My exploration through my art of the relationship between myself and nature has been a clear result of my having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence. The making of my silueta in nature keeps (make) the transition between my homeland and my new home. It is a way of reclaiming my roots and becoming one with nature. Although the culture in which I live is part of me, my roots and cultural identity are a result of my Cuban heritage 1.
In the early 1970s, artists began to embrace performance as an art form that could exist beyond the gallery walls. How to record and re-present live events became an important concern and documentation-whether through photography, film, or video-became an integral aspect of performance art. In some cases artworks that existed for only a short time came to rely on the permanence of images to transmit their meaning and even their very existence. For many artists, these documents took on the function of relics-objects whose meaning is deeply bound to an experience that is always already lost in the past.
The photographs of Ana Mendieta (b. 1948, Havana; d. 1985, New York) document private sculptural performances enacted in the landscape to invoke and represent the spirit of renewal inspired by nature and the power of the feminine. In her Silueta Series (begun in 1974), created on location in the U.S. state of Iowa and in Mexico, Mendieta carved and shaped her own figure into the earth to leave haunting traces of her body fashioned from flowers, tree branches, mud, gunpowder, and fire. A typology of Siluetas emerged, including figures with arms held overhead to represent the merging of earth and sky; floating in water to symbolize the minimal space between land and sea; and with arms raised and legs together to signify a wandering soul. In many cases, the body itself is absent but its remnants persist, traces embedded in the landscape that recall a photograph's own complex status as an object caught between the presence and absence of its subject. By 1978 the Siluetas gave way to ancient goddess forms carved into rock, shaped from sand, or incised in clay beds.
An exile from Cuba, Ana Mendieta was sent from her native homeland to an orphanage in Iowa at age 12. This traumatic experience had a tremendous impact on her art. She felt that, through her art, her interactions with nature and work in the landscape would help facilitate the transition between her homeland and new home. By fusing her interests in Afro-Cuban ritual and the pantheistic Santeria religion with contemporary aesthetic practices such as earthworks, body art and performance art, she maintained ties with her Cuban heritage.
1 Unpublished notes by Mendieta, quoted in Charles Merewether, "From Inscription to Dissolution: An Essay on Expenditure in the Work of Ana Mendieta," in Coco Fusco, ed. Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 131.
- What do the photographs tell us about Mendieta’s interests? What do you see that made you say that?
- These photographs are referred to as the Silueta Series. What is a silueta (silhouette), and how does it relate to these images?
- Mendieta’s work integrated many different categories of art including body art, earthworks, performance art, and photography. Look up the definition of each of these categories and then explain how Mendieta’s work relates to each.
Mendieta’s work was based on objects and actions that were ephemeral, meaning that they lasted only for a short time. Why would an artist create work that is temporary? Why might an artist create work that will change? Do you think it is important that Mendieta used photographs to document her activities? Explain.
- Explore how body movements and poses can communicate or symbolize particular thoughts and feelings. Have students take turns demonstrating while the others guess the thought or feeling being conveyed.
- Working in pairs in front of a strong light source, have students create silhouettes of themselves by tracing an outline of their entire body onto a large sheet of paper. Have them consider in advance their body position and what they would like it to communicate. They should fill in their silhouettes with natural materials that have special significance to them.
- Explore the concept of body art further with your students. What ways can they think of to use their body as tool for creating art? How have other people throughout history used their body as a “canvas” for creating art (for example, tattoos, scarification, body paint, and sculptural molds)? Using a slab of clay, have students create interesting imprints or molds with their hands or feet.
- Have students work in groups to plan and create an ephemeral work of art. Document the work using photography or video.
- Read Ana Mendieta’s statement at the top of this page. In this statement, Mendieta acknowledges the effect of her traumatic childhood experience on her art. If any students were forced to move and live in another country, what ties to their homeland might they choose to explore through their art? Discuss and have students write about their personal bond with their own homeland or cultural heritage. How might they go about creating a work of art that integrates those ties?