“That was hard,” admits Olga Viso when asked how she found time to polish a 300-page scholarly tome while also juggling her many duties as director of the Walker Art Center. The book, Unseen Mendieta (Prestel, 2008), presents hundreds of images relating to the Cuban-American artist’s work, none of which have previously been available to the public. The book was a labor of love for Viso, who is regarded as the foremost expert on Mendieta.
Born in Cuba in 1948, Mendieta was sent to the United States in 1961 along with her sister; their father, a Castro supporter, feared for his family’s safety as the revolution raged. The girls were placed in foster care in Iowa, where Mendieta ultimately enrolled at the University of Iowa, studying art, performance, and archaeology with mentors including Hans Breder (who became her lover for over a decade) and Robert Wilson. From 1972 until her untimely and controversial death in 1985—she fell from a window in the New York apartment she shared with her husband Carl Andre, who was tried but acquitted for her murder—Mendieta made a career of increasing renown as a multimedia artist most notable for her challenging pieces involving her own body: posing as a murdered rape victim; holding a beheaded, blood-spattering chicken in its death throes; carving her outline into the earth with gunpowder, which she then ignited.
“She anticipated an artistic approach that is now a given,” says Viso. “She crossed boundaries between disciplines. She performed, but she was not a performer. She took photographs, but she was not a photographer. She sculpted, but she was not a sculptor. She documented ephemeral events.” This hybrid approach extended to Mendieta’s ethnicity, explains Viso—she acknowledged her Cuban heritage but refused to be defined by it.
Unseen Mendieta presents slides from the artist’s personal collection as well as pages from her notebooks, arranged in seven sections corresponding to themes—“The Lure of Mexico,” “Purifying Flame,” “Ancestral Realm”—significant in Mendieta’s work. “It gives the public access to an archive that only privileged scholars have had access to,” says Viso. “In particular, it lends insight into her working process in a tangible way.” Viso had access to the material seen in the book when she organized the retrospective exhibit Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985, which visited four major American museums starting in 2004, but was unable to present the material appropriately in that show given that Mendieta herself had never published the material during her lifetime.
Besides her scholarly interest, Viso feels a personal connection to the work of Mendieta; raised in Florida, Viso is also of Cuban descent. “As I became aware of Ana Mendieta’s work in the years following her death, it was being presented to the public in one way, but artists I met in Miami were telling very different stories about her work and its significance. As a young curator of Cuban heritage I was feeling some of the same pressures that she did, and I was inspired by how she embraced her identity but pushed beyond it. Artists recognized what she had done, how she had paved the way for others. She was one of those artists who gave permission.”
As director of the Walker, an institution with a “unique interdisciplinary platform,” Viso says she is working to foster the kind of artistic boundary-bending Mendieta engaged in. Specifically, she wants to facilitate dialogue between artists and the institution. “After all,” she says, “we’re part of the experiment too.”
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
Image, center: Ana Mendieta, documentation of an untitled earth-body work, 1981 (Guanabo, Cuba). 35 mm color slide. Both images courtesy Prestel.
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