In the end, it had to be a commercial gallery the responsible for Ana Mendieta’s first solo show in the UK, despite the Cuban’s unquestionable appeal for any well intentioned art institution (being a woman, Latin, with a unique artistic voice and extraordinary doses of charisma). Alison Jacques –a Fitzrovian gallery that also represents the estates of other key 20th century artists like Hélio Oiticica, Robert Mapplethorpe or Hannah Wilke– has offered the London audience a small but very representative survey of the practice of the artist, born in Havana but raised and educated in exile in the States, first in Iowa and then in New York.
Ana Mendieta’s work is rooted on the most physical and primitive aspects of being: the four elements (earth, fire, water, wind), the human body (blood, sweat, skin, bones) and the rituals (often through the Cuban rites of Santería) to combine these two aspects, i.e. the body becoming nature or, rather, returning to nature. With videos, photographs, drawings and one installation, all produced between 1972 and 1982, this show serves as an introduction to the general audience while also offering the more versed followers an insight to some less-known pieces.
Entering the gallery a close-up of Mendieta’s face welcomes us. The video ‘Sweating Blood’ (1973), her face static, her eyes closed, seems like a meditative piece, where nothing happens, until drops of blood start falling from her forehead staining her face. In the next room, another video titled ‘Burial Pyramid’ (1974) shows the artist breathing in and out of a nest of stones, each breath allowing her to emerge a bit more and us to see her naked body, like both a plant blossoming and a grown up baby being born, painfully, to then die.
The exhibition also provides extensive illustration of her on-going Silueta project through videos, photographs and the installation ‘Nañigo Burial’ (1976), where lit candles melt in the iconic form, and ‘Body Prints’ (1974), a pair of photographs of Mendieta’s bloody body covered with a plastic sheet, which resonate with her notorious piece ‘Rape’, a performance she had staged the previous year, when she invited her teachers and colleagues to her flat in the campus of the University of Iowa. When the group arrived, they found her naked, bent over and tied to a table in the dark, with blood running down her legs. A few days before a fellow girl student had been raped and murdered in the campus and that was Ana’s fearless way of protesting against it.
Mendieta’s creative play with death, blood, nature and the female condition –strong and fragile at the same time– seems eerily admonitory of her premature death at the age of 36, in 1985, plunging from the thirty-fourth floor apartment in Greenwich Village that she shared with her husband, the minimal uber-artist Carl Andre. Andre and Mendieta had a volatile on and off relationship that getting married did not soothe. The night of Ana’s death, Andre admitted they had been arguing, but nothing else is known as to what happened in that room. Andre was charged and went to trial, a process that took almost 3 years, when he was finally acquitted. The whole issue is a huge taboo that haunts both Mendieta’s and Andre’s artistic careers, though indeed it tends to be brought up whenever she is mentioned, while for Andre is an obscure past event than is silenced for everyone’s convenience.
The death of Ana Mendieta is a scenario that ticks too many boxes and poses to many questions to be comfortably handled: Domestic abuse; the female/male professional battle of egos; the dark immigrant vs. the White American, the struggling artist vs. the established art star… Unfortunately, such a heavy burden in her personal life risks taking away relevance to her work itself, a maverick combination of land-art, body-art, feminism and the Latin voice, executed with confidence, passion and conviction. Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), still the artist’s artist, keeps fighting the elements even after death.
Ana Mendieta: Silueta and Silence at Alison Jacques Gallery, London. 19 February- 20 March 20010
Image credits: Copyright © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, courtesy Galerie Lelong and Alison Jacques Gallery
A version of this review was published on March 2010 in the online magazine this is tomorrow.