Exploring the artist's ode to Cuba through her lesser known works
If you know the work of Ana Mendieta, you will be aware of the impact she has had on the Land art movement. You might have seen some of her most well known works, such as the Silueta Series (1973-80), that explored the connections between nature and the female body. However, despite Mendieta’s notoriety as a Land artist, she considered herself a sculptor more than anything else and detached herself from the feminist movement, exploring femininity through her works in her own way.
Looking beyond the label of ‘Land artist’, La tierra habla (The Earth Speaks) exhibition held at Galerie Lelong & Co. in New York, celebrates Mendieta’s lesser known body of work, which was created when Mendieta returned to Cuba 20 years after being exiled. Documenting the carvings and sculptures she created in the Cuban landscape through photography and film, Mendieta was able to preserve her works for future generations. Speaking with the artist’s niece Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, who is also the associate administrator of the Mendieta Estate, we look back at the legacy of Mendieta’s life and work.
Mendieta’s work was an ode to Cuba
Imagine going back to your home country 20 years after being exiled at the age of 12. This was what happened to Mendieta, who was born in Havana in 1948 and only returned to Cuba for the first time in the 1980s after living in the United States. On Mendieta’s trip back to the island nation, she visited and created works across three different sites: Varadero, Jaruco, and Guanabo. She also became the first exiled artist to be officially recognised by the Cuban Ministry of Culture and work within the Cuban borders.
Despite working across different locations, the works Mendieta created on her return are all connected. Raquel Cecilia highlighted that the works made in Varadero were the creative inspiration for those in Jaruco, as well as some works made in Jaruco mirrored those in Guanabo. Raquel Cecilia also claimed that “you could say that all of these works are like odes to Cuba.” The film Mendieta edited together is particularly fascinating to Raquel Cecilia as she sees it “as a sort of love song or an ode to Cuba.” Together, these works do create a love song about Mendieta’s native country and show the impact that her return to Cuba had on her later career.
“...you could say that all of these works are like odes to Cuba” – Raquel Cecilia Mendieta
Mendieta was inspired by indigenous culture, myths, and legends
The influence of Cuba on Mendieta emerges in her works, in particular through her interest in Taíno myths and legends – the artist even named some of her works after the Taíno goddesses. The famous caves of Jaruco State Park are where some of these works can be found, including the Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures). Raquel Cecilia is drawn to these works as they elevate the Taíno myths. The work Atabey (1981), which was named after the supreme goddess of water and fertility, is at the entrance of the cave, as if it is emerging from the darkness. This not only connects Mendieta’s work to the physical landscapes of Cuba but also to the legends and history that are woven into the country’s culture.
Mendieta did not consider herself a feminist
Mendieta’s approaches to the earth in her work have also been referred to as “feminine” and “maternal”. Even Mendieta herself described the works Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures) as “an intimate act of communion with the earth, a loving return to the maternal breasts.” Often referring to the earth as “the womb”, Raquel Cecilia highlights that “she created images that evoked archaic female figures with breasts and genitals.”
Although her work was inherently feminine, becoming a reflection of herself as a woman, she didn’t agree with the idea of feminism and its prioritisation of white women. As a woman of colour, she detached herself from the feminist movement in the 1980s and explored femininity through her works in her own way. Raquel Cecilia also states that she doesn’t “consider her aunt’s work to be necessarily feminist, rather autobiographical” – and this definitely becomes evident as you follow the story of Mendieta through her sculptures.
”...her work (is not) necessarily feminist, rather autobiographical” – Raquel Cecilia Mendieta
Photography is an important part of preserving Mendieta’s work
Raquel Cecilia explains that Mendieta’s “work is kind of conceptual because it isn’t the actual photograph, it’s the sculpture IN the photograph.” Despite being known as a Land artist, Mendieta considered herself a sculptor, rather than a photographer or filmmaker, and was instead using photography and film as a way to document and preserve her works. Raquel Cecilia also highlights Mendieta’s interest in technology and “how it was changing through the years and she adapted to these changes in her work, going from Super-8 to ¾ inch video in the 1980s for screening purposes.” This has allowed for the artist's work to live on and be accessible for people to explore all over the world through photography.
Experience Mendieta’s works for yourself
According to Raquel Cecilia, people have sometimes cried when they have seen Mendieta’s works in Jaruco in person. Raquel Cecilia was so moved when she saw the works that she documented her experience in Cuba in her film Whispering Cave. It’s also through Raquel Cecilia’s journey back to Cuba to see Mendieta’s works that she came to truly understand the importance of the native country for the artist. The sculptures created by Mendieta on her return to Cuba are what inspired the exhibition La tierra habla (The Earth Speaks) at Galerie Lelong & Co., which now allows others to experience the legacy of Mendieta for themselves too.
Catch the last few days of La tierra habla (The Earth Speaks) at Galerie Lelong & Co., New York or watch Raquel Cecilia’s documentary Whispering Cave, screening at The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City on November 16 2019