Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Ana Mendieta's Primal Scream

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Ana Mendieta's Primal Scream

Article excerpt


ON THE SURFACE THE DELI at Mercer Street and Broadway appears to be like any other of the numerous establishments in New York City offering customers the usual 24 hour service. But on the rooftop above, imprinted in a bed of tar, lies the final silhouette of one of this century's most crucial artists. How it got there is both horrifying and strangely relevant. On September 8th, 1986, Anna Mendieta plunged from the 34th floor of her apartment building to an untimely death. The 36-year-old Cuban-born artist had reached the pinnacle of success both in terms of etching out her inner visions and gaining world-wide recognition.

Mendieta was both of her time and, more importantly, beyond her time. Although the styles she embraced could be labeled performance art, body art and earthworks, she was an artist who defied stereotyping and whose obsession with overturning new ground brought forth an aesthetic force of infinite magnitude.

Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948 to a socially prominent family that had played a significant role in the nation's history. Her great grandfather General Carlos Maria de Rojas was an important figure in Cuba's war for independence (1895-88) and her granduncle, Carlos Mendieta, was president of the nation in the 1930s. The Mendieta family, along with the general population, initially supported Castro's armed struggle against tyrannical rule. However, class contradictions became complicated and the Mendietas hesitated to incorporate themselves into the revolution. The Catholic Church, which was openly opposed by Castro's regime, also played a big role in the family's eventual counter-revolutionary stance. At the age of 13, Ana and her older sister Raquel were sent to a foster home run by nuns in Dubuque, Iowa, as part of the Pedro Pan Operation, which was set up to transport young Cubans to the United States to preserve their Catholic upbringing. The Mendietas would have preferred to flee the island together, but Ana's father was detained on multiple accounts of anti-Castroism. This abrupt uprooting was traumatic for the girls, as it alienated them from their family and the nuances of their culture at a very vulnerable age.

Confronting her displacement, Ana turned to artistic exploration as both a therapeutic and self-searching venue. She studied art at the University of Iowa, receiving her B.A. in 1969 and her M.A. in painting in 1972. In search of a spiritual connection which conventional painting could not evoke, she re-enrolled the same year to work on a M.F.A. in the University's new multi-media and video program, which embraced the Center for New Performing Arts. "In this atmosphere, Ana's work exploded off the canvas", says Hans Breder, director of the University's program. Little did he know that her future works would literally exploded, as she adopted gunpowder as one of her many experimental tools.

From her earliest explorations as a student in the multi-media program, Mendieta immersed herself in her work with a ritualistic fervor. Like other artists of the 70s, she focused on the personal process, distinguishing herself by pushing the concept of body and performance art to the extreme. As these new mediums afforded unique arenas for issues of gender, a significant number of women became involved in the movement. In early 1973, in response to several rapes on campus, Mendieta concocted a macabre scenario for the evening art class which was scheduled to meet in her room. Her classmates arrived to find her "tied to a table, bent over, nude from the waist down, and blood was all over the place," Breder comments. "It was a very dramatic piece that took a lot of risk."

From then on, Mendieta continued to develop provocative images and subject matter in her art. Numerous ritualistic performance/acts in which she used blood combined with tempera have been preserved on film. …

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