Absence in the Body Performances of Ana Mendieta

VISA 4001

Contemporary Latin American Art

An image of rope washing ashore on a beach.
By
Greta Hamilton

Ana Mendieta’s body performances evoke absence through the material transformation of her body from abject to disappeared. In her early work, Mendieta pictures her body through distorted lenses: in her photographs she presses her breasts and face up against a plexiglass screen, distorting her form into abjection; she wears a dark curly moustache in a hair transplant experiment to play with gender; and she fragments herself in photographs of a restaged rape scene. In her later work, however, Mendieta’s body is absent. She removes her body from her performances and leaves only traces and silhouettes in the earth, her form carved into sand, dirt set on fire, her body’s trace washed over with ocean water. Mendieta effectively disappears herself materially, evoking histories of absence in Latin America—be it through femicide, slavery, forced migration and colonization—as well as histories of absence in the artistic legacies of the 1970s.

Mendieta’s body performances are situated within the overarching formal and political discourses of absence of the 1970s. Throughout the decade, artists fought against the formalist tendencies of modernism, while emerging politic perspectives were used to critique the institution of exhibition. Mendieta’s work is legible through these discourses: the absence of the art object through performance and body art (conceptualism); the absence of women artists recognized in the art scene (feminism); and the absence of an avant-garde legacy within the museum (institutional memory). Mendieta’s work is characterized by absence through her formal material choices to represent her body as abject and disappeared, and through the ways in which her work speaks to the discourses of artistic practice in the 1970s, including conceptualism, feminism, and institutional memory/critique. These forms of absence are further informed by Mendieta’s biography as an exiled Cuban artist working in the United States. Mendieta’s work is imbued with the spiritual practice of Santeria and influence of Afro-Cuban rituals. The politics and power of resistance in Havana alongside the intergenerational violence of slavery and colonialism in Cuba, inform Mendieta’s practice. This essay attempts to situate Mendieta’s body performances within the specificity of her identity as a diasporic Cuban artist, within the influence of Santeria, and within the discourses of conceptualism, feminism, and institutional memory/critique.

Earth / Conceptualism

In “El Yaguul” from her Silueta Series (1973), Mendieta lays in a sunken cavern of rocks. Her arms and legs are visible, while a lush bed of white flowers grows from her face and body. The bright green stems of the flowers contrast the dirt and grey stones around her. She is not buried, but her naked body lays still in the grave, hanging on to life through the growth of flowers—an image of rebirth and renewal. “El Yaguul” is an early work in Mendieta’s Silueta Series. The photograph was taken in Mexico at an ancient Zapotec stone grave, where Mendieta was inspired to travel through her interest in archeological sites.1 “El Yaguul” documents the beginning of Mendieta’s earth body work, a process in which Mendieta documents body performances through the elements of land, fire, water, and air. The elements infiltrate her silhouette as she mediates her body through the nature of a place—becoming one with the earth, with trees, water, blood, dirt, and sand. The photographs of the body performances in Silueta Series recall the aesthetics of cave paintings and drawings at archeological sites. There is in Mendieta’s work a sense of primitive wholeness, a balance of life and death through earthly elements that reveals a spiritual essence. “El Yaguul” points to both Mendieta’s absence of place, reconciled through her interest in Santeria, and an absence of the art object, informed by conceptualist discourse.

As an exiled Cuban artist, Mendieta’s work addresses an absence of place. Mendieta was exiled to the United States during operation Peter Pan, an American funded mission that sent middle-class Cuban children to the United States to ‘protect’ them from the increasing tensions of the Cuban Revolution and its communist sensibility. Mendieta grew up in a diasporic context in Iowa, where she completed an undergraduate degree before moving to New York to join the avant-garde art scene. Mendieta’s performances address this absence of place by positioning her body in the land within the framework of Afro-Cuban rituals of Santeria. In “El Yaguul,” Mendieta places her body in a grave at an archeological site while flowers grow from her limbs, referencing the spiritual elements of Santeria—cyclical time, death and rebirth, and the earth as a living entity.

In “Ashe in the Art of Ana Mendieta,” Mary Jane Jacobs discusses the role of earth, land and dirt in Mendieta’s practice, and its role in locating Mendieta within place. Jacobs describes the living forces of earth through the cosmology of Santeria—the livelihood of Orishas in the trees, land and water—and the ways the living earth offers a cyclical worldview attached to feminine power. Jacobs writes, “Mendieta’s interest in archaeology brought her in touch with ancient cultures in which women have a place and power. She was aware of the great goddess of prehistory who claimed fertility as her prime attribute. This life-giving force formed the basis for religious beliefs in regenerative cycles and, as a corollary to her role as nurturer, she was endowed with healing powers. The earth was the womb: Mother Nature.”2 Mendieta’s inclusion of an ancient archeological site in “El Yaguul” imbues her body performance with the influence of Indigenous world views and spiritualities. These beliefs envision a cyclical temporality with the earth as the central force of life and death—a feminine power that Mendieta embodies in her self-representations in the land. Mendieta pictures herself as the primordial feminine force, the goddess of Mother Nature, and as the Orishas living in the land. Her body performances locate her within the Indigenous histories of Cuba and the colonial legacy of Cuba through the African influence and hybridity of Santeria as a spiritual practice. Mendieta writes herself into these histories to locate place; her absence reconciled through the forces of land.

Mendieta’s references to Santeria collapse the boundaries between life and art. The livelihood of the Orishas and the Afro-Indigenous influence of Cuban history imbue Mendieta’s performances with a living spirituality and history, a collapse between the art object and its function. This collapse is paramount to the work of Latin American conceptual artists. In “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America,” Mari Carmen Ramirez discusses how the formal and political ideations of conceptualism were taken up by Latin American artists. Ramirez emphasizes the use of conceptualism among Latin American artists to shift the role of art “toward sociopolitical emancipation.”3 In particular, Ramirez describes the shifted function of conceptualism to dissolve the boundaries of the art object—rather than making art about politics, Latin American artists engage politics through art. The function of the art object dissolves, while the politics of the artwork intervenes in the art world and the global political sphere.

While Mendieta was an American artist—in that she lived and worked in the United States and participated in the avant-garde movement in New York—her Cuban heritage and influence situated her practice within the tactics of Latin American conceptualism. By using both her body and the earth as performance sites, Mendieta dematerializes the art object. In a brief contextualization of conceptual art in Where is Ana Mendieta?, Jane Blocker writes “conceptual art, earthworks, installations, video, body art and performance, all worked actively to redefine the spaces in which art was viewed and to integrate the audience into the process of artistic production. Ana Mendieta and her contemporaries worked to disrupt the authority of the artist and to eliminate the art object.”4 Blocker goes on to say that Mendieta’s goal was to “make the present absent.”5 Mendieta dematerializes the art object through her use of body and earth as performance sites. Her absence of place mimics the formal absence of the art object; her performance serves a more political function than a purely formal one. The materiality of the work, the force of earth and body, can only be understood through the context of living land and the temporal cosmology of Santeria. Mendieta’s earth body performances collapse the division between art and life by attaching the embodied politics of ongoing colonial violence in Cuba, of exile and absence of place, with the materiality of living land and body. Mendieta reconciles her absence of place by writing herself into a lineage of Afro-Cuban histories and by dematerializing her artwork—she uses strategies of conceptualism within her subjectivity as an exiled, diasporic Cuban artist.

Blood / Feminism

During her undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa, Mendieta produced a work in response to the rape of a student. In Untitled (Rape Scene) (1973), Mendieta stages a performance in her apartment, in which viewers enter the room to find Mendieta half naked, covered in blood, and tied to the kitchen table. Broken dishes are strewn on the floor, blood pools around Mendieta’s head which is pressed against the table, her bare legs gleam with streaks of dried blood. The scene is incredibly violent and demonstrates Mendieta’s connection to embodied trauma. In Rape Scene Mendieta makes her body abject within the context of gender-based violence to challenge the representation of women’s bodies, while speaking to the invisibility of gender-based violence and trauma—both individual and intergenerational. By re-enacting this event, Mendieta offers a form of empathy around the embodied memories of trauma, in particular colonial violence and the traumas of colonization in Cuba. Mendieta’s performance can be read both within the discourses of feminist conceptual art, as well as within representations of trauma specific to the lineage of colonial violence in Cuba.

In Tony Godfrey’s essay “Where Were They: The Curious Case of Feminist Conceptual Artists,” Godfrey situates Mendieta within feminist art practice. Godfrey writes that the goal of feminist art was to picture the female body outside of hyper-sexualized contexts. He writes of Rape Scene, that the performance is a confrontational work that uses the victim of the rape as a readymade. He contextualizes Mendieta within the feminist practice of self-representation, writing, “this could be seen as an attempt to reclaim her own body, and other women’s bodies, from the power of men to turn them into sex, or art objects.”6 Godfrey writes Mendieta into the history of conceptual art through the collective reclaiming of the body through self-representation. But Godfrey’s positioning of Mendieta’s work in some ways trivializes the totalizing absence of women artists not only in the canonized conceptual art scene, but in the positioning of womanhood, female bodies and femininity as an embodiment of lack—the “troubling nothingness of the feminine.”7 Godfrey also fails to address the specificities of Mendieta’s position within feminist discourse, as a woman with Cuban heritage and a lived experience of exile and intergenerational colonial violence.

Mendieta’s Rape Scene reframes the questions of feminist art—what is the goal of feminist art, and how are cultural and embodied specificities addressed through the collective ‘sisterhood’ of 1970s feminism? As much of the goal of feminist art was to write women into the history of the museum and avant-garde practices, the specificity of Mendieta’s racialized, hybrid, and diasporic identity is lost in attempting to understand her artwork through the discourse of feminist art. Mendieta’s practice is better situated within the context of mestizaje and transculturation in Cuba, and the influence of Santeria in her work.

Rape Scene echoes an individual and collective experience of violence specific to the history of Cuba. The existence of Latinx and mestizaje identity lies in the history of Spanish colonialism and slave trade—centuries long acts of violence that rely on rape as a form of cultural power. The word mestizaje translates loosely to English as miscegenation, a term that refers to the cultural mixing of white and black races, typically a white slave owner raping a black slave. The term mestizaje holds a slightly different meaning in a Spanish colonial context. In Cuba and countries of Spanish colonial conquest, mestizaje refers to the mixing of Indigenous and European races. This reproductive mixing was a strategy used by Spanish colonizers to gain cultural power by marrying into noble Indigenous families. As African slaves were forced into the landscape of Cuba by colonizers, cultural and racial mixing continued through rape and marriage as a colonial strategy.

For Mendieta, rape is both a personal and historical enactment of power over a female body. The presence of Mendieta’s body re-enacting the rape scene re-contextualizes rape through mestizaje as cultural memory. In “Memory as Cultural Practice,” Diana Taylor discusses how cultural memory is embodied through mestizaje. Taylor writes that mestizaje “tells a history and it embodies a history.”8 Because it relies on reproduction, mestizaje is the living embodiment of history—and as such, it is mutable and subject to change. Taylor positions mestizaje as a negotiated cultural identity that inhabits a liminality allowing it to morph with the mutable memories of Latin American history (forcibly forgotten memories, interrupted memory, repressed memories). Mestizaje embodies the history of violent reproduction through European colonial force, while its generative biological process allows it to shift through continual reproduction. Taylor writes, “Cultural memory is, among other things, a practice, an act of imagination and interconnection… Memory is embodied and sensual, that is, conjured through the senses; it links the deeply private with social, even official, practices.”9 In this way, the mestizaje identity as cultural memory mimics trauma memory—it changes, rebirths, pivots between personal embodiment and the collectivity of intergenerational violence. Trauma memory, the memory of a rape, is remembered less through images, and more through the sensorial traces of the scene—scent, sound, sensations. By inserting her body into the scene, Mendieta re-enacts not only the rape of the student, but recalls histories of rape in Cuba through the shifting sensorial traces of cultural memory. Mendieta’s body is in a state of liminality, of flux between an immediate re-enactment and historical re-enactment, a memory that pivots through the body as time passes and histories change.

Mendieta’s feminist art intersects with her Cuban heritage. As colonial histories collide in her practice through the presence of her body, the influence of Afro-Cuban rituals and Santeria persist in her work. As a transcultural religious practice of mixed Indigenous and African ritual, Santeria imbues Mendieta’s work with a cyclical temporality and feminine power at the centre of the living earth. Mary Jane Jacobs writes of rape in the context of Santeria, that colonialism and patriarchy “led to the rape of both land and the female body to the detriment of society as a whole. Feminists, and particularly women artists of the 1970s, searched out the goddess as a means of empowerment. Mendieta made her art in union with the earth in order to come in touch with the spirit of the goddess, to give women back their bodies, and to give them power.”10 Mendieta uses the cosmology of Santeria to subvert the patriarchal colonial rape of land and female bodies. Through this Afro-Cuban influence, Mendieta “recognized the capacity of blood to purify and empower. For Mendieta, these rape works were a means of personal and cultural exorcism of this brutal act.”11 As a symbol, blood reveals the varying degrees in which Mendieta’s body work engages the discourse of feminism. Blood is both a symbol of feminism that describes a desire for emancipation of the menstruating body, as well as a fluid that points to life and death, to the connection between body and the earth. Mendieta’s use of blood points to the intersections of her practice within feminist discourse—addressing the absence of women recognized as conceptual artists, and the cultural sense of profound feminine lack, which she reconciles through the Santeria cosmology.

Disappearance / Institutional Memory

As Mendieta continued the Silueta Series and approached the untimely end of her career, she removed her body from representation. In “Untitled” from Silueta Series (1977), Mendieta leaves the bloody imprint of her body on a sheet. Her red silhouette is hung on a white sheet inside of a niche in a Monastery in Mexico. An arc of branches like a sprig of rosemary rests beneath the feet of her silhouette in the bottom of the niche, as though left for funerary ceremony. Mendieta’s bloody silhouette is an eerie foretelling of death. When looking at this work, I often imagine the outline of a body traced in chalk by police at the scene of a crime. There are uncanny visual parallels between Mendieta’s material disappearance and her physical disappearance in death, as well as conceptual parallels of disappearance through institutional memory both in the museum and by the state.

Mendieta’s harrowing death is written into history through the legacy of sexism in both the legal system and the art world. After eight months of marriage to minimalist art-star Carl Andre, Mendieta died after the couple fought in their apartment one afternoon and Mendieta fell from their window into the street. Andre was later tried and acquitted for murder; though his artwork is still exhibited at major art museums. Jane Blocker writes of this incident and the many protests staged at the MoMa and the Guggenheim against the exhibition of Andre’s work, that the events point to a legacy of sexism in multiple arenas: “not just the absence of women from an art museum, but their persistent absence from a wide range of domains of power; not just the marginalization of people of colour, symbolized by Ana Mendieta, but the seeming institutional sanction of a judicial verdict that pronounced Andre innocent of having killed her.”12 Blocker situates Mendieta through absence on multiple fronts. Just as her body disappears from her artwork, her legacy too is denied in the context of the museum and the trial.

Blocker considers Mendieta’s disappearance, material and physical, a reframing of institutional memory. Mendieta’s body work “perplexes historiography”13 not only through her dematerialization of the art object within conceptualist strategies, but also in the ways in which it asks the viewer to engage with memory and embodiment. Blocker writes of Mendieta’s work that “it asks history to let go of the past…this work shows extraordinarily clearly the disappearance that we must learn to celebrate—the disappearance of her work, of our grasp on categories that we thought were pure, of ourselves from the terms of cultural legibility.”14 Mendieta’s performances cannot be interpreted through conceptualism or feminism—formal discourses—alone. They challenge institutional memory by demanding to be situated amidst cultural and geographic specificities, and lineages of transcultural influence legible within colonial and post-colonial histories. Mendieta’s body work reveals an absence in the historiography of art. With memory and embodiment at the forefront, Mendieta’s work transcends the formal art historical categories that determine the ways in which art history is written.

Through her critique of institutional memory—her feminist and conceptual challenging of the museum and her perplexing historiographies—Mendieta’s practice reverberates into the institution of exhibition and the colonial histories of Latin America. Andrea Giunta considers the role of memory work in the museum as a means of reconciling the absence of memory perpetuated through state violence, including disappearance and forceful forgetting. Giunta describes how sites of violence and trauma become memory museums across Latin America, to shift how traumatic memories are understood cultural practice. Giunta writes, “memory can become a means to take a critical distance from the undesirable aspects of the past. It allows the unthinkable to be thought about and worked through from an ethical perspective. Memory museums, as arenas of knowledge and experience that enable ways of elaborating rather than repeating history, offer an invitation to reflect critically on the recent past through enacting its emotional aspects.”15 The memory museum shifts the way a memory is held—memories of trauma move from an embodied forgotten state to a place of cognitive cultural processing, meaning memories are no longer repressed. Through the memory museum, state violence and disappearance are acknowledged within institutional memory, thus shifting those memories from the body into a written history of Latin America. Giunta writes that memory museums “intend to create history that is multiple and contradictory – instead of unidirectional.”16 By creating space in the institution for trauma, the memory museum contains a historiography of Latin America that is multiple, and weaves between embodied, autobiographical, and intergenerational histories.

The absence of Mendieta’s body in “Untitled” Silueta Series, her blood red silhouette on a white sheet, echoes the many disappearances of bodies and of memory within the institution of exhibition and the state. Mendieta’s body work occupies a post-modern post-colonial context, one that transcends the categorial framing of art history within formalist movements. Her specificity of identity—geographical, gendered and racialized—asks viewers to understand her performances within an embodied context, within mutable historiographies of art and Latin America as a whole. Mendieta’s material absence characterizes the systems in which she worked. Her body performance reverberates into methods of writing history and art history, and proposed the possibility for rewriting. By recalling the cyclical temporalities of Santeria, by recalling her work as a foretelling of her death, Mendieta implodes time. Her work rewrites history as a radical omen for the materialities and discourses of the future.

Conclusion

As I write this now, the world is on fire. The global pandemic of COVID-19 continues to aggravate the worst parts of our contemporary human behaviour—our segregation, our fear of each other, our reliance on billion-dollar corporations to drop provisions at our door. We are prevented from holding each other and cultivating intimacy at a time when our focus should be on learning to care for our community. While initially this time of isolation caused by the virus seemed like a moment to turn inwards to find new rituals, to rest and reflect, it quickly became a time to demand long term solutions to dismantle capitalism, including rent strikes, universal basic income, and a redistribution of wealth towards community programming, shelters and food banks.

As this strange time continues to unfold, my sense of what’s important shifts. Black Lives Matter protests began three months into social distancing, meaning for me, this time has become about reflecting on my position as a settler on colonized land—land in which police are employed to enact genocide towards Black and Indigenous people, land that was violently stolen for capitalist gain through colonization and African slave trade, land that is consistently violated by oil companies, and land that must be repatriated. Even though our medical facilities are full and we are mandated by the government to stay home, thousands of people rally in the streets across North America to march, chant, and redistribute wealth through direct action. Our sense of what the ‘front line’ is has changed significantly during this period. And the Black and Indigenous folks putting their bodies on the line to riot, are the ones most likely to be neglected by lack of government action related to the global pandemic of COVID-19.

What can a reflection on Ana Mendieta’s work offer us now? Mendieta’s body performances elicit a similar affective response to our contemporary moment—the strange co-existence of joy and grief. Much as the violence and trauma of the past is being re-enacted in the present, Mendieta points the viewer to a life shared between violence and magic. She delves into the trauma of her embodiment as an Afro-Cuban woman and the histories of slavery and colonization, while calling on the magic of the Orishas in the land and water to give strength, to fight for a future without harm. Mendieta inspires the possibility of cyclical time to reframe and rewrite history through dreams, matriarchs, and a vitality of life.

Greta Hamilton

Greta Hamilton is a writer and artist raised as a settler on unceded Liǥwildaʼx̱w territory, currently working as a guest on the ancestral and traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Huron-Wendat, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations on Dish With One Spoon territory in Tkaronto/Toronto. Their writing has appeared in C Magazine, Maclean’s Magazine, Grain Literary Magazine, and in print in various exhibition statements.

References
  1. Jane Jacobs. “Ashe in the Art of Ana Mendieta.” Santeria Aesthetics
  2. Mary Jane Jacobs. “Ashe in the Art of Ana Mendieta.” Santeria Aesthetics. Pp 192
  3. Mari Carmen Ramirez. “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America.” Pp 60
  4. Jane Blocker. “Introduction: Losing a Decade.” Where is Ana Mendieta? Pp 5
  5. Ibid. pp 5
  6. Tony Godfrey. “Where Were They: The Curious Case of Feminist Conceptual Artists.” Conceptual Art.  Pp 283
  7. Jane Blocker. “Introduction: Losing a Decade” Where is Ana Mendieta. Pp 7
  8. Diana Taylor. “Memory as Cultural Practice: Hybridity, Mestizaje and Transculturation.” Pp 94
  9. Ibid. pp 82
  10. Mary Jane Jacobs. “Ashe in the Art of Ana Mendieta.” Pp 192
  11. Ibid. pp 193
  12. Jane Blocker. “Introduction.” Where is Ana Mendieta. Pp 2
  13. Blocker. “Writing Towards Disappearance.” Where is Ana Mendieta. pp 133
  14. Ibid. Pp 133
  15. Andrea Giunta. “Feeling the Past – Display and Art of Memory in Latin America.” Pp 41
  16. Andrea Giunta. “Feeling the Past – Display and Art of Memory in Latin America.” Pp 41

    Header Image: Greta Hamilton