Cuban artist Ana Mendieta left behind an enduring legacy, particularly for those who view her work through a feminist lens. Writing for Hyperallergic, critic Monica Castillo recently highlighted the videos of young women who responded to abusive and cheating male partners with performances on TikTok, echoing the spirit of Mendieta’s performances, such as Untitled (Rape Scene) (1973), which Mendieta performed in her apartment before a group of women. Covered in blood, her pants around her ankles, and bound to a table, her performance responded to the rape and murder of a fellow student at the University of Iowa. Critiques of violence, via the use of blood and nudity, would emerge as a key motif throughout her practice.
In her groundbreaking recent book, Radical Virtuosity: Ana Mendieta and the Black Atlantic (MIT Press, 2019), scholar and Assistant Professor of Visual Studies at California College of the Arts Genevieve Hyacinthe, deploys the lens of feminism to claim the primacy of Mendieta’s Cuban heritage. Framing the roots of Cuban culture in the traditions of the Black Atlantic — a term coined by the cultural scholar Paul Gilroy to denote a uniquely hybrid Black culture that transcends nationalism — Hyacinthe’s scholarship also addresses a historical blind spot in cultural criticism, which has too often viewed feminism as the dominion of Western whiteness.
Hyacinthe organizes her book around a few central concepts. She borrows the idea of “disappearance as strain” from the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, arguing that the fact that Mendieta is often not seen in her works, or renders her presence obscured, helps viewers shift from interpreting her work as personal expression, to instead seeing it as a link to the oppressed collective other. Hyacinthe demonstrates how Mendieta created unique rituals — via live performances, earth sculptures, and photographs — and then links these rituals to shamanist traditions from the Black Atlantic.
In the first chapter, “From Árbitra to Serio: Experiencing Mendieta with Slow Temporality and Embodiment,” Hyacinthe cites a number of Mendieta’s works, including Nañigo Burial (1976), which references an Afro-Cuban religious brotherhood, and features candles to outline the artist’s signature silueta shape. Linking these works to Santería rituals, Hyacinthe further illustrates the relationships between art and ritual by including contemporary photographs of the Cuban and Venezuelan Santería ceremonies in which such candles are used. Here, Hyacitnhe also recalls her visits to the sites of Mendieta’s interventions in Mexico and at Bear Mountain in the US. Restaging some of Mendieta’s actions, such as undressing and lying naked under heavy stones, allows her to physically reflect on Mendieta’s practice as one of endurance. She then links the idea of endurance to Santería, whose rituals must be experienced in situ and “in serio” (in one’s own body).
Hyacinthe brilliantly reframes Mendieta’s celebrated works, and makes us see them anew. Take the artist’s Chicken Movie, Chicken Piece (1972), a performance captured on film in which Mendieta holds a decapitated chicken, as its white feathers fly, blood dripping down her naked body; Hyacinthe notes that some Afro-Cuban viewers and Santería practitioners will recognize this scene not just as one that denotes violence against women, or the potency of menstrual blood, but also as a spiritual offering. Again, a feminist reading prevails — since many of the orishas, or deities, essential to these rituals are female. Hyacinthe quotes curator Mary Jane Jacob — “Mendieta made art to get ashé [spiritual force] and to give ashé to other women” — and posits this power as activated through ceremony. In this context, Mendieta’s works evoke Yoruba goddesses such as Ochún and Yemayá, as “agent[s] of the feminine and of might.”
Hyacinthe is concerned with Mendieta’s imaginary, namely the signs, metaphors, and practices that she adopted from rich and varied Black Atlantic traditions. Her central argument is that Mendieta’s experience of exile in the US forged a deep connection with others who didn’t see themselves reflected in dominant white American culture.
Though considered white by fellow Cubans, Mendieta experienced racial prejudice in the US and Hyacinthe’s central thesis is that “brownness made Mendieta a powerful translator of Black Atlantic forms into contemporary art language because she was not, and could never be, part of the dominant white culture.” Born into an upper-class family in Havana just before the Cuban revolution , Mendieta was sent to an orphanage in Iowa at age 12, as part of the US government’s Operation Pedro Pan program. In North America, her awareness of exclusion and class and racial differences sharpened.
Yet for a book so rooted in race, Hyacinthe devotes little space to Mendieta vis à vis her Black Cuban compatriots. While she notes some objections to identifying Mendieta with Afro-Caribbean culture (in one anecdote, a Black Cuban artist at a lecture protests that Mendieta “was some small white lady”), she treats these opposing views sparingly. It’s hard not to wonder if Hyacinthe’s claim that “it is beyond the scope of this study to delve into the important issue of white privilege in Cuba” doesn’t preclude us from a fuller understanding of the limitations of Mendieta’s role as a cultural bridge. Moreover, we have no sense of whether and how Mendieta may have responded to the mentions of such limitations. And although Hyacinthe’s prodigious and passionate scholarship — beautifully illustrated with reproductions documenting non-western rituals, Mendieta’s photographs, and works of relevant contemporary artists, such as Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Juan Sánchez, Wangechi Mutu, Destiny Frasqueri, and Renée Green — helps to ground her claims, the final analysis feels only half-full.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Hyacinthe’s book is that whereas much of western criticism has focused on Mendieta’s contributions as a singular artist, her oeuvre was fervently communal.
Radical Virtuosity: Ana Mendieta and the Black Atlantic (MIT Press, 2019) by Genevieve Hyacinthe is now available on Bookshop.