Ana Mendieta, in her feminist performance art, expresses the many truths of feminism and struggle.
Ana Mendieta was too busy to be an ajustador-burner. She was too busy burning everything else when she arrived in The United States from Cuba! She had a fascination with fire that went beyond just bra-burning. You could argue her fiery symbols were stronger than the smouldering fabrics of the other second wave feminists in the 60’s. Ana was greatly interested in gender and identity and explored this by creating flammable siluetas of herself. In her feminist performance art she would ignite them. Of course, these flames were not her only artistic form of echoing all the cries of struggling women of the time. Ana Mendieta was busy using rocks, snow, grass, mud, tree bark, and many other materials outdoors to make the artistic and political silhouettes of herself.
Mendieta and her bold and expressive feminist performance art was born in 1948, a decade or two before the third wave of feminism. But, she fit better into the third wave because she was not just dealing with her identity as a women before dying tragically in 1985. She also had to face the anguish of defining herself as a Cuban living in America and defining herself as a confident lesbian. Her genitalia, her skin color, nor her sexual orientation were what made her a whatever wave feminist. But these struggles reminded viewers of her feminist performance art where she probably had these issues at the front of her girly, brown, woman-loving forehead. It’s not the struggles she faced that made her voice feminist; it was her artwork. It was the materials and the artistic actions that reminded viewers of her struggles as a woman, as a Latina, and as a homosexual. She enlisted the power of artistic material, medium, and feminist performance art to fight the battle of feminists. Mendieta’s works expressed conflicts of feminism through nature, flux, and ritual.
The following feminist performance art could easily be titled Death of a Gingerbread Cookie, but it’s not. Mendieta’s artworks were so articulate of her often dark feminist ideals that she didn’t even have to name this one. Ana Mendieta made Untitled in 1976 using her body and red tempra paint on a beach in Mexico. There were apparently three steps in this feminist performance art. The first was to force and pierce a life-size Ana-shaped cookie cutter into a floury, doughy, white, and sandy beach. This created a three-dimensional and full-sized imprint of the artist in the sand of the beach. The second phase of this work made it look like a crime scene. There was no murder on the beach, however the artist used chalky tempera paint to splatter red thick like blood all around and inside her remaining figure. The majority of the red paint fills the human shape from the waist down, but overall looks like her body… well… exploded and disappeared in the sand. Don’t worry though; the last phase is less graphic. Actually there’s nothing visual at all to describe as it is merely an event. The last embodiment of the artwork is the erasing of it. The doughy sand becomes a victim of the waves and flat once again with a light wash of red. This color will also blend with the ocean around it. The tide positively would come up and erase the image of her figure in the sand. This work might seem as jovial as pastries or as dark as death, but it is an accurate example of how Ana Mendieta operates.
Some of the best feminist protests of Ana Mendieta are voiced to everyone through nature. Mendieta believed in the connective power of the digital cloud, but in a more natural way. Less dominated by Apple she thinks of her art as a collective conscious; “her art revolved around the idea of a single thread connecting everything” (Frank). In the mentioned feminist performance art, this “thread” takes the form of a red fluid that can be thought of as flowing through the veins of everyone alive. Instead of televisions and phones, the artist realized the power of nature as a connective force between individuals. She knows the power of the breezes that blow through every country and the waters of the oceans that wash every continent and uses them as symbols of feminism. In Untitled she shows the importance of the sand of the beach and salt water of the sea as a reminder of the female mother earth. This imagery is a hallmark of all her works. She implements her love for mother nature as a reminder that mother nature is indeed female. Staples of nature show up all throughout Mendieta’s works, but her combination of nature with her struggles as a feminist are especially strong in the Siluetas.
As well as enlisting the help of mother nature in her feminist performance art, Ana Mendieta calls upon her own fluctuating ideas of feminism influenced by her past experiences. One such struggle was her exile and escape from the rule of Fidel Castro from Cuba to the United States. She was like a sea creature swimming and crawling from one shell to another along her journey. The silhouette in Untitled is like a temporary home for Mendieta’s body. This metaphor was strengthened because the silhouettes were the perfect size and shape for her body, but wither away by the force of the elements. The temporary homes she was making for and with her body could easily blow back and forth with the wind. The state of the silhouette as well as the surrounding landscape was always in a state of change and in-between. Just like her migration from Cuba, she was blowing between where she was from and where she would go. These silhouettes could have easily been in the shape of seahorses to bring up the same ideas of feminism that Mendieta was bringing attention to. Like identity, her silhouette were a relationship between them and the surrounding sand, however was made trivial when it was washed away by the nearby waves. Like a male seahorse giving birth to the family’s young, Mendieta was using the landscape to comment on and challenge the fluidity of gender roles. Apparent in these works were Mendieta’s struggle with identity as female, Latina, and even lesbian that often seems undefined but influenced her role as a feminist.
Many of her struggles are apparent in her work but, Ana Mendieta’s fascination with blood and ritual in her feminist performance art reinforces the darkest struggles of being a woman and a feminist in Siluetas. This particular silueta looked as if Casper the Friendly Ghost was shot with a pistol with his hands above his head; the work shows the blood but not the victim. Most would agree that the paint was a simple representation of the thick red fluid known as blood that pumps through everyone. One of the reasons that this work appeared to be so dark and unsettling was because of her use of red colors that looked eerily like blood. This was apparent in other works such as Rape Scene, 1973. The work becomes more nightmarish when the viewer realizes that the killing of the ghost could have been a sacrilegious ritual unfamiliar to the onlookers. “…The obsession […] stemmed from her knowledge of rituals practiced in the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, in which chicken’s blood is offered as sacrifice” (Frank). This is blatantly clear in Untitled (Chicken Piece), 1972. The color choice in the paint might have also been utilized to insinuate these rituals. But the silhouette is the shape of and result of the artist and the artist is a woman. In this work there are loud and clear mentions of both womanhood and blood just as “…much of Ana’s work focused on blood and violence toward women” (Frank). Blood can be a symbol for things related to being a woman, but this blood-colored paint seems to be more about abuse, violence, and even rape women face which are clearly feminist issues. This insertion of ritual into her works was one of only three discussed here, but was only one of many more that echoed the struggles of many similar feminists.
Ana Mendieta was the perfect swirling vortex of all these issues and all her remarkable creativity. Feminism too is an all too real tempest of hard-to-swallow subjects. Women and many others have been mistreated over the course of centuries and continue to be made unequal. Mendieta’s work is remarkable because of her incorporation of these truths. Facing the issues of feminism can be like being stuck in an earthquake, during a flood, in a tornado, and during a hurricane. They are like the many layers of feminism such as race and sexual-orientation. Mendieta’s artistic tasks were made no easier by including these ideas in her work. But her articulate creativity is the rainbow after the storm. Her skills with just sand, water, and a bit of red paint can make a loud statement about even the most complex feminist issues. Her works may not be rainbows, but still hold the beauty of a well-crafted work of art. This swirly vortex mixes feminism with nature, change, and rituals. And when the storm settles it is clear as day how she uses natural materials, the instability of these materials, and the rituals that may include these materials to express feminism.
“Ana’s death split the art world in half, with many prominent artists leaping to shelter Andre from the so-called ‘feminist cabal.’ While they deemed Ana’s death a tragedy, many felt the incident wasn’t worth putting a damper on ‘Andre’s brilliant career.’ From this dark perspective, the loss of a Hispanic woman’s life was not worth tarnishing a white male artist’s name.” -Priscilla Frank
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