Magazine article Art Monthly

Ana Mendieta: Traces

Magazine article Art Monthly

Ana Mendieta: Traces

Article excerpt

Hayward Gallery London 24 September to 15 December

Like many of her female contemporaries, Ana Mendieta struggled to get her art recognised by the mainstream establishment during her lifetime. In the late 1970s she became an active member of the protest movement in New York, addressing amongst other things the art world's exclusion of women artists from its public collections. Now, over 30 years later, the artist is recognised and celebrated for her contribution to late 20th-century art. The Hayward Gallery--an institution which, according to its own statement, presents work by the world's most adventurous and innovative artists--is currently displaying the first UK retrospective of her work. It is shown alongside another retrospective--and another UK first--for Indian photographer Dayanita Singh. Side-by-side, these two exhibitions indicate how far the art world has come in supporting and appreciating art by women, a legacy of the feminist activism of the previous century.

'Traces' is a comprehensive and sensitively curated exhibition that charts the prolific output of the artist's short career. Beginning with the experiments in performance-based practice that the artist produced as a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the early 1970s, to her return to the art object and conventional standards of display in the 1980s, the exhibition is a celebration of an extraordinary body of work. Photographs, slides, Super 8 film, drawings, prints, sculpture, objects--hers is a varied oeuvre that nonetheless presents a single theme or vision. The 'trace' of a woman is the key visual and conceptual motif of the work, and the artist repeatedly used her own body, either directly or as an abstract form based loosely on the dimensions of her frame. She drew, sculpted, chiselled, dug, printed and burned this evocative shape in various organic materials. Some of these works became sculptural objects that we can physically interact with in the gallery space, while others--and these are infinitely the more powerful--exist only as filmic or photographic traces of a private intervention in nature.

Mendieta's label for these works is 'earth-body' sculptures. They are pseudo self-portraits but equally they could be interpreted as being generalised 'symbols' of the female mark. The artist Nancy Spero--Mendieta's close ally in New York--once described them as portraying 'the strength, mystery and sexuality of the female human form'. She wrote this in a commemorative piece of writing published in 1992 entitled 'Tracing Ana Mendieta'. The feminist context of art making is extremely important to think about in relation to this work, in particular the debates concerning the representation of the female body and the feminist adaptation of goddess imagery. Yet Mendieta's dialogue with feminism and its impact on her art is not the major anchor of this exhibition, nor is its relationship to its wider political and artistic contexts. The focus here is on the artist and her experience of forced exile from Cuba at the age of 12. This is the main interpretative signpost provided in the exhibition and we are led to read into these works a poignant and relentless search for identity and origin. Her incorporation of rituals associated with Santeria and Catholicism, her embrace of the goddess archetype located in ancient and indigenous cultures, and her decision to work directly with nature, are all shown to be creative strategies that enabled her to attempt to reconnect with her homeland. …

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