Walking through The Whitney Museum last month in New York City, a loud voice echoed across the galleries. An overzealous guard was standing behind a piece by Minimalist artist Carl Andre, whose austere tile-like installations are often mistaken as being part of the floor. The guard shouted, “This is art! Do not step on it!” and policed our movement through the room to make sure we didn’t stray too close. The irony lies in the fact that Andre, whose work is removed and protected from the body of the viewer by institutions like The Whitney, was married to Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, whose work helped to redefine how the body is seen in relation to its surroundings, to the earth, to the past, and to itself – a site of autobiography and engagement.
Christine Redfern is the author of a new graphic novella entitled, Who is Ana Mendieta?, illustrated by Caro Caron. In an interview with The Daily, Redfern explained that although “everyone realizes the importance of women’s work…when it’s passed on to the next generation, many times the women aren’t there. What they did is forgotten.” By researching and re-presenting Mendieta, the book hopes to preserve her memory and work for a future art historical discourse. Who is Ana Mendieta? commemorates its subject, but is also an act of protest on behalf of the women who are pushed out of our collective memory by structural inequalities that continue to privilege men, and that shy away from seemingly controversial topics.
Mendieta used her body to claim a space in the universe – not above nature, but a part of it, and her work documents her embodied existence by offering proof of her physical and spiritual presence. In a 1974 performance entitled Body Tracks, Mendieta faces a wall, buckling to the ground as her hands leave two streaks of red paint in her wake, traces of her body’s movement through time and space. In her “Silueta” series, the artist projected her form onto and into her surroundings – exploding the outline of her body into the earth with fire and gunpowder, sinking it into mud. The body is present, assertive, and engaged. Redfern noted that, “Art comes from somewhere – it’s not existing in a void,” and Mendieta’s propensity to draw from and record her own subjective state of being is powerful proof. Art historian and critic Lucy Lippard, who contributed the novella’s introduction writes that, “Although her body was her raw material, her art was never narcissistic, but rather a process of self-discovery, self-affirmation, and the exorcism of pain.”
Mendieta’s story ends abruptly in 1985, when she “went out the window” of the 34th-floor apartment she shared with Andre. In the panel depicting Mendieta’s death, Redfern writes that, “The police, unlike Mendieta, didn’t photograph the body,” a noticeable irony indicative of the ease with which a body can be made irrelevant. Andre was tried and acquitted for Mendieta’s murder, and though his potential guilt is still a controversial issue, many would prefer to ignore his involvement in her death altogether. “The whole affair was merely a blip in his art world success,” writes Lippard, and in addition to preserving Mendieta’s practice and memory, she suggests that “the very directness of the graphic novella is an ideal vehicle for the outrage women feel about the extent of domestic and general violence against us.”
Mendieta’s erasure – both physically and from canonical art history – is tied to larger trends of systemic violence against the body, no matter how hard we try to empower and protect our existence. When asked about Mendieta’s life within the context of women’s experience, Redfern said that, “even women not being given the same opportunities is all part of an undervaluing of women, and how they’re treated…it all comes down to respect…So, clearly, her story ties into violence against women, and that’s ongoing. The struggle continues.”
Who is Ana Mendieta? is available from June 2011. See bit.ly/anamendieta for more information.