Ana Mendieta 1948-1985 Art and Politics

Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba and left the country during the Cuban revolution to be educated in the US.  She studied fine arts and is described as a feminist body artist. Depending on which version you read her work is heavily influenced by Santería . Through the influence of Santería, Mendieta uses her talents and abilities to try and uncover what has been hidden from the waking world.

Santería evolved from a traditional African religion that began in the Nile Valley amongst slaves. Something that could not be taken from them was their religious tradition. As thousands of slaves were transported to Cuba and Brazil, so were the beginnings of what is now called Santería. Today, all across Latin America, the descendants of those slaves, plus many Indians and millions of the descendants of the conquistadors, continue to practice a new form of the old religion.
Mendieta’s early opposition to the “secrets” that are kept in modern society may have grown out of her anger and reaction to the rape and murder of a fellow student at Iowa University. Mendieta’s close ties to Santeria show her grasp of these different levels of identities and understanding. Her work is remarkable in that much of it only now exists in photographs. Was it ever intended for photographic reproduction I wonder. I particularly enjoyed the idea of art beyond ownership, she created art devoid of gallery time. This artist is worth reading about before you view her work. The following is from a talk given by Mendieta at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, on the 18th of February 1982

The question of integrity in aesthetics is rather a mind boggling question for me, because I am an artist who feels that art is first of all a matter of vocation. Now vocation is a limiting factor, which extends even to the kind of art an artist is able to make. In other words, I believe an artist is limited to what he or she can give life to. I make the art I make because it’s the only kind I can make. I have no choice. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset said: “To be a hero, to be heroic, is to be oneself.” I think the statement is particularly significant to the attitude an artist must have in society. Being endowed with thought, how can a person go through life without questioning himself? And being endowed with feeling, how can he or she remain indifferent?

It is only with a real and long enough awakening that a person becomes present to himself, and it is only with this presence that a person begins to live like a human being. To know oneself to know the world, and it is also paradoxically a form of exile from the world. I know that it is this presence of myself, this self-knowledge which causes me to dialogue with the world around me by making art.

I would like to make some general statements about culture. I like to think of culture as the memory of history. However, according to Levi-Strauss, culture is the combination of customs, beliefs, habits, and aptitudes acquired by man as a member of society. I believe that art, although is a material part of culture, its greatest value is its spiritual role and the influence that it exercises in society, because art is the result of a spiritual activity of man and its greatest contribution is to the intellectual and moral development of man. Culture is a historical phenomenon that evolves at the same level as society, and that is the problem we are facing today. To establish its empire over nature, it has been necessary for man to dominate other men, and to treat part of humanity like objects. Western civilization’s most pervasive task has been the spread of technology and its claim to culture seems to be devoted to the assimilation of technology. I’d like to ask a question. Who speaks for the US today? And I’d like to answer the question. The advertising agencies.

I think that we all know that there are two cultures within this culture. One is the culture in which the ruling class, the reactionary class, pushes to paralyze the social development of man in an effort to have all society identify with, and serve their own interests. They banalize, mix, distort, and simplify life. They have no use for anything pure or real. They call this stylizing. In this way, they create a product, a style, which dominates mass communications, and now also the arts, in all of its manifestations. They call this cosmopolitan and international style. Believe me, friends, imperialism is not a problem of extension, but of reproduction. This is an old technique, it was not invented here. It was used in ancient times by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. And so, authentic cultural traditions and manifestations in the arts denounce the falsehood of the civilizing mission of the ruling class. So, to mention what I said in my opening remarks, that to me art is a matter of vocation, must seem ridiculous to the bourgeois. The risk that real culture is running today is that if the cultural institutions are governed by people who are a part of the ruling class, then art can become invisible because they will refuse to assimilate it.

I feel that the very fact that you are here today is proof that there is another culture aside from ruling class culture. You know, the greatest comfort that great works of art give to me is not only my experience of them, but also the fact that they were created and that they exist. Now I’m sure that a lot for them were created in as adverse conditions as what we have today. And so that’s proof, you know, that we will survive. And so the question of integrity in aesthetics is coming up again historically. It is personal question which each artist faces. It is a constant struggle. Hard times are coming, but I believe we who are artists will continue making our work. We will be ignored but we will be here. Thank you.

Sadly she died on 8 September 1985 in New York from a fall from a 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Eight months earlier Mendieta had married the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder; during the trial his lawyer described her death as a possible accident or a suicide. In the absence of any witness to her death, other than (possibly) Carl Andre, the exact cause of her death may never be known.

source Ana Mendieta, Ediciones Poligrapha, Barcelona 1996 , pp 167-8

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