Ana Mendieta’s body melds into the earth. Its impression fills with crimson liquid—blood? The impression will erode over time, echoing the artist’s own sense of cultural erosion and disconnection from her home.
During Fidel Castro’s early reign in Cuba, Mendieta’s parents sent her and her older sister to live in the United States. She has said of the experience, “My exploration through my art of the relationship between myself and nature has been a clear result of my having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence. The making of my silueta in nature keeps (makes) the transition between my homeland and my new home. It is a way of reclaiming my roots and becoming one with nature. Although the culture in which I live is part of me, my roots and cultural identity are a result of my Cuban heritage.”
Today, the artist’s silhouette is a grim reminder of her death after falling from her thirty-fourth-floor New York apartment. Mendieta’s husband, the artist Carl Andre, was charged and acquitted of murder. Since then, activists have challenged museums that exhibit his work but not hers. They ask, “Where is Ana Mendieta?”
From the exhibition: Give a damn. (June 30 – September 30, 2018)
For Ana Mendieta, body, nature, and art are inextricably linked. A feminist pioneer of the Land Art movement in the 1970s, Mendieta performs rituals that examine her relationship to the earth. In Silueta Sangrienta, these rituals reference sacrifice to demonstrate the loss experienced by the artist when she had to leave her homeland of Cuba as a child and come to the United States.
In a poem by Mendieta from 1981, the artist provides context for the mode in which she creates her work:
Pain of Cuba
body I am
my orphanhood I live
In Cuba when you die
the earth that covers us
covered by the earth whose prisoner I am
I feel death palpitating underneath
as my whole body is filled with want of Cuba
I go on to make my work upon the earth,
to go on is victory.
In this poem, Mendieta’s connection to the land in Cuba is evident—she reveres it and longs for it. In contrast, she considers herself a prisoner in the United States, “covered by the earth” as if she is already dead. It is her work, made quite literally “upon the earth,” that allows her to overcome this feeling.
Silueta Sangrienta explores her conflicted feelings about the land. The video begins with Mendieta lying on her back at the bank of a river as if the earth is cradling her. Moments later, her body vanishes to reveal a trench in the shape of her silhouette. If the video is an allegory for her life, this would be the moment she was taken out of Cuba.
In one frame, her silhouette fills with bright red liquid and becomes the silueta sangrienta, or bloody silhouette. Blood, here, has more than one meaning. It evokes ideas of sacrifice and death, but it also references Mendieta’s interest in the Afro-Carribbean religion Santeria. In Santeria, blood is ashe, a powerful life force. Blood is ruled by Ochún, the goddess of sweet water and a symbol of female sexuality who controls the rivers. While some viewers may look at the bloody silhouette and see death, those familiar with Santeria may see its associations with sex and vitality.
The film concludes with Mendieta face-down in the bloody silhouette. She is no longer held up by the land. Instead, she lays on top of it, muscles tensed, almost as if to press the earth away from her, harnessing the power of the life force beneath her to remain above the earth: “to go on is victory.”
–Caroline Coxe ’20
From the exhibition: Lover EarthArt and Ecosexuality (May 30 – August 23, 2020)