by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
The American artist of Cuban origin, Ana Mendieta, coined her artistic endeavours in natural landscapes as 'earth-body' creations, characterised by delicate interventions where she seamlessly incorporated her naked body using found objects. Her enduring fascination with cross-cultural archetypes led her to appropriate symbols and elements from various ceremonial traditions spanning African, Afro-Cuban, ancient European, and Taino (Amerindian) cultures, weaving them into expressions that mirrored her own identity. The ritualistic creations by Mendieta, executed both privately and documented on camera, involved draping her body with flowers and soil, and outlining it with rocks, grasses, and vines, highlighting how she subjected herself to the raw forces of nature.
Mendieta's retrospective, Search for Origin, at MO.CO. Panacée, Montpellier, France, offers an in-depth examination of how the artist consistently reinvented her art by revisiting her geographical, artistic, and cultural roots. This exhibition is executed under the artistic direction of Numa Hambursin, the general director of MO.CO., and curated by Rahmouna Boutayeb. The art exhibition introduces the audience to her unseen works, including four paintings from the period between 1968 and 1970, a meticulous reconstruction of her 1978 art installation Untitled: Silueta Series, and a collection of recently discovered photographs, some of which were unearthed in September 2022.
Vincent Honoré, director of exhibitions at MO.CO. Montpellier Contemporain, in an interview with STIR, provides an explicit account of the parallel between the Cuban-American and French art scenes to talk about the global art practice of the 20th century while keeping Mendieta's practice at the centre. He says, “The influence, or the connection of Mendieta with artists in 2023, be they French or not, can easily be found in one of her quotes: 'My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world'.”
Since Mendieta has an oeuvre spanning across many decades, one is curious to know more about the curatorial strategies used to select works to give a complete overview of her practice. Honoré explains, “Mendieta always refused to categorise her work, and certainly not by the media. However, in the 80s she qualified her practice as that of a sculptor. Therefore, this was our guideline to select about 120 works, most of them never presented in France before, including about 15 works that were never seen before.” To mention, the eight rooms of MO.CO. Panacée are divided into seven chapters, where various forms of art, such as paintings, videos, installations, sculptures, and drawings, engage in a profound dialogue. These chapters encompass Mendieta's artistic evolution, from her early paintings to bodily transformations, her exploration of the Siluetas and Fetish series, and the transition from distinctly female figures to more stylised and universal representations. Additionally, it explores the role of the artist's hand in shaping and transforming her art, her engagement with elemental forces like earth, water, and fire, and her connection to primal myths, exemplified by her rock sculptural art and Venus figures crafted from sand and earth. The retrospective exhibition also delves into the works she created during her time in Rome.
Siluetas and Fetish are two strikingly evocative aspects of Mendieta's pioneering artistry. As a Cuban-American contemporary artist, Mendieta used her Siluetas series to explore themes of identity, displacement, and the connection between the body and nature. The series was deeply influenced by Mendieta's Cuban heritage and the themes of displacement and belonging. Through these silhouettes, she sought to reconcile her sense of self and cultural identity in the context of her immigration to the United States. By creating silhouettes of her own body in various landscapes, she forged a profound dialogue between the human form and the earth, often employing materials like blood, fire, and mud.
Mendieta's Untitled: Silueta Series, created in 1978, stands as a powerful testament to her innovative exploration of identity, nature, and the human connection to the environment. This iconic artwork is part of her acclaimed Silueta series, where she used her body as a canvas to address complex themes. In this particular piece, Mendieta crafted a silhouette of her own body within the natural landscape. Using earth, leaves, and rocks, she formed the outline of her figure, merging her physical presence with the earth's elements.
It is a profound commentary on the impermanence of existence and the cyclical nature of life and death. The silhouette, both a trace and a void, captures the essence of human transience, and yet it also suggests a powerful integration with the natural world. It is a poignant reminder of our interconnectedness with the environment and the profound impact of our actions on the Earth. Untitled: Silueta Series remains a pivotal piece in the canon of contemporary art, showcasing Mendieta's profound artistic vision and her ability to evoke both the ephemeral and the eternal in her work.
Honoré is affirmative of the fact that Mendieta was ahead of her time. Not only did she fully embrace eco-feminism, but also, due to her sheer interest in archaic cultures, created a body of works that is universal and timeless. Her constant search for origin triggered her to constantly reinvent herself and forge her own artistic, political, and ethical identities without conforming to what was imposed on her. This freedom is what draws her connection to the current audience.
The innovative approach of the exhibition offers close attention to both a sense of radicality and tenderness. Grounded in archaic cultures, its formal and political relevance, “the visitors should leave the show having forgotten everything they were told about Mendieta," confesses Honoré, "realising that finally they met the artist who is equally nuanced and diverse."
The exhibition 'Search for Origin' runs at MO.CO. Panacée until September 10, 2023.