Ana Mendieta, Life and Death

Ana Mendieta(1948–1984) was a Cuban born artist who lived in political exile in the United States. She created her artwork, combining feminism with photography, and also land, body and performance art. Ana was a member of the AIR all-women gallery in New York.

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Ana Mendieta died in 1984 after falling from her 34th floor apartment in New York. Knowing her fear of heights, her friends did not believe the possibility of suicide. Many however, did think her death was also not an accident and accused her partner, sculptor Carl Andre, of pushing her out of the window in a drunken rage during an argument. Her friends stated that Ana was successful at the time of her death, more so than Andre and she was not depressed.

When the police arrived, Andre had scratch marks on his nose and arms. His statements to the authorities differed from his message to the emergency services. Andre was arrested and charged with murder. In court a doorman testified that he heard a woman screaming “No” several times, then heard the thud of her body as it hit the street below. Andre’s decision was to be tried by a judge rather than a jury, resulting in him receiving no cross-examination by the prosecution. He was eventually acquitted.

His lawyers used examples of Ana’s artwork to suggest that she committed suicide. Ana’s friends stated that many powerful figures in the New York scene had colluded in that. This reading of her work, however, failed to acknowledge the politics which informed Mendieta’s life and art. In turn, many believed that this lead to a conclusion on the death of Ana which enabled the system to discount the possibility of male violence.

Her artwork was actually often influenced by questions relating to ideas of home, place and boundaries due to her exiled status. However, this also related to her feminism, which often crossed the ‘borders’ on the expected in terms of female expression. Ana created “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants)” in the early 1970’s, for example, a performance which questioned expectations on female representation and the restrictions imposed by ideals of femininity.

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Ana’s ‘Silueta’ series comprised of a series of outdoor performances which were documented in film and photograph. Firstly Mendieta preformed the event. The artist utilised her body to create imprints with low relief in various substances (e.g. earth, ice, gunpowder), to create the appearance of silhouettes on the ground. This was then followed by transformation of that image by differing processes (e.g. melting ice, weathering). The idea was therefore to represent an on-going, shifting process. This, in turn, may be viewed as the process of life itself (rather than relating to some kind of ‘death-wish’…..)

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The central motif of the artists’ goddess-like yet absent form, connects her female form to the land. In doing so Ana explored womanhood and the effects of subjectivity as well as the social processes that inform gender construction. In addition she highlighted issues of ethnicity, spirituality, ritual, territory, memory and loss of status, but always in relation her sex.

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Ana’s artwork is also perceived as yonic art-reflective and suggestive of female genitalia, all, in turn, indicative of Ana’s feminist ideals. Ana’s use of goddess imagery reclaimed not only women’s power but was an expression of her own identify, as she controlled her own female body within the image and her imagery. ‘Silueta’ highlights Ana as artist/subject which itself challenges how women are portrayed and treated as a result of masculinist ideals.

That her work was read so negatively in court can be viewed as a result of a culture which is continually misreading and in fact hostile to much female/feminist expression.

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In 1973 Ana also created a performance of the scene of a rape – ‘Untitled (Rape Scene)’ in which her use of blood was intended to carry a strongly political feminist message – to bring awareness of male violence against women.

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Ana Mendieta (1948-1984).

 

 

Further info:

http://hyperallergic.com/127500/artists-protest-carl-andre-retrospective-with-blood-outside-of-diachelsea/

Protesters Demand “Where Is Ana Mendieta?” in Tate Modern Expansion

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Gentileschi’s Revenge, ‘Penis Envy’ and the Male gaze

Despite her exclusion from art education and resources on the grounds of her sex, the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) became one of the most accomplished painters of the Italian Baroque period.

She often painted herself for her work as she was unable to access models, therefore imparting a sense of her own physicality, spirit and experience into the images she created. Her rare talent and skills eventually allowed her something even rarer- independent womanhood.

Gentileschi’s ability to carve out a profession as a female artist is an exceeding rare case in the context of Western history. It’s therefore interesting to consider how she presents her female subjects.

Unlike many of her male contemporaries who commonly highlighted women as objects of beauty, emphasizing their passivity or alternatively as seductresses (based on the virgin/whore dichotomy), Gentileschi created work highlighting the emotional, mental and physical power and/or suffering of her females.

Artemisia was, however, raped aged 18. Her attacker had previously raped his sister-in-law and wife. The artist was tortured during the resulting trial to “prove” she was telling the truth, as was common practice. Officers of the court routinely used thumbscrews on women in such cases which would sometimes break bones. Artemisia’s sexual history, ‘virtue’ and ‘honour’ were repeatedly questioned and she faced many months of intense and devastating public scrutiny. Eventually her attacker was found guilty. He was, however, soon released from prison on the orders of the judge.

Due to the apparent ‘shame’ brought to Artemisia’s character by these events, she was forced to move to another city and was sold off into marriage to an elderly friend of her father’s. They soon separated.

In the same year as her trial ended Artemisia produced this artwork (below).

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The title and subject matter depicts Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1620).

‘Judith’ was regarded as an icon of female power within the Baroque period. Artemisia’s heroine appears strong, muscular and dominating. The painting depicts Judith working in unison with her female servant as she utilises her sword to tear into her prone male victim as he is held down. There is a immediate impression of force, struggle and hopeless resistance and a shocking and bloody realism to the brutality of the violence.

It is not difficult to surmise that the artist has created an allegorical, cathartic work. She appears to subvert her own experience of male sexual violence by reflecting a role reversal of the violating, brutal act. As men were the main sex to buy, sell and view such works for many centuries, it may be presumed that Artemisia wanted her male audience to contemplate and feel the horrors and reality of being victims of extreme violence, as if it was their own experience.

Artemisia survived her abuse by both attacker and state and went on to live an unusually independent life through her art. She produced many more paintings depicting strong women struggling/battling against male dominance. And so she received many derogatory epitaphs as a result of unsettling the patriarchs…..

Having considered the context behind Artemisia’s painting which included her educational exclusion, her rape and subsequent rape trial, it interesting to compare the work with that of a male artist. Although Franz Stuck’s interpretation, ‘ Judith’ (1924) (below), features the same mythical scene, it incorporates very different messages for the viewer.

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Franz Stuck, ‘ Judith’ (1924)

Despite alluding to the theme of the myth, here Judith is still, statue-like, passive.The female figure is sexualized, an object of male fantasy for the male gaze as the painter directs the viewer’s eye to the naked female torso for their voyeuristic pleasure. There is a dream-like quality to Judith and despite the fact she is holding a sword, she is portrayed as more playful temptress to both male character Holofernes and male viewer alike, rather than the cunning assassin of myth.

The painting is also interspersed with allusions and motifs relating to the psychological theories of Freud, and the era in which it was created. Judith holds an erect sword, a phallic object, alluding to such condescending ideas as female ‘penis envy’, involving girls devotion to the father and blaming the mother for their female ‘disadvantage’. (Female oppression is therefore accepted as biological and not through patriarchal societal, economic and cultural repression). The work similarly implies castration anxiety, fear of emasculation, loss of male power and patriarchal control.

In contrast, Gentileschi’s version highlights Judith as a non-idealized woman, as the artist is more concerned with being representative of female strength, determination and struggle. Judith is portrayed in an active role, she is subject not object.

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” feminist Laura Mulvey highlights the male gaze, stating that women were/are objectified in film because heterosexual men are largely in control of the camera. In the art world, likewise, men have controlled the canvas artistically, socially and economically for centuries and the images they impart.

Not only is Judith used by Stuck as a vehicle and embodiment of male fear, but akin to the most common narratives in contemporary heterosexual pornography, the female is representative of a non-human vessel to hold and satisfy male heterosexual fantasy and desire.

Gentileschi’s perspective is that of a woman. Her painting is of metaphorical revenge and of expressing female rage in a culture colluding in the sexual, psychological, physical abuse of women by men.

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Male perspectives, like Stuck’s, however are still pervasive in Western culture, in turn normalising certain views of acceptable/unacceptable womanhood….in film, advertising, pornography, media……and so on.

This, in turn creates what feminist artist and writer Valie Export describes as ‘a masculine reality’ detrimental to the experience of actually being FEMALE.

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Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis, Pioneering Sculptor

Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis (1844-1907) was a US sculptor and was the first artist of African-American and Native American heritage to gain international fame in the Western art world.

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Lewis began her art studies at Oberlin College, which was not only one of the first higher educational institutions in the US to admit women, but also to allow entry to people of colour.

In 1864 Lewis moved to Boston to pursue her wish to become a sculptor and it was here she gained a tutor in the genre. In an era of slavery, Lewis was utilised as a symbol by white abolitionists and by the abolitionist press. However, the sculptor began to create works reflecting her own perceptions of the issues surrounding her, depicting abolitionist, African American, Native American and also religious and classical themes.

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Edmonia Lewis: Forever Free, 1867 i. Celebrates the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves

In the following years Lewis moved to Rome where she worked relentlessly on her sculptures. She lived in a bohemian, expat colony and became involved in the lesbian art circles of the city. Lewis herself is thought to have had same-sex relationships. The sculptor was professionally supported there by lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer who were already established on this scene.

Lewis found a greater freedom in Italy than in the US as Rome appeared to offer a more tolerant and less racially divided society. She worked in a Neoclassical style and also in the area of naturalism. The sculptor continued to pursue themes which were integral to her personal and political outlook, concentrating on sculpture that related to African/Native American lives. However much of the work the sculptor created was deliberately appealing to a white European/Western audience as the white economically controlled market dictated certain aesthetics. This has to be viewed within the historical context of an oppressive and limiting culture.

However as Lewis’ work began to sell for large amounts of money, as her reputation and fame grew, she may certainly be viewed as a shrewd and highly influential pioneer within the art world for women of colour.

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Edmonia Lewis: Hiawatha, marble, 1868

Her work ‘Death of Cleopatra’ was perhaps the major turning point in her career. It was exhibited in Philadelphia, at the first official World Fair to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Few white women had access to exhibit their work on such a large stage in that era, let alone a woman of colour. Critics highlighted Lewis’s original approach and this, in turn, lead to later commissions from the President among others high ranking people in US society.

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Edmonia Lewis: The Death of Cleopatra, marble, 1867

It is believed that Lewis spent the last months of her life in Hammersmith, London and that she is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in the city.

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Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis deserves huge respect for her place in the history of women’s art and significantly in the struggle of women of colour in the arts and wider culture.

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