Last night at the Hera Gallery, Karen Conway gave a talk on the Guerrilla Girls, as part of the gallery’s current exhibition, “The Feminist Opposition.” As part of it, she briefly discussed the life and work of Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985). I’d heard of Mendieta before – seen work from the Siluetas Series, but had not quite put together that the rough sketch of her life was not unlike that of artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and that they overlapped in time, in New York.
This late 1970s – early 1980s period in New York is one that has long been of interest, and for years, I’ve collected notes on Cha, who moved to New York and was murdered there in 1982, and Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in New York in 1981. Mendieta died from a fall from her apartment building window in Soho, for which her husband was arrested and tried, but eventually acquitted.
It is not so unusual for artists to be in New York at this time, of course, but last night made me want to think more about how Mendieta, as immigrant, as woman of color, as artist who used her own body in her artwork, as a woman whose life was cut short – figured into these notes and considerations of these women artists whose tragic early deaths have been haunting my imagination for years.
I grew up in the 70s in a suburb of New York City – maybe a 40-minute train ride away – and so “the city” was a constant presence, where you would go for special occasions, or celebrations. My fourth grade class trip to Lincoln Center would have been in 1979 or 1980. For my tenth birthday, my family took me to see Peter Pan at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. This was the city I saw, my image of New York. Its grandeur and spectacle made a deep impression on me, and I trace my own artistic aspirations and longings to that early exposure. Not just to the performances themselves but to the idea of such performances – the extravagance and ambition of their production.
I was a performer, too. Dance classes, singing lessons, recitals. Auditions in New York for small parts in television commercials. Later, some regional theatre. It was not something that as a family, we committed to wholeheartedly, but for a few years, we had an agent and we went on calls, and it was a way to give shape to the time.
I was recently wondering aloud to a friend about whether there were artists or writers in my lineage. Like if I found my birth family, would I be able to take some delight in knowing that my mother was a poet or a dancer. Or that her mother had been an actress. Or that I was descended from a long line of performers. What shapes a creative impulse? How far back can one trace one's predispositions? My friend suggested gently that perhaps what is more important is my own sense of who I am, what impels me as an artist. I know this to be true, and yet the mystery, in all its enticing possibility, remains.
Mendieta’s work is unsettling, intentionally so. Representations of the body that distort or challenge the gaze. Body as subject and object. Although their work is so different from each other, I see traces I want to draw out and through Mendieta, Woodman, Cha. Or perhaps I am just attempting to claim my own lineage of artists. I suppose it’s better this way, after all. I get to choose.