“In my work I am in a sense reliving my heritage,” Mendieta recognized of herself in 1977, just before leaving Iowa for New York. “My sources are memories, images, experiences, and beliefs that have left their mark in me. . . . I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me. It is through my sculptures that I assert my emotional ties to the earth and conceptualize culture” (A. Mendieta, quoted in Olga Viso, “The Memory of History,” Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance, 1972-1985, Washington, D.C., 2004, p. 36). In her brief, but groundbreaking career, Mendieta braided earth and body across media—film, photography, paper, stone, performance—in a practice that rippled through time, situating herself within natural, and universal, history. Born in Cuba and sent with her sister to the United States in 1961, through the Operation Pedro Pan, Mendieta spent the 1970s developing her work at the University of Iowa’s Intermedia Program, established by the German émigré Hans Breder in 1968. The program’s visiting artists and critics included prominent contemporary voices in performance, conceptualism, and feminism, among them Vito Acconci, Luis Camnitzer, Lucy Lippard, John Perreault, and Liliana Porter. Many of the enduring themes of Mendieta’s work emerged during this period as she began to manipulate her body, both in violent contexts—for example, in rape and murder scenes—and in archetypal ones, as she explored themes of the “universal female” and the Tree of Life through her developing Silueta series.
A touchstone for nearly all of Mendieta’s later practice, the Siluetas comprise ephemeral, site-specific works realized in Iowa and Mexico between 1973 and 1980 in which the artist imprinted her body into the earth using such materials as mud, snow, flowers, stones, blood, and gunpowder. The impression of her body into the landscape, sometimes suggestively camouflaged and other times present only through its indexical trace, invoked a reunion not only with nature itself, but also with a past stretching back to Cuba and beyond, to the origins of human civilization. First in 1971 and then continuing on an annual basis with Breder starting in 1973, Mendieta spent summers in Mexico and immersed herself in field study of pre-Hispanic civilization, exploring sites around the Valley of Oaxaca. The felt connection to common roots, embedded in architectural tombs and sculpture and carried on in such vernacular traditions as the Day of the Dead rituals and the sprouting Tree of Life iconography, provided an additional route to the past. “My 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,” Mendieta explained. “Through [my works] ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world. . . . There is above all the search for origin” (A. Mendieta, quoted in Gloria Moure, ed., Ana Mendieta, Barcelona, 1996, p. 216). Mendieta privileged the maternal source and cross-cultural goddess imagery; some of her Siluetas and related works reference the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf, suggestively conflating the fertility of the land and the maternal womb. Across the series, the dialectic of presence and absence also conveys the personal (and generational) trauma of her departure from Cuba and the urgency she felt to recover her own history.
Mendieta moved to New York in 1978, seeking broader exposure and stimulation, and her work quickly found national and international traction, not least facilitating her reconnection to Cuba. She embarked on the first of seven recorded trips to Cuba in 1980 and a year later was warmly received by the local arts community on the occasion of the landmark Volumen Uno exhibition, which redefined contemporary Cuban art in self-critical, international terms. Curator Gerardo Mosquera and artists including José Bedia and Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, who shared her interests in Cuba’s indigenous and Afro-Cuban history, reintroduced her to the island and to its geography. With support from a Guggenheim Fellowship, Mendieta returned to Cuba that summer to create the Esculturas Rupestres, a series of rock carvings, in Jaruco State Park, a place once inhabited by the Taíno and more recently a refuge for the rebels fighting for independence in the late nineteenth century. An extension of her Silueta series, now complete in its repatriation, the carvings—named after pre-Hispanic goddesses and taking feminine forms—marked a telluric return to origins, reunifying an exiled subject and her maternal home. “My work is basically in the tradition of a Neolithic artist,” Mendieta allowed. “It has very little to do with most earth art. I’m not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, but their emotional and sensual ones” (A. Mendieta, quoted in Viso, Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta, New York, 2008, p. 232).
That psychosomatic impulse carried over into Mendieta’s works later that year and the next as she explored new sites across the United States and Canada, having found a measure of closure with Cuba and the earlier Siluetas. As a guest of the University of New Mexico’s Art Museum in October 1982, she exhibited outdoor mud coil sculptures, a series that she continued in the summer of 1983 while visiting her parents in Iowa. Mendieta created La vivificación de la carne near Old Man’s Creek, Sharon Center, just south of Iowa City; it bears a familial resemblance to El laberinto de la vida (1982) and to an untitled photograph from the Stone Woman Series of the same year. Mendieta described this nested, androgynous figure as a “labyrinth,” a befitting metaphor both of the artist’s own physical and metaphorical pilgrimage home and of universal cycles of life, death, and fertility (A. Mendieta, quoted in Olga Viso, “The Memory of History,” p. 36). “These obsessive acts of reasserting my ties with the earth are really a manifestation of my thirst for being,” Mendieta reflected in 1983. “In essence my works are the reactivation of primeval beliefs at work within the human psyche” (A. Mendieta, quoted in Viso, Unseen Mendieta, p. 297). That generative drive shaped the entirety of her practice, and these labyrinthine figures suggest the evolution of her practice beyond the singularity of her own body and gender. In La vivificación de la carne, the fleeting coalescence of figure and ground suggests a final act of transubstantiation as the Iowa mud becomes the body incarnate.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park