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September 8, 2008

Ana Mendieta

Chiquita has been out of commission temporarily (something to do with a spectacularly boring job feeding off the misfortunes of those caught in the housing crisis), but not to worry—here’s the latest installment of the Women in Art series!

Here to challenge your notion of what it means for something to be “art,” or to be “artistic,” where the boundaries of “creativity” lie, not to mention who controls our perceptions of art…is Ana Mendieta…as both artist and muse.

Before Ana, art exploration was limited to more traditional media; forays into other areas of expression didn’t receive much recognition as art, due to a dubious definition of art as

1.the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. [Random House]

Ana’s preoccupation was with personal and social expression, using the very earth itself as the medium and her body as the canvas. Instead of producing a body of work focusing on “beauty” or “appeal,” she produced a body of work focusing on establishing “a dialog between the landscape and the female body return to the maternal source.” [Women's Issues in 20th Century Art]

In her own words:

“My exploration through my art of the relationship between myself and nature has been a clear result of my having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence. The making of my silueta in nature keeps (make) the transition between my homeland and my new home. It is a way of reclaiming my roots and becoming one with nature. Although the culture in which I live is part of me, my roots and cultural identity are a result of my Cuban heritage.” [Guggenheim Museum]

Her unusual choice of media (which ranged from super-8 films and videos to site-specific installations and prints) were a result of a feeling that something was missing in her art:

"The turning point in art was in 1972, when I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I want the image to convey and by real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic." [Galerie Akinci]

She’s well-known for her work using Siluetas, or silhouettes, in which she carved images into the earth to leave behind the shadow of her form lying there. These images evoked a sense of spiritual renewal, an ephemeral quality reminiscent of the goddess. Her themes explored social taboos and transgressions against women; one of her more famous works was a Silueta carved into sand on a beach, with red bougainvillea petals thrown around…some believe, to represent a violent crime committed against a woman—washed away, of course, by forces more powerful than the woman. However, her work often had a dual purpose, and in this case, those familiar with Santería (or The Way of the Saints), an Afro-Caribbean religion that originated in Nigeria, would instantly recognize the symbolism:

Chango, a principal orisha, always is represented by the color red. His mistress is Yemayá, orisha of the ocean, whose frothy waves represent her lacy petticoats. Mendieta’s art shows Yemayá’s petticoats covering the legs of Chango, whose arms are raised in surprise or delight. Like the ocean, Yemayá represents both a loving and wrathful mother; they say you can take shelter from your enemies under her skirts, but if you provoke her anger, there is nowhere you can hide. [Virginia Miller Galleries]

However, although she was influenced by Santería readings, she sought to keep a distance from being entirely connected to it, occasionally doing installations of more conventional themes such as Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Ana knew that her choice of media would draw harsh and heavy criticism:

A decade ago Luis Camnitzer wrote perceptively in his book New Art of Cuba of the rift between Mendieta’s art and the contemporary American mainstream caused by the dual preoccupation with her work as ‘ethnic and feminist’. He wrote: ‘The fact of her double separateness, along with the artificiality of the quota system, created a static that tended to interfere with a direct relationship to her work by the audience.’ [Frieze Magazine]

We weren’t ready for her, in 1994, and she died way before she would ever see the day her work got the reception it deserved. But she blew open the box of expectations and social constraints on art, shattering our preconceptions of what defines “art,” giving a voice to women’s expression all the while.

To learn more about Ana Mendieta’s tragically short life and body of work:

Ana Mendieta: Earth Body

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1 comment:

Gina said...

Thank you for introducing me to this artist. I had never heard of her and look forward to finding out more.