor), 1977. Lifetime colour photograph.

8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm).

Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. 

The gestural action of wiping her hands against the wall creates drips and stains on the surface, evoking feelings of abjection within the viewer. I see this as martyr-like, the implied dragging being an honest and brutal portrayal of helplessness. Blood then becomes dualistic, not only ritualistic, as it also portrays violence. In Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973, Mendieta’s legs and bottom are bare and she is bent over, her upper body resting on a table. Mendieta’s bare skin is smeared with blood and her trousers and underwear are heaped at her ankles, as if they have been yanked down. Her face is not visible and she becomes another nameless victim of sexual violence, eerily echoing the screams of unheard and ignored women who have been raped or murdered.

 

Mendieta left her legacy as a pioneering female artist whose untimely and sinister death at age 36 catalysed her as an ambitious and prolific artist whose potential was cruelly cut short. She is considered one of the most prominent Cuban female artists. Her work not only explored her own identity and Cuban roots, but it reconfigured how female bodies were seen in art. I am struck by how relevant works like Untitled (Rape Scene) remain today. Mendieta continues to influence female artists and has been an icon for me since I first discovered her work.

Ana Mendieta, Sweating Blood, 1973. 

Super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, colour, silent
Running time: 3:18 minutes. Edition of 6 + 3 APs.
Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. 

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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