“In my work I am in a sense reliving my heritage,” Mendieta recognized of herself, just before leaving Iowa for New York in 1977. “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.” In her brief, but groundbreaking career, Mendieta braided earth and body across different 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, she spent the 1970s developing her work at the University of Iowa’s Intermedia Program, established by the German émigré Hans Breder in 1968. Many of the enduring themes of Mendieta’s work emerged during this period as she began to manipulate her body, both in contexts of violence—for example, in rape and murder scenes—and as an archetypal form, mediated through images of the “universal female” and the Tree of Life and 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. “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.”
Mendieta traveled widely in the early 1980s, reinstantiating the dialectics of presence and absence embodied by the Silueta series across sites in the United States and Cuba and, beginning in 1983, in Rome. The present Untitled suggests a variation on the nested “labyrinth” figure that emerged in her work during this time, its meandering lines a metaphor for her physical and metaphorical pilgrimage home. Related to the sand sculptures Oráculo and Untitled (both 1983) from the series Mujer de arena (Sandwoman), this Untitled materializes out of deep, vertical channels in the sand, its momentary coalescence of figure and ground an act of transubstantiation as the wet sand becomes the body incarnate. “These obsessive acts of reasserting my ties with the earth are really a manifestation of my thirst for being,” Mendieta reflected. “In essence my works are the reactivation of primeval beliefs at work within the human psyche.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Ana Mendieta, quoted in Olga Viso, “The Memory of History,” in Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance, 1972-1985 (Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, 2004), 36.
2 Mendieta, quoted in Gloria Moure, ed., Ana Mendieta (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa S.A., 1996), 216.
3 Mendieta, quoted in Viso, Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta (New York: Prestel, 2008), 297.