The article by Petra Barreras Del Rio presents to the reader crucial milestones on Ana Mendieta’s creative road. The author interprets each period of the artist’s career, focusing on the sources of her creative energy, the symbols, and the meaning of her works. Mendieta was pioneering in the area of body art, making her own self as an art object. Her artworks are inseparable from her identity in the way in which her personality is inseparable from nature and her motherland.
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The Historical Overview begins in 1972, the year when Mendieta enrolls in the MFA program in multimedia and video at the University of Iowa. This period is marked by the search for power and magic in art and the experiments with natural materials, such as blood, leaves, earth, water, fire, and gunpowder, in connection with her body. All her early works bear a strong connection with the religion of Santeria from where she took the idea of the powerful meaning of animal blood and sacrificing to nature. The author’s famous performance of rubbing blood over her naked body and rolling in white feathers belongs to this period. According to Del Rio (1987, 29), “this act suggested her transformation into the white cock whose sacrifice is a preparatory rite for the Naftigos”. Although her art has traces of old religions, she sends relevant messages through it, such as her opposition to rape and violence against women.
Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series are so-called earth-body sculptures created by tracing her own body in different textures – mud, sand, earth, trees. They became her first artworks, where she removed herself from the final work. The sculptures were usually abandoned, ruined, or burnt after the artist documented them on the camera. Often they had elements of performance in them, as the sculpture Silueta de Cohetes, which was set on fire and documented on video – the vision both beautiful and frightening.
Ana Mendieta’s visit to Mexico had an immense influence on her arts and the themes she followed afterward. Tracing the sources of Mendieta’s inspiration, Del Rio (1987, 31) describes her trip to Mexico as an attempt “to get some magic just by being there.” Many biographers expressed the likeness of her works to the art of Frida Kahlo that is emotionally consuming and conveys the pain and longing for death. Although Mendieta’s art concerns the connection with Mother Earth, “her somber themes suggest not only death but also life-giving forces such as earth, blood, water, and fire” (Del Rio, 1987, 31). Mexican ethnic themes brought new images to her artworks, as such elements as flowers, fireworks, and skeletons have appeared in her works after the trip to Mexico.
In 1977 the artist moved to New York, and her career elevated significantly. She started getting grants on her projects and joined A. I. R. Gallery that provided her with regular exhibitions. Her works of that period were exclusively outdoor installations that always included the reference to her body and elements of a performance. During those years, Mendieta experimented with the ways of documenting her art as only the photographs and films could be exhibited in the gallery.
Cuba had always taken a meaningful place in Mendieta’s art as the source of themes and concerns. She always expressed the feeling of orphanhood that the separation from her motherland gave her. Mendieta stated: “I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe” (quoted in Del Rio, 1987, 31). She left the country in her teens and returned only in 1979, desiring to work there. The “Rupestrian” series includes limestone carvings with painted details on the hills of Jaruco. Although milestone sculptures last longer than earth or wood, Mendieta abandoned her works, saving only the photos to be exhibited later in New York.
The latest period of Ana Mendieta’s art is characterized by several distinguishing projects, including Body Tracks (1982). Body Tracks is a series of hand imprints on the white paper with a mixture of tempera and the blood of animals. It is a combination of several meaningful elements for Ana Mendieta, such as blood, which is believed to have magical power in Santeria, her body, and performance. The process of creating these imprints was filmed in black and white is no less meaningful than the outcomes.
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In 1983 Ana Mendieta was given a studio in Rome, which changed her approach to art. She had never had a studio before and never needed one, as most of her works were outdoor performances and sculptures created in a close connection to nature. However, the fact of being able to work in a studio attracted her, and she began creating sculptures of wood, sand, and earth. In comparison to her previous works, these sculptures lost such features as performance elements and the presence of her body as an artistic element. If not for her premature death, she could have developed into an indoor artist as she felt that she was pleased with this kind of work. Her most ambitious public art intent has never been finished. The project was called La Jungla – the sculptures made of seven tree trunks embodying seven powers of life in Santeria.
Ana Mendieta’s figure was prominent in late 20th-century art as she addressed relevant issues, such as feminism and opposition to violence, and was pioneering in performance art. Her creative personality contained a mixture of African, Latin American, and Mexican cultures. She explored the life-giving forces of nature and the magical power of elemental materials and the old Santiera rituals of her motherland. The pain of physical separation from Cuba and, at the same time, mental connection to this country crosses through all her works.
A. I. R. Gallery (Artists in Residence) is the first exclusively female art gallery in New York. It is a not-for-profit organization that provides exhibition for female artists.
Naftigos – a secret religious society for Afro-Caribbean men, related to Santeria.
Santeria is the religion of African descendants on Cuba that combines the elements of Yoruba religion and Christianity. It is rich with rituals and sacrifice practices that aim at healing and attaining knowledge.
Del Rio, Petra Barreras. 1987. “Ana Mendieta: a Historical Overview”. Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective: 28-41.