In her death, artist Ana Mendieta became a martyr for the feminist movement. On September 8, 1985, she fell from the 34th floor of her Greenwich Village apartment, an incident that happened not long after neighbors had heard her arguing violently with her husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was tried and eventually acquitted for her death.
But to simply call Mendieta a feminist artist is perhaps too limiting. Her work, which encompassed performance art, photography, painting, sculpture, and video, dealt with an array of themes that were not only feminist, but were also investigations into the natural world, spirituality, life, death, and place.
Mendieta is best known for her Silueta Series, where she created female silhouettes in mud, sand, and grass. At the new exhibition at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, another aspect of her work is being showcased. Curated by Howard Oransky, “Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta” will include the largest collection of Mendieta’s film works ever presented as a full-scale gallery exhibition in the U.S.
When she was first introduced to Mendieta’s work, University of Minnesota junior Elise Armani found critique looking at it from the perspective of a young woman from the millennial generation.
“A lot of people will read her work as essentialism, the antiquated feminist notion of mother nature and the idea of the natural woman,” she says. “Feminism has moved away from that.” However, the more she learned about Mendieta and her life, the more her opinion of the artist changed. “Her associations with nature are much more complex than that. For her, it had to do more with her status as an immigrant. She was looking to locate herself.”
Two years ago, when Armani was a freshmen at the University looking to study fine arts and gender studies, she went to her advisor for guidance about figuring out how to incorporate both of her passions into her degree plan. Her advisor directed her toward Howard Oransky, the director of the school's Katherine E. Nash Gallery, who had begun working on a large exhibition of Mendieta’s films.
Oransky invited Armani to help out with the research on the exhibit, which led to a UROC grant. That helped pave the way for Armani to go deep into not only Mendieta’s art, but her biography. Her work led to a separate gallery show that focuses on Mendieta’s life as a supplement to the larger film exhibition.
“I was viewing the films and writing about them from a younger generation of feminists’ lens,” Armani says. Since Mendieta’s work is associated with early feminist artists, Armani was interested in investigating how feminist theory has changed since.
“For me as an artist, I really started to envision her as someone that was a trailblazer,” Armani says. “She went against the grain and against the odds.”
In her research, Armani tapped into the vast resources available at the University, including articles written about her in books and different texts, finding a large amount of images and documentary materials.
“It’s amazing the amount of work that she created in her life,” Armani says. “She had a very short artistic career, as she died at a very young age. She was just starting to blossom as an artist right when she died.”
Born in Cuba, Mendieta left for the United States during Operation Pedro Pan, a mass exodus of children during the 1960s when Cuban parents feared what would happen under the new government. Armani researched how Mendieta, after being orphaned in Iowa, recovered from that experience “and located herself with this multinational identity that played out in her work,” she says.
Armani hopes that the supplementary biographical exhibit will help inform people more about Mendieta’s work.
IF YOU GO:
September 15 through December 12
Katherine E. Nash Gallery
The companion exhibit, curated by Elise Armani, will have an opening reception Saturday, September 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Anderson Gallery in the Wilson Library.