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Ana Mendieta's primal scream.


ON THE SURFACE THE DELI at Mercer Street and Broadway appears to be like any other of the numerous establishments in New York City offering customers the usual 24 hour service. But on the rooftop above, imprinted in a bed of tar, lies the final silhouette of one of this century's most crucial artists. How it got there is both horrifying and strangely relevant. On September 8th, 1986, Anna Mendieta plunged from the 34th floor of her apartment building to an untimely death. The 36-year-old Cuban-born artist had reached the pinnacle of success both in terms of etching out her inner visions and gaining world-wide recognition.

Mendieta was both of her time and, more importantly, beyond her time. Although the styles she embraced could be labeled performance art, body art and earthworks, she was an artist who defied stereotyping and whose obsession with overturning new ground brought forth an aesthetic force of infinite magnitude.

Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948 to a socially prominent family that had played a significant role in the nation's history. Her great grandfather General Carlos Maria de Rojas was an important figure in Cuba's war for independence (1895-88) and her granduncle, Carlos Mendieta, was president of the nation in the 1930s. The Mendieta family, along with the general population, initially supported Castro's armed struggle against tyrannical rule. However, class contradictions became complicated and the Mendietas hesitated to incorporate themselves into the revolution. The Catholic Church, which was openly opposed by Castro's regime, also played a big role in the family's eventual counter-revolutionary stance. At the age of 13, Ana and her older sister Raquel were sent to a foster home run by nuns in Dubuque, Iowa, as part of the Pedro Pan Operation, which was set up to transport young Cubans to the United States to preserve their Catholic upbringing. The Mendietas would have preferred to flee the island together, but Ana's father was detained on multiple accounts of anti-Castroism. This abrupt uprooting was traumatic for the girls, as it alienated them from their family and the nuances of their culture at a very vulnerable age.

Confronting her displacement, Ana turned to artistic exploration as both a therapeutic and self-searching venue. She studied art at the University of Iowa, receiving her B.A. in 1969 and her M.A. in painting in 1972. In search of a spiritual connection which conventional painting could not evoke, she re-enrolled the same year to work on a M.F.A. in the University's new multi-media and video program, which embraced the Center for New Performing Arts. "In this atmosphere, Ana's work exploded off the canvas", says Hans Breder, director of the University's program. Little did he know that her future works would literally exploded, as she adopted gunpowder as one of her many experimental tools.

From her earliest explorations as a student in the multi-media program, Mendieta immersed herself in her work with a ritualistic fervor. Like other artists of the 70s, she focused on the personal process, distinguishing herself by pushing the concept of body and performance art to the extreme. As these new mediums afforded unique arenas for issues of gender, a significant number of women became involved in the movement. In early 1973, in response to several rapes on campus, Mendieta concocted a macabre scenario for the evening art class which was scheduled to meet in her room. Her classmates arrived to find her "tied to a table, bent over, nude from the waist down, and blood was all over the place," Breder comments. "It was a very dramatic piece that took a lot of risk."

From then on, Mendieta continued to develop provocative images and subject matter in her art. Numerous ritualistic performance/acts in which she used blood combined with tempera have been preserved on film. Mendieta explains, "I started immediately using blood, I guess because I think it's a very powerful, magical thing. I don't see it as a negative force." In her 1973 filmwork, "Sweating Blood," simulated blood dripped slowly from her scalp down her forehead while the camera focused on her face, eyes shut in a trancelike state, as if possessed. She pursued this theme in two subsequent performances, "Blood Writing" (1973) and "Blood Sign No. 2" (1974). But it was with her 1982 "Body Tracks" series, in which she slid her arms that had been dipped in blood down a white wall, that Mendieta received her first national attention. The marks on the pristine wall were both a dramatic documentation of an action as well as an intriguing concretization of her own presence. She completely subjectified herself, using her entire body as a medium, yet maintained an objective eye as she investigated how video and photography could be used to document these ephemeral works.

As the impact of Mendieta's exile became more evident in her work, she intensified her search for origins. "Having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence, I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb. My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe." In an attempt to get closer to her roots, she studied the principles of santeria, the Cuban fusion of Catholicism and African Yoruba worship. Her library included works by the legendary Cuban anthropologist, Lydia Cabrera, who clarified that esoteric world where the rich lore of a displaced people is veiled within traditional Roman Catholic worship. Mendieta had been introduced to santeria by the servants of her childhood home yet only later, as an exile, did she realize its true value. Not only did she realize its true value. Not only did she empathize with the uprooted African peoples, but this form of worship provided her with a schematic philosophy based on the powers of the earth, linking nature and the spiritual realm.

In early 1973, during an outdoor performance at Old Man's Creek in Iowa City, Mendieta rolled her naked, bloodied body in a bed of white feathers, transforming herself into the white cock which is customarily sacrificed as a preparatory rite for the Nanigos, a secret male society of santeria. She continued to draw on aspects of this cult through the early 1980s. In one piece, she performed the sacrifice for the camera as she stood naked, holding a beheaded white chicken that flapped its wings frantically, splattering blood on her body and the surrounding white walls. In 1981 she created a piece on a tree in Miami that was deemed sacred by the local santeria community. Mendieta explains how those believers received her work:

"The santeros use a tree that in Spanish is called a ceiba and in English a cotton silkwood tree. It has very long roots that stick out. In Miami there is a tree like that which the santeros have claimed and the people do things to that tree when a healer tells them that they have to make a sacrifice. When I was there I decided to do a piece on the tree. I was in the Cuban section and collected human hair from the different beauty shops so I knew it was Cuban hair. Then I made a figure on the tree.... The last time I saw the tree, the people had added coconuts, chicken wings, all kinds of offerings. For a while they put a figure of Santa Barbara underneath it, cut an opening in what would be the face and stuck a shell in the mouth. They have really activated the image and claimed it as their own.

Taino and other pre-Columbian mythologies, especially their fertility symbols, became tools to convey Mendieta's primal power. Life-nurturing elements such as fire, water, blood and earth charged her work with a presence which in santeria is known as ashe. Freely borrowing from her Cuban heritage, she applied a talismatic approach: "I believe in water, air and earth. They are all deities. They also speak...Those are the things that are powerful and important. I don't know why people have gotten away from these ideas."

Nearly every summer, Breder took his students to Oaxaca, Mexico, for work study adventures to archaeological sites. Mendieta acutely identified herself with these sites and developed a reverential sense of scared place and space. These ventures put her in contact with a culture closer to that of her native Cuba, to which she would not return for another decade. "Plugging into Mexico was like going back to the source, being able to get some magic just by being there." In a mock ritual, she transformed an ancient burial site by imprinting its surface with a branding iron that had been crafted in the shape of her hand. In another performance/installation she commissioned the local cohetero, to make a fireworks silhouette of her body which was ritualistically ignited infront of an audience of her classmates and local townspeople. Once again, Mendieta's work was suspended somewhere between the subjective and the objective, as she stepped back to document the work photographically and watch the form burn in an act of self-demolition.

Making art became a spiritual act. In creating her earth-body sculptures, Mendieta claimed her sites intuitively, working alone, preparing the land and deeming it sacred. Although she explored a vast range of multi-media works, her Silueta series is perhaps her most self definitive imagery. recreating her five-foot form wherever she staked out her ground, she was in continuous communion with mother earth. Eventually, Mendieta's work took on the image of the Goddess, moving away from the use of her own body to the archetypal symbol for woman. "The works recall prehistoric beliefs of an omnipresent female force whose body parts made the earth a living creature."

Naturally, Mendieta's desire to create in Cuba was fierce, "it would only be logical to bring the Silueta series to its source." She carefully planned her 1980 voyage, as she knew it would be emotionally trying. At the end of her visit, she smuggled earth from Cuba and sand from Varadero Beach. "There is an African ritual which I think deals with the same ideas I explore in my art: When a native brings back a wife from Kimberly, they carry with them a little dirt from her homeland. Everyday she eats a little of this dirt to accustom herself to the change of residency. In a sense that is what I am doing here. By making my image in nature I can deal with the two cultures. My earth-body sculptures are not the final stage of a ritual but a way and a means of asserting my emotional ties with nature and conceptualizing religion and culture." Mendieta returned to Cuba in August of 1981 with the support of the Ministry of Culture for a one-month-stay. Inspired by pre-Columbian imagery, she carved her Esculturas Rupestres in the Escalera de Jaruco, ancient caves near Havana. It was a product that bound her forever with her ancestral land.

By the mid-1980s, Mendieta had reached unprecedented heights as an avant-garde artist both internationally and within the elitist New York art scene. She had been awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1983, which entitled her to a private studio in this European art capital for one year, sponsored by the American Academy. Returning to New York City, she married the famous minimalist Carl Andre in January of 1985, although she continued to work in Rome for months at a time. This union perplexed those closest to her, as the pair was reported to be temperamentally and artistically opposed. he was the successful minimalist commanding unheard of prices for his uninvolved pieces while Mendieta steered away from the idea of art as commodity. It could be said that Andre and Mendieta were a true match for each other until the end. "What happened was we wife is an artist...and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, uh, exposed to the public than she was, and she went to the bedroom and I went after her and she went out the window." Carl Andre's account of that fateful night of Mendieta's death was recorded when he called the emergency 911 immediately after her death. Ana Mendieta didn't have a chance to leave her version. Whether suicide or homicide, that tragic event opened up a stirring case that eventually acquitted Carl Andre. However, a careful scrutiny of the pieces in this complex puzzle leaves one both disillusioned and intrigued. The circumstances surrounding Mendieta's death remain ambiguous, and have polarized the art world in a manner reminiscent of the Dreyfus affair which split up France into two ideological camps in the nineteenth century.

As Mendieta used her art to heal herself, her powerful images were lessons in potentiality for the viewer, often dissolving both ethnic and sexual barriers. Her gestures were autobiographical, not narcissistic. By continually demonstrating that her works were essential responses to the human condition, she challenged her audience, incited curiosity and ultimately acted as a liberating force. Making no concessions to the standard ideal of beauty, her potent, sometimes crude statements urge the viewer to go beyond the confines of the conventional. The boundless work created by this artist during her tragically brief career guaranteed her a niche in history. Today this work refuses to be silenced. Mendieta's vision remains as potent as ever, harboring great relevance for coming generations.

Heidi Rauch has a background in Latin American Studies and Modern Dance, and works at the OAS office for the Quincentennial. Contributing editor, Federico Suro, holds a Master's Degree in film history from Columbia University.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Cuban-born performance artist
Author:Rauch, Heidi; Suro, Federico
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:Reflections on a new crossing.
Next Article:A Festival of worldwide exposure.

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