Cuban Heroes (I wish I’d known as a girl): Ana Mendieta

Above image: Ana Mendieta, Film stills, Sweating Blood, 1973

Starting in July, my birth month, I will be doing a bi-monthly research exercise on “Cuban Heroes” for my blog. I believe that seeing yourself reflected in the world around you (in pop culture and beyond) is powerful, and I was starved of that privilege as a young girl navigating the white-centric suburbs of Orange County.

A bit of an introduction before beginning My mother immigrated from Cuba in the 1970s and married my father, a red headed Irish-American from Southern California. Growing up, my contact with my father’s side of the family was rare if ever, so I made sense of “family” through the connection I had to my mother’s side: my Cuban Grandmother and her sisters (my Great Aunts). I truly believe that I understand what Love is today through the love I received from the gaggle of Cuban women who raised me as a child. Looking back, when I think of “home”, I think of them, and feel them deeply in my core still. So with all that said  why is it that when I was sorting through the building blocks of my identity and searching for role models, that I looked past them and only found value and importance in white-stories by straight-white-men within the framework of white-society? In short, it is because I was a child of an immigrant, and cultural assimilation was key to my social survival. When I looked around me, those were the narratives that society held up and gave the most worth and I followed that way of thinking without ever examining why (that would come decades later). As a child and young adult, I took these adopted narratives and hid in plain sight. My fair-skin and culturally-ambiguous looks afforded me that. I thought by doing this, I was pushing myself out of the ethnic minority and giving myself a “fair chance”, a belief that is complex, problematic, and reinforced time and time again in my life.

After my mother’s passing 2 years ago, I spiraled into grief. Grieving her, and the loss of “the last” of my Cuban identity slipping through my fingers and into the ether. Never again would I feel and hear the energy and sounds of her hard Cuban-Spanish accenting my life. The audible sounds of love through language, calling for me as, “Ginita”. I think after the death of any parent, it is quite normal to question existence and ask questions of “why”, and that definitely came for me in full force and is something I still reconcile today. So — this is to honor my Mother, this is for my Grandmother and Great Aunts, but mostly this is for the little girl who needed an extra push in understanding her roots, her place and their natural value, and in turn, her natural value.

 


Ana Mendieta (November 18, 1948 – September 8, 1985) was a Cuban-born performance artist, sculptor, video artist and painter who immigrated to the United States when she was only 12 years old to escape Fidel Castro’s regime.

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Through her art, Mendieta transformed fear, pain, and rage into powerful and provocative meditations on gender, identity, assault, death, place, and belonging.

As an immigrant, Mendieta felt a disconnect in the United States. The trauma of being uprooted from her Cuban homeland as a girl would leave her with questions about her identity and make her more conscious of being a woman of color.

These questions would echo in her work, which explored themes that pushed ethnic, sexual, moral, religious and political boundaries. She urged viewers to disregard their gender, race or other defining societal factors and instead connect with the humanity they share with others.

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Ana Mendieta, Imágen de Yágul, 1973/2018. Color photograph. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

Mendieta created a diverse collection of work (“earth-body” art) that included silhouettes of her body created in mud, earth, rocks, wild flowers and leaves, performance pieces that evoked the folk and occult traditions of her native Cuba as well as her beloved Mexico and subversive self-portraits that played with notions of beauty, belonging and gender.

The artist’s Silueta Series photographs, help us to think about the history of Mendieta’s marked absence, the notion of the trace of an end or an incomplete whole in her presentation of earth/body symbiosis.

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Ana Mendieta, Sweating Blood, 1973. Stills from Super-8mm.

In her performance pieces, where she sometimes used blood “as a very, powerful magical thing”, she evoked the power of female sexuality as well as the horror of male sexual violence. In her photographic self-portraits, she pressed her face against glass to distort her features or pictured herself dripping in blood or disguised as a man with glued-on facial hair.

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Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints – Face), 1972

“When we speak of feminism, it’s important to know that anytime a woman, especially a beautiful woman uses her body and distorts it, it is, in essence, a political act. So often women are the subject of the male gaze, all over art history. That’s what we see – women as object – and here, Mendieta like many women of her generation are transposing that relationship to make women a subject of her own gaze and therefore of our gaze and that it’s a very empowering step.”  -Marie Sabbatino

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Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks), 1974

In Body Tracks, Mendieta makes track-like marks, trails of blood that drag from her forearms, drawing a downward movement like bloodshed which, when it ends, leaves the viewer staring at the remains of the action, transformed into performative text. The work involving the body takes on a sacrificial quality while at the same time providing a radical way of presenting the subjectivity with which lifeblood itself becomes a painting pigment. Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks) is closely linked to other actions using blood done in the early 1970s, such as those she recorded in the privacy of her own home as a reflection on other private kinds of violence.

Respond to Cuban Heroes (I wish I’d known as a girl): Ana Mendieta

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