How Ana Mendietas’s Crisis of Identity Is Reflected In The Siluetas Series 

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How Ana Mendietas’s Crisis of Identity Is Reflected In The Siluetas Series 
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SILVA, Patricia Amorim da [1]

SILVA, Patricia Amorim da. How Ana Mendietas’s Crisis of Identity Is Reflected In The Siluetas Series. Multidisciplinary Scientific Journal. Year 03, Ed. 01, Vol. 04, pp. 49-78, January of 2018. ISSN:2448-0959

ABSTRACT

Ana Mendieta (18 November 1948, Havana-Cuba – 8 September 1985 New York- USA) was an American – Cuban artist who worked with many different medias and materials focusing specially on performance. This discussion intend to focus in her work Siluetas Series (1973-1980) where the artist uses the Earth soil to camouflage her naked body, looking for identity (gendered, raced, classed, sexed, and others) which is a conflict for her during life. This work is marked by the physical presence and absence of Mendieta’s body in various moments. All her work is recorded by film and photography by which this research explores the ways Mendieta transports and shows, in her work Siluetas Series (1973-1980), her crisis of identity.

1. Introduction

Ana Mendieta was an artist whose work has been characterized for the constant search for identity because of her life story as she had been between two cultures, briefly described in the following paragraph.

Mendieta’s crisis of identity is a result of her childhood experiences. During this period her father, Ignacio Mendieta, was an influential politician in Cuba. After the Cuba Revolution in 1959 Ignacio was arrested because he was against Fidel Castro and then Mendieta was sent to the United States at the age of thirteen. As soon as she moved to Iowa, a very traditional and conservative place, her life changed drastically regarding to money, geography and culture. That is why she felt in need of reconnection with the nature. Nowhere was a place for her. Mendieta kept searching for her home and roots.

The Mendieta’s search for home could be related with the idea of Gaston Bachelard’s in his book The Poetics of Space (1958). The author says that we just stay at the surface and materiality of objects and spaces (part of our life, our childhood), as we do not realize the amount of significations we could get through our thoughts and perceptions of those spaces and objects, and how they affect our understanding of our society and ourselves. For Bachelard the objects and spaces experienced during our life have an important role in the construction of our inner self and that is just possible with a deep analysis of them, looking for their possible significations. That is what Mendieta tries to do when she occupies with her body meaningful places for her, in search of her roots. What Bachelard tries to say here is that home is not only the physical space where we live, but it is our life stories where we found ourselves, it means, our personality, desires, thoughts, etc.

Mendieta used to live in the boundaries between two different cultures, the Latin and the North American culture, which opens a field for a personal and political exploration in her works, as these cultures experience different political views (Cuba- Socialist and USA- Capitalist), also experienced by the artist at different periods of her life. That is why she uses performance practice to represent identity and the identity as a performance, because the identity does not remain stable and the performance as well. The identity is transformed by the course of life, different things happen, continually changing our lives and us.

Vygotsky defines a concept of identity that fits here, for him identity is not something determined as soon as we are born, but it is something built through individual experiences along our lives. What helps us to understand the idea of identity expressed by Ana Mendieta’s work.

Another concept of identity that could be related with the previous one is defined by Julia Kristeva (1984). She says that identity is formed in the encounter with others. It means that our identity is expressed when is confronted with other peoples’ identity, as the differences between each other are evidenced.

To understand how identity is expressed through Ana Mendieta’s work, it is necessary to talk about her career, the process of creating her artwork and her influences.

At the beginning of Ana Mendieta’s career, she had a period of art production focused on women violence as one can see in her work called Untitled (Chicken Piece), 1972- figure 1 p.19 -, Untitled (Rape Scene)
April 1973 – figure 2 p.20 – Untitled Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2) 1974 – figure 3 p.21 -.

Regarding Mendieta’s work close to the last decade of the 20th century it has been more related to the earth soil where she leaves her silhouette.

The Feminist movement in art in the 1970s, composed by the art critic Lucy Lippard, the anthropologist and Cuban poet Lydia Cabrera, the Swedish painter and writer Monica Sjöö and others, and the minimalism movement (along 20th century) by the sculptor Carl Andre (Quincy, Massachusetts, 16 September 1935)- Ana Mendieta’s husband-, which basically affect the art with its simple, clean structure with the use of fewer elements as a base of expression, influenced Mendieta’s work particularly the Siluetas Series (1973- 1980) with the simplicity of her woman body shape left on the earth soil expressing her wish to find a place for her.

Actually she joined some art groups with feminist and minority defence proposals as: Art Workers Coalition, El Movimiento Artistico Chicano, The Task Force on Discrimination Against Women and Minority Artists, among others.

The Siluetas Series (1973-1980)figures: 5, 6, 7 p.23 to p.25. – consists in a performance where Ana Mendieta intends to discuss both: her crisis of identity (through the lack of location) and her self -searching for a place (through the silhouette marks left on the earth soil). It was an initiation ritual of her body through the nature: from her homeland in Cuba to her new home in USA. In this work she wished to be or show herself as a part of “The Mother Earth” as she calls nature. For Mendieta the earth, besides a fundamental source of life, represents the nation and a connection to ancestry.

Some of her Siluetas Series (1973-1980) took place in Iowa city, where she started her studies and lived most of her life, in Oaxaca region of Mexico, where she could feel kind of back home because of the Latin culture and the host of many exiled Latin Americans, and also in the hills of Jaruco near the city of Havana, Cuba, where she was born. Therefore is possible to see that, most of the places had quite significance on Mendieta’s life and they play an important role in reflecting her crisis of identity.

Additional information about this work is that she always names the Silueta works after the name of the places where she was. Though the location it is something very important for her as she is talking about displacement.

Another interesting point about Silueta Series is the variety of materials used as: gunpowder, fire, blood, grass and others. Some of these materials, for example the fire and the blood (used a lot in her other works as Rape Scene 1973-fig.2 p.20-), are symbolic elements composing the Santeria, which is an Afro-Cuban religion, and the Taino Indians, which are native Indians from Cuba, rituals according to Vera L. Zolberg and Joni Maya Cherbo. An example of her work fitting perfectly here is Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas), 1975– figure 8 p. 26-.

In a interview Ana Medieta said that she used gunpowder in some pieces of work as in Untitled (Volcano series), 1978-1980, – figure 4 p.22 – and later found out that in certain rituals of Santeria, the Santeros, healers in Cuba, make 5 piles of gunpowder, light them and if they burn it means Yes to the question and if they do not burn, it means no (Montano: 2000). From this point Mendieta started relate the materials used in her works with Santeria rituals.

The Silueta Series Mendieta reflects a feeling of lost as at the same time she is and she is not anywhere. She is in between two moments, two cultures, it means, she is in the boundary.

The result of these performances is the photographs and the films that give us an idea of the relationship established between Mendieta and the spaces where she leaves her silhouette. They show a set of images and materials with different sites. It is an interpretation of that specific moment lived by the artist through her art.

2. Contextualization

According to Jane Blocker (Author of the book Where is Ana Mendieta, 1999) Mendieta’s work discusses the search for nationality and cultural identity in a postcolonial context. It means that period in the history between the middle and the end of the 20th century which is marked for a search, by the colonized people, of a unity point, common cultural aspects to create a Nation where before it was just a piece of land. For example, the Latin America Countries: Chile, Peru, and others.

I agree with Blocker (1999) in the way she says that Siluetas Series (1973-1970) dialogs at the same time with an Afro-Cuban religion evoking some deities and rituals from Santeria with the beliefs of an Earth as living entity or manifestation of God. The Indigenous culture influence is present in the way the artist communicates with the nature. She was going on towards the opposite direction of Catholicism; despite of the fact she was raised in Cuba, as a catholic and met this religion again in Iowa. When she submerged herself into nature, the daughter encounters the mother (The Mother Earth), it is a fact that could be associated with Christ crucified as a symbol of his encountering with his Father (God). Although it does not necessarily mean that the artist intended to do this association knowingly or deliberately. The photographs of this performance are by themselves, full of symbolism.

Some of her Siluetas Series (1973-1980) took place in Mexico during expeditions with a group of students from The University of Iowa. This work was a kind of autobiography as Ana Mendieta was going back to the past looking for her roots and being reborn as a Cuban-American woman that had been influenced and changed by the present.

Most of the Siluetas Series (1973-1980), as said before, happened in meaningful places for the artist or as a living place or as part of her past, for example, New York, Iowa and Cuba. Each space represented in the Siluetas Series is full of signification as they bring their own stories to the scene.

We can see her crisis of identity in her Siluetas Series (1973-1980) as she eludes many different cultures, religions and countries. Mendieta holds a complex identity and through her work she tries to legitimize it. All this complexity reveals itself in a variety of materials and themes used to produce her work and also to record it. For this reason, many people tend to stereotype Mendieta as a typical Latin-American female artist as she is influenced by different cultures and many times she makes reference to the native ancestors and to tribal groups.

We can relate Medieta’s work with the term “deterritorialization” that is the term for the displacement of identities, which is used by Felix Guatarri and Gilles Deleuze in Anti-Oedipus (1972), as the radical detachment between the signifier and signified. According to Caren Kaplan (1987), this utopian moment of displacement can be realized in language or in literature that Deleuze and Guatarri designate as “minor”. Kaplan (1987) defines it as the paradoxal movement between the minor and major; the object and subject, in accept a position that is final or static related to the construction of the self in a postmodern autobiographical writing. It must be singular, linear especially related to the centre and margins (the cultural centrality and marginality) of the construction of personal and political identities, which encompasses race, class, sexuality and gender. She emphasizes how it is difficult to totalize this full range of diversities in the feminist discourse. This conflict is lived in its full diversity by immigrants, who uses a language sometimes that is not their own, in its positive and negative aspects. Regarding the point of view of the marginality, Gloria Anzaldua (Texas, September 26, 1942 – California, May 15, 2004) and Ana Mendieta very well describe it from that minor position, as both artists faced a life between two cultures, two languages in two different places, one as a Mexican-American writer and the other as a American-Cuban visual artist.

3. Search for Identity

Ana Mendieta’s crisis of identity is reflected as well in different marks left by her on the earth soil. First Mendieta started tracing her body and then she built a full sculpture of it on different earth soils, which were part of her life story; it shows the difference between the United States and Cuba, as a constant search for home.

In those places, cultural, ethnic and gender aspects are discussed on. The exile is just the starting point, a general issue of her work to discuss those, which is represented through the physical absence, and presence of her body on the earth soil. The relationship established between subject and object, it means; Mendieta and the different materials, surfaces and places experienced by her. The photography has an important role, representing her feelings of not belonging to anywhere, as Mendieta records when her body is in action an also when it is absent. It is in those “sacred”, “ritualistic” spaces that Mendieta’s identity is shown. Her crisis of identity is the poetic aspect of her work.

As mentioned before, when Mendieta sculpts her body instead of tracing it, she gives another spatial dimension to her work as before was 2D and now it becomes a 3D piece. It can noticed when it is compared the Siluetas Series with another Mendieta’s work called Untitled (Fetish Series), 1977/1978– figure 9 p.27 –, where. It remembers us the Goddess sculptures from the Stone Age, it seems that she addresses a spiritual value to the female body and the self as she puts this body in the position of an object of worship.

The Siluetas Series (1973-1980) is the way the artist found to deal with all this contradiction about to be born in one country, drastically separated from her parents, and raised in another country for a long time; a situation that many immigrants have felt throughout the history.

One artist that establishes a dialog with these Silueta Series is Mary Kelly (USA- born 1941) through the Corpus installation called Interim (1984-89) – figure 10 and 10.1 p.28 and p.29 -, as the artist deals with the construction of identity and the self as the subject of this work. Kelly brings in this installation pieces of clothes to represent a persona. Through this installation she explores themes regarding the construction of the feminine subjective. The work is display in groups of six panels each one is named with one of the passionate attitudes that the psychiatrist Jean Martin Charcot attributes to hysterical women in the late-nineteenth century. The five passionate attitudes (Extase, Menace, Supplication, Erotisme and Appel) are represented by a piece of clothing folded in three different ways according with the narrative. The installation becomes an intimate space for confessions; through it is possible to construct our own narratives and the characters’ identity.

Conclusion

Ana Mendieta reveals herself as a complex artist in the sense she uses her autobiographical crisis of identity to construct narratives in peoples’ mind. But at the same time the narratives are not closed as she works against boundaries. It is shown through the use of different places and materials in her works, giving to the viewer an open field for future possibilities. As the time as the photographs are viewed each person will interpret and contextualize according to their own background. Each person will make its own connections.

The Siluetas Series (1973-1980) rethinks the postmodern culture and the subjectivity addressed in a work of art because Mendieta’s body becomes a subject placed in specific context and culture that it is able to communicate with an infinity of things, situations. Although she addresses personal issues in her work (performances), the visual result of it gives the possibility to establish variety of dialogs in people’s life. As Mendieta works with common, vital elements in everybody’s life, for example in the Silueta Series, the earth soil, it opens a range of possible significations to come up.

In the Silueta Series, the main focus of this discussion, the space occupied by her body gains another signification when we relate it with an index of reality, in this case represented by the photographs as they are at the same time a proof of the subject (Medieta’s body) in performance, the evidence of the body in the soil, her legitimation. As part of the nature of human beings  to be connected to the earth space as our body occupies a determinate location at a specific moment and time in the world; Mendieta decides to emphasise the relationship established between subject and object, it means, the human beings and the earth space. It is through this relationship that her crisis of identity is expressed as she alludes different places, religions and cultures.

Mendieta’s work also reflects about women’s role in a patriarchy society. As she faced a lot of difficulties to be a woman artist, though Mendieta tries to run through her fight in defence of the minority by the simplicity and delicacy of her silhouette left on the immensity of the earth soil space.

Her work is influenced as well by the transition from minimalism to conceptual art, what makes Mendieta works with earth related to nostalgia, understanding of loss, transition and emergent realities and transcending boundaries.

At the same time Mendieta sets the borders and breaks them down, she is inside and outside the boundaries. She has to set the borders to leave her silhouette on the soil by which she establishes a connection with the earth (The Mother Earth), the going back to ancestry, but as soon as Mendieta occupies it she has to leave to keep looking for her roots, exactly when the boundaries are breaking down. The inside and outside movements are the mark of her crisis of identity.

Mendieta works with the fragmentation of her subject as she leaves her silhouette in many different places trying to find her home and construct her identity. Each place adds some information and relevant event to her life and helps Mendieta in her search for her own self-image as an American-Cuban artist woman living in the boundaries.

To live in a border is to be undetermined, to be everywhere and anywhere, to be part of something and nothing at the same time. It means to be in a constant lost area and in a transition to something unknown. As Gloria Anzaldua describes as well with the same perspective in her book Borderlands: La Frontera (The New Mestiza) (1987). Gloria tries to find under her personality built in between two different cultures her primitive features as she lived on the Mexican-Texas border. Like Mendieta she does not want to feel an alien in her mother culture. These two artists were living in a duo reality. Even the understanding of art was different from the Western culture to the Latin culture, as this had tribal groups as ancestry who used to put the art work in a sacred place as an important member of the family and the other one deals with art work as symbol, an object of possession and power.

Ana Mendieta’s works, especially Silueta Series, are able to transcend the personal issues involved in breaking down the religious, cultural, political, economical e geographic boundaries to transport questions, thoughts and actions regarding social relationships, life, gender, sexuality and others to the viewer. But her work does not end there, as it is able to set a dialog with the viewers who start establishing connections with their own life experiences that add a variety of significations to her work. A cycle that intends to be never ending, what keeps her work, the questions and the thoughts set by her always alive and they are still contemporary. Her artwork speaks for itself.

Illustrations

Figure 1 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Chicken Piece), 1972. Super-8 colour, silent film transferred to DVD, running time: 6 minutes, 20 seconds. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47/works/]
Figure 1 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Chicken Piece), 1972. Super-8 colour, silent film transferred to DVD, running time: 6 minutes, 20 seconds. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47/works/]
Figure 2 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene)
April 1973. Photograph on paper image: 245 x 170 mm, unique, Tate. [http://thepandorian.com/2009/11/ana-mendieta-untitled-rape-scene/]
Figure 2 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene)
April 1973. Photograph on paper image: 245 x 170 mm, unique, Tate. [http://thepandorian.com/2009/11/ana-mendieta-untitled-rape-scene/]
Figure 3 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2) 1974. Video still, 1 min, color, sound. [http://www.canadianart.ca/reviews/2011/07/21/ana_mendieta/]
Figure 3 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2) 1974. Video still, 1 min, color, sound. [http://www.canadianart.ca/reviews/2011/07/21/ana_mendieta/]
Figure 4 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Volcano Series no.2), 1979. Lifetime color photograph 13.25 x 20 inches (33.7 x 50.8 cm). [http://www.galerielelong.com/artist/ana-mendieta]
Figure 4 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Volcano Series no.2), 1979. Lifetime color photograph 13.25 x 20 inches (33.7 x 50.8 cm). [http://www.galerielelong.com/artist/ana-mendieta]
Figure 5 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta Series), 1980. 2 lifetime black and white photographs 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm) each. [http://www.galerielelong.com/artist/ana-mendieta]
Figure 5 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta Series), 1980. 2 lifetime black and white photographs 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm) each. [http://www.galerielelong.com/artist/ana-mendieta]
Figure 6 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta Series), 1978. Vintage colour photograph mounted on board. Unframed: 33.7 x 50.8 cms / 13 1/4 x 20 ins, Framed: 45.7 x 62 cms / 18 x 24 3/8 ins. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47-Ana-Mendieta/works/]
Figure 6 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta Series), 1978. Vintage colour photograph mounted on board. Unframed: 33.7 x 50.8 cms / 13 1/4 x 20 ins, Framed: 45.7 x 62 cms / 18 x 24 3/8 ins. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47-Ana-Mendieta/works/]
Figure 7 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta Series), 1978. Vintage colour photograph mounted on board. Unframed: 50.8 x 33.7 cms / 20 x 13 1/4 ins, Framed: 62.8 x 45.7 cms / 24 3/4 x 18 ins. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47-Ana-Mendieta/works/]
Figure 7 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta Series), 1978. Vintage colour photograph mounted on board. Unframed: 50.8 x 33.7 cms / 20 x 13 1/4 ins, Framed: 62.8 x 45.7 cms / 24 3/4 x 18 ins. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47-Ana-Mendieta/works/]
Figure 8 - Ana Mendieta, Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas), 1975. Super-8 color, silent film transferred to DVD, running time: 3:30 minutes. Edition of 6. [http://www.galerielelong.com/artist/ana-mendieta] 
Figure 8 – Ana Mendieta, Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas), 1975. Super-8 color, silent film transferred to DVD, running time: 3:30 minutes. Edition of 6. [http://www.galerielelong.com/artist/ana-mendieta]
Figure 9 - Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Fetish Series), circa 1977/1978. Unframed: 33.7 x 50.8 cms / 13 1/4 x 20 ins, Framed: 45.7 x 62 cms / 18 x 24 3/8 ins. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47-Ana-Mendieta/works/]
Figure 9 – Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Fetish Series), circa 1977/1978. Unframed: 33.7 x 50.8 cms / 13 1/4 x 20 ins, Framed: 45.7 x 62 cms / 18 x 24 3/8 ins. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection. [http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/artists/47-Ana-Mendieta/works/]
Figure 10 - Mary Kelly, Interim, 1984 – 1989. Installation in four parts. Background left, Postestas, Background right, Corpus. Foreground, History. Dimensions Variable. Installation View, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1990. [http://www.marykellyartist.com/interim.html]
Figure 10 – Mary Kelly, Interim, 1984 – 1989. Installation in four parts. Background left, Postestas, Background right, Corpus. Foreground, History. Dimensions Variable. Installation View, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1990. [http://www.marykellyartist.com/interim.html]
Figure 11 - Detail, Menace, 1 of 6 panels. Laminated photopositive, silkscreen, acrylic on Plexiglas, 30 panels total, 36 x 48 x 2 inches. [http://www.marykellyartist.com/interim.html]
Figure 11 – Detail, Menace, 1 of 6 panels. Laminated photopositive, silkscreen, acrylic on Plexiglas, 30 panels total, 36 x 48 x 2 inches. [http://www.marykellyartist.com/interim.html]
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[1] Candidate for the Master of Fine Art Degree University of Northampton

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