Monday, 21 October 2013

Ana Mendieta: Traces

I was emotionally wrung out after visiting Ana Mendieta's exhibition Traces at the Hayward Gallery at the weekend which I wasn't expecting from an afternoon jaunt around London's Southbank.

I don't think I'd ever seen any of her work before or even heard of her name. She was born in Cuba in 1948 and in 1961, in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, she was sent by her politically active family to live in the USA. She was active as an artist from 1972 until her sudden death in 1985. It was a short life but a prolific one.

I couldn't help wondering, while surrounded by her work, how much a person's background might shape that person's life as an artist and affect the work they produce. For example in 1973 she visited Mexico during the summer and produced her first Silueta or silhouette. These are 'earth-body' works which reveal her body in a natural setting. In one of these she's shown in a film lying down in woodland covered in rocks and bit by bit she moves about and disturbs the rocks to reveal her own naked body. In another short film there is an effigy of a person floating in water and in another you can see her reflection in a mirror placed in woodland but you can't see her. She seems to be something like a nymph or spirit of the forest. She created hundreds of these silueta's where she explored burial and regeneration in Iowa, Mexico, upstate New York and Cuba from 1973 to 1981.

I asked myself this question because in 1973 I was 16 years old, only eight years younger than Ana. I'd just left John Lea Secondary School in Wellingborough, where your only career options were to get a job in a factory or possibly a bank and the idea that you might want to study art and design was looked upon as a bit odd. So with this in mind I was impressed that Ana was artistically so productive so early in her life.

Her work was often autobiographical and there are examples where she filmed or photographed herself exploring disguises or distorting her body by flattening herself against a plane of glass. She was always careful to document her work with photography or film and notebooks since a lot of it was ephemeral and was here one minute and gone the next. Her work is very complex and includes raising awareness to sexual violence towards women and incorporating a lot of blood into her work.

Alongside this practice she developed an interest in ancient and indigenous cultures. The work on display in this exhibition that had the most impact on me were the drawings she made on leaves she found in the gardens of the American Academy in Rome where she moved in 1983. While she was based in Rome she was able to travel to other places including Malta where the oldest Neolithic temples are located. These temples are famous for their sculptures of big, fat women and these monuments influenced her floor sculptures.

The Neolithic temples in Malta is one place we mean to visit and when we do I'm sure the experience will be heightened by recalling the work of this most interesting artist and her fascination with the natural world and its spiritual realms.

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