In her new book Radical Virtuosity: Ana Mendieta and the Black Atlantic (MIT Press, 2019), art historian Genevieve Hyacinthe locates the work of Ana Mendieta among the creative practices and politics of the black Atlantic—a term coined by scholar Paul Gilroy to refer to the distinct, hybrid culture that emerged as a result of the forced migration of black people during the slave trade and incorporates elements of African, American, British, and Caribbean traditions. In the book, Hyacinthe argues that Mendieta, who fled Cuba in her youth and grew up in foster care in the United States, connected myriad marginalized communities through her work, which was pervaded by a sense of exile.
In a chapter titled “From Árbitra to Serio: Experiencing Mendieta with Slow Temporality and Embodiment,” Hyacinthe investigates Mendieta’s art via the concept of serio—which, in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería, is used to describe rigorous, embodied knowledge achieved through repeating actions. Santería is heavily influenced by Catholicism, the religion Mendieta’s parents practiced in Cuba. “For viewers aware of black Atlantic art, theory, and history,” Hyacinthe argues, “serio strategies become means for accessing and decoding the secretive nature of Mendieta’s projects.” In the book, Hyacinthe describes her experience practicing serio to study Mendieta’s work by reenacting several of Mendieta’s “performatives”—the author’s term for the performances Mendieta often carried out privately and exhibited in the form of film recordings and photographs. In the excerpt below, Hyacinthe describes her reenactment of the first work in Mendieta’s “Silueta” series (1973–77) at the location where it was originally staged: Yágul, an archaeological site in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. —Eds.
As part of my serio engagement with Mendieta’s first Silueta, Imágen de Yágul (1973), I traveled to the site in July 2016 both to gain an understanding of Mendieta’s performatives and, at the same time, to collaborate with her.
The work is a color photograph printed at 19 x 12 ½ inches. The print depicts a naked Mendieta who is propped upright, leaning slightly back into the field of the photograph as she rests against a rocky slope. Her body is partially veiled from view by a body-length blanket of white wildflowers, which causes the artist’s body to blend in with the rugged backdrop by echoing the textures of the rock’s grainy surface and by harmonizing the cool earth-toned palette created by Mendieta’s brownish-hued skin and the mountain’s singed-ash surface.
Imágen de Yágul is a form of beauty, in which struggle is a latent bedfellow of Mendieta’s that may not be perceptible to the eye. Radical Virtuosity considers this duality—outward beauty with underlying struggle—as characteristic of Mendieta’s performatives more generally. In this way, as the first Silueta, Imágen de Yágul may be viewed as a template for performatives that follow it, such as Burial Pyramid (1974).
As in Imágen de Yágul, a seemingly poetic in situ manifestation of the artist’s body occurs, however the floral blanket of Imágen de Yágul is replaced in Burial Pyramid by one made of stones, earth, and greenery rendered through the soft light of Super 8 film. In Burial Pyramid, Mendieta displaces the materials covering her, freeing her body, with the physicality of her active breathing. In another action where, similar to Burial Pyramid, Mendieta ensconced herself in the earth, her use of the figure of speech “I almost died because I had worms crawling on me” gives us a sense of her power of endurance. This acknowledgment points again to the centrality of struggle and endurance in her performatives and counters the notion that her work was created for “easy disappearance” or gentle entropy.
At Yágul, I too experienced the duress of being naked in the tombs Mendieta occupied for Imágen de Yágul, when I took my clothes off and lay down on the floor of an open crypt in my serio continuum of Mendieta’s performative.
The crypt’s walls enhanced my discomfort, creating a disquieting feeling of death. At the same time, however, I was thankful for the walls because they blocked me from the view of the nearby groundkeepers. I had to tear my clothes off and jump down into the space in a flash, hoping that they would not see me. My student-assistant Carmelita Diaz arranged over my body a flourish of wildflowers like the ones Mendieta used as a blanket and then proceeded to hastily snap a few photographs. With all of the intensity of the action—worrying about being caught, the bugs, the cold wet ground—I forgot to think about the nuances of Mendieta’s body position.
The general form of her work—naked body with a spray of flowers in a tomb—and my practice of árbitra [witnessing] together made the big picture indelible in my mind and easily taken on with my own body. However, I lost a sense of the details. As I was lying there, I was asking myself how her hands were, her arms. In my haste to get in and out of the tomb, I was careless and forgot to remove my underwear, which are noticeable in the photograph of the work because they happened to be red that day.
The photograph of my Yágul serio revealed that I was much less controlled, less in command than Mendieta had been. Under similar unpleasant conditions (though there was probably less surveillance when she did her action), Mendieta locked her arms and hands tightly against the sides of her body. Her palms were pressed against her hips. Similarly, her legs were zipped together, the inner heels of her feet and ankles touching. Conversely, I did not know what to do with my arms and legs once there, so I actually “let go” and assumed the yoga corpse pose of release, Shavasana. My arms were at forty-five-degree angles to my torso, and the palms of my hands eased up. My legs splayed apart from each other, my feet following suit.
While my conversation with the groundkeepers at the site suggested that security was more relaxed in the 1970s, Julia Herzberg reports that there was some sort of surveillance at Yágul when Mendieta did Imágen de Yágul back in 1973. As Hans Breder placed the flowers on her body, “two students stood guard to warn her if anyone approached.” Even if she feared being caught, there is a good possibility that Mendieta would have been more stimulated than deterred, for her desire to work seemed in part inspired by the prospect of trespass or overcoming socially proscribed boundaries. In another instance, while scoping out a site for her action in a rural area in western New York, her friend Robert Rodale recalled that Mendieta was resolute in wanting to work upon a piling of rocks: “Ana pointed to an old limestone quarry, partly filled with water. No one was allowed in. A locked fence surrounded the whole property.” As Herzberg summed up this trait: “Mendieta found the challenges of working outdoors in unusual places and situations most suitable to her serendipitous personality.” All told, in Imágen de Yágul, it appears that Mendieta was a form of focus, discipline, endurance under pressure, and composure while stimulated by the immediacy of being in the moment. Conversely, I was distracted, experiencing uncertainty, and with my Shavasana position, reflecting surrender and death, rather than endurance in the face of challenge. My serio engagement with this performative enhanced my understanding of Mendieta’s artistic mettle, her determination to endure through the deployment of her collectivizing performatives.