“Through my earth/body sculptures I become one with the earth.... I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body.”
“To question our culture is to question our own existence, our human reality,” the artist Ana Mendieta once said. “This in turn becomes a search, a questioning of who we are and how we will realize ourselves.” Born in Cuba, Mendieta moved to Iowa at age 12 with her sister as part of a US government asylum program for adolescents after the Cuban revolution. Mendieta eventually enrolled at the University of Iowa and, upon completing her undergraduate degree, began her graduate studies in art. After training as a painter, Mendieta quickly grew dissatisfied with the medium and transitioned to the university’s new MFA in Intermedia program, where she began to develop her interdisciplinary work.
As a graduate student, Mendieta created her first performances, which survive through photographic documentation. These early works deal with the theme of violence against women, as Mendieta evokes the suffering of the female body. In Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints—face) (1972), Mendieta presses her face forcefully against a pane of glass at differing angles. Beyond demonstrating her bodily distress, the distortion of her face across the various images disturbs the work’s function as a portrait. In other words, Mendieta’s photographs of her face do not cohere as representative of herself, thereby disrupting how others view her and draw conclusions about her identity. Related to these concerns, Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations) shows Mendieta manipulating her appearance using make-up and wigs, in some instances lightening her skin and hair to call into question her racialization in the US.
In the Silueta series (1973–1980), Mendieta staged performances where she laid down in natural landscapes or covered her body in organic materials and then documented the resulting imprints or silhouettes. Untitled (1978) shows a dark indentation made in a sandy landscape covered in scrub, the outline of her body suggesting its absence. These performances recall Mendieta’s experience as an exile who was separated from her homeland at a young age. In her Silueta performances she marked the land, leaving the trace of her absent body. This trace perhaps serves as a metaphor for her absence from her birthplace; she was unable to return to Cuba until the 1980s. A later work, the earthen sculpture Nile Born, lends Mendieta’s silhouette a physical form using organic materials—a wooden support covered in sand. Installed on the floor, the sculpture’s low profile allows the work to register as a physical manifestation of a shadow.
Throughout her career, Mendieta’s explorations of representation were grounded in an intersectional conception of identity where race, gender, age, and class operated simultaneously. “As non-white women, our struggles are two-fold,” Mendieta wrote in a curatorial statement for an exhibition of women artists of color. “This exhibition points not necessarily to the injustice or incapacity of a society that has not been willing to include us, but more towards a personal will to continue being ‘other.’”
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women’s Fund.
Note: Opening quote is from John Perreault, “Earth and Fire Mendieta’s Body of Work.” In Ana Mendieta, Petra Barreras del Rio, and John Perreault, Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987), 10. https://d2b8urneelikat.cloudfront.net/media/collectiveaccess/images/9/5/8928_ca_object_representations_media_9558_original.pdf.
Rachel Remick, 12-Month Modern Women’s Fund Intern, Department of Painting and Sculpture