The show emphasises a transformative moment in the artist’s career when she returned to Cuba – challenging how art critics have previously perceived her
Ana Mendieta was a prolific artist in the 70s and 80s: she made performances, documented gender issues through photographs and film, created sculptures using her own body and nature. Yet in her lifetime, the artist resisted labels, claiming that she was neither a performance artist nor a land artist, not even a feminist if the term referred to the mainstream movement of white middle-class women.
Still, Mendieta’s pioneering art was overshadowed, both because her death in 1985 came to define her legacy, and because the art world seemed to be put off by the visceral quality of her work. In 2013, art critic Rachel Spence wrote: “The combination of her Cuban origins allied to her interest in violence, magic, and death, and her practice of making art out of her own body and nature, saw her dismissed by the western establishment as a tragic, exotic earth mother.”
Now, Galerie Lelong, which manages Mendieta’s estate, is casting a light on a body of work that was believed to be lost and destroyed. Opening October 17 in New York, La Tierra Habla (The Earth Speaks) is the first exhibition and catalogue dedicated to a series of sculptures Mendieta produced in Cuba in 1981. Being uprooted from her Cuban homeland as a child, Mendieta took on exile as an identity, never fully integrating into either the United States or Cuba. The work reflects her search for meaning and poses questions about culture and identity. Returning to Cuba for the first time in 1980, Ana declared: “I was afraid before I went because I felt ‘here I’ve been living my life with this obsessive thing in my mind – what if I find out it has nothing to do with me?’ But the minute I got there it was this whole thing of belonging again.”
Ahead of the exhibition, we look back at her journey to the source.
GOING HOME TO CUBA
Ana Mendieta arrived at Miami International Airport on September 11, 1961, as part of an exodus of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children known as Operation Peter Pan. At age 12, she was sent to the US with her 15-year-old sister Raquelín because her parents feared the politics of Fidel Castro, who had seized power two years prior. The Mendieta sisters spent their adolescence between Catholic-run group and foster homes across Iowa until they reunited with their mother and brother in 1966.
Ana would only return to Cuba in 1980 as part of a group that promoted cultural exchange between Cuba and the US. After 19-years in exile, she reconnected with her family in Havana and Varadero, a resort town that sits on a narrow peninsula east of the capital.
She was the first artist to receive permission from the government to create work on the island. In 1981, she made sand sculptures in Guanabo beach and carved and painted several works in rocks near Varadero. She began planning Rupestrian Sculptures, a series of works located in Escaleras de Jaruco Park, on the outskirts of Havana.
Having experienced orphanhood and alienation in the US, Mendieta sought a sense of belonging by experimenting with her homeland’s soft limestone and undulating landscapes. Art was a way to connect with her birthplace and personal background, but also with Cuba’s history of resistance. The park of Jaruco, a small crop of green forest and hillocks, caves and cliffs, was once inhabited by Native Cubans and served as a refuge for political rebels throughout the ages. Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, Ana Mendieta’s niece, told Dazed: “Working in Jaruco was like a way to create her own myths by leaving her abstracted forms within the caves that previous Cuban rebels had used as a refuge in the War for Independence from Spain.”
SHE BONDED WITH NATURE
Ana Mendieta is often associated with Earth art, a movement that rejects the commercialisation of art-making and uses materials of the Earth-like soil, rocks, or water found on-site. But unlike land artists, who almost always introduce changes in the natural environment, her work attempts to integrate into it. In fact, Mendieta condemned land artists for having “brutalised nature” with their invasive methods.
“This is a very tender, indigenous approach to working with the earth,” says Raquel Cecilia Mendieta. “Creating under the notion that humans should honour this land and not treat it with violence.”
While in Cuba, Mendieta made sculptures using sand or carving into the fine rocks that are typical of the north of the island. In a proposal from 1981, she wrote: “I usually work alone, using in the creation of the works the suggestions that the same natural forms provoke in me.”
SHE DREW FROM INDIGENOUS CULTURE AND MYTHS
The sculptures in Varadero and Jaruco are named after goddesses from the pre-colonial Taíno culture, indigenous to the Caribbean. Mendieta had referred to Afro-Cuban and indigenous traditions before, most famously in her first Silueta, for which she lay down on a Zapotec tomb with flowers all over her body.
A passion for history ran in the Mendieta family. Elvira, Ana’s grandmother, collected archival materials that she later donated to her uncle, who was involved in the founding of the Museo Oscar María de Rojas in Cárdenas, Cuba’s second oldest museum. According to Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, children in Cuba learned about Meso-American history at school and so Ana developed an interest in indigenous cultures from an early age.
The women in the Jaruco caves are dedicated to Albohoa, (Goddess of Beauty), Atabey (Mother of the Waters), Bacayu (Light of Day), Guacar (First Menstruation), Guabancex (Wind Goddess), Guanaroca (First Woman), Itiba Cahubaba (Old Mother of the Blood), Iyare (Mother Goddess), and Maroya (Moon Goddess). Ana did not base the sculptures on any images or reproduced representations of the goddesses, but rather, paid homage to them. In fact, Mendieta only named the sculptures after Tainan deities once they were completed.
THE MAGICAL POWER OF REPRESENTATION
We know that Mendieta was also interested in Santería, a religion she was introduced to through the African-Cuban servants who lived in her family’s home. But her interest went beyond a fascination with spells, potions, and saints. Speaking to Linda Montano for Sulfur magazine, Mendieta said: “I was raised a Catholic and can’t deny my heritage... but as I’ve continued to work I feel closer to the Neolithic. Now I believe in water, air, and earth. They are all deities. They also speak.” "In Cuba, her family rejected those rituals because they were considered “low class,” but Mendieta believed in their power regardless. “I don’t know why people have gotten away from those ideas,” she added."
Mendieta explained the significance of those beliefs on her work early on, as an MFA student at the University of Iowa: “It seems as if these cultures are provided with an inner knowledge, a closeness to natural resources. And it is this knowledge which gives reality to the images they have created. It is this sense of magic, knowledge, and power, found in primitive art, that influences my personal attitude to art-making.”
For the artist, the elements were living bodies, and she wanted to be one with them. In fleeing her home country, Mendieta was separated from her family, but in some sense, from nature as well. Her artwork tries to overcome this separation.
PHOTOGRAPHY BECAME THE WORK
“Ana created works in the landscape knowing that they would eventually deteriorate and merge with nature,” says Raquel Cecilia Mendieta. Mendieta documented her on-site work meticulously, creating large photographic enlargements and videos, that would eventually “be the works”. The photographs of the Cuban carvings were shown at A.I.R. gallery in November 1981, just months after completion of the sculptures.
“She was searching for a way to bring the experience of the works in situ to the viewer,” Raquel Cecilia Mendieta says, “and eventually realised that if she printed the photographs larger, as she called it, ‘human scale’, the works would have more of a presence and would re-create the feeling of being in the space.”
SHE CRITIQUED MAINSTREAM FEMINISM
Though she exhibited with the women’s collective A.I.R. Gallery from 1978 to 1982, Mendieta was wary of being pigeonholed as a feminist, or merely as a Latina artist. “Ana had always struggled against identifying with the mainstream feminist movement,” Raquel Cecilia Mendieta explains. “In fact, the year prior to creating the Rupestrian Sculptures series in Cuba, she curated Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States at A.I.R. Gallery, New York, with Kazuko Miyamoto and Zarina. She wrote an incisive criticism in the exhibition catalogue: ‘…American Feminism as it stands is basically a white middle-class movement.’ But at the same time, she thought of nature as being female and didn’t argue the fact that she was a woman and therefore her work was an expression of her experience as a woman.”
La tierra habla (The Earth Speaks) runs at Galerie Lelong from 17 October – 16 November 2019