With the coming of fall in the city, it really is an exciting time for art lovers. Stale exhibitions that ran all summer long have come to an end for something fresh and new, the Toronto Film festival was in full force partnered with the Scotiabank photography festival, and the anticipation of Nuit Blanche and Art Toronto was in the air. With all of these buzzing, Toronto is seeped with interesting artworks, sculptures and public installations for us to navigate and explore. One exhibition that stands out and is truly worth-while to discuss is Silueta by American – Cuban artist Ana Mendieta at Scotiabank’s Contact Gallery.
Ana Mendieta was a painter, sculptor, performance and video artist. She dabbled in many mediums attempting to articulate and come to terms with her identity as a Cuban woman. It is difficult to label her with specific terms due to her complex sophisticated artistic practice. In a nutshell though, Mendieta used her body and bodily fluids blended together with earth and earthly materials to explore the female body and its relationship to the natural, the notion of what home and identity is, violence and reconciling her identity as a displaced Cuban woman.
Entering Contact Gallery, the viewer is immersed in a state of quiet contemplation, which is created through the stark black walls, and the 6 films projected across a 2 series of still photographs. The first series titled Untitled: Silueta Series are photographs that reveal an imprinted body in the sand being washed away slowly, by the rising tide. There is a slight pigment of red within the water that is reminiscent of blood. Another series of 6 paintings parallel a similar process of the body imposed onto a mountain of dirt, which is then filled and burned, titled Volcan. Echoing the photographic series are 6 films displayed across, which then again reiterate the process of the natural elements engulfing and transforming the body back to the earth. This ritualistic use of elements to bring the body back to nature by washing or burning is Mendieta’s process of illuminating mother earth and returning her body back to nature.
The subject matter and materials used by Mendieta deceivingly seem to confront violence and the horrors against women. While this does and can ring true, I believe that these series in fact resonates with a more a positive, celebratory tone. Ritualistic acts, such as burning or the use of blood have often been modes to thanking the gods, or celebrating something of significance. Being Cuban, the rituals of Santeria really played into her works. Therefore, the acts of using blood and her body were ways in which to express and explore spirituality. This is echoed in Untitled: Silueta Series. The imprinted body in the sand is her means of giving something back to Mother Earth. As Mother Earth washes away the imprint, it is slowly taking a piece of her - a sacrificial offering. The fire then in Volcan, then can also be seen as means of rebirth. Fire is not always destructive, yet necessary for purification and rebirth. Forest fires, while devastating have positive effects for regrowth and I believe Mendieta is mirroring this process here of purification. Her works celebrate life, humans and the world around us.
Mendieta’s work is often shadowed by her mysterious, tragic life. Born in 1948 in Cuba, at the age of fourteen, Mendieta and her sister were sent to the States as children of the Peter Pan Project (a collaborative program to send minors to safety during the inception of the communist regime of Fidel Castro). At the age of 34, with a high profile marriage to the famous minimalist artist Carl Andre, she mysteriously fell from her New York apartment to her death. Rumors and gossip surrounding her death have been a large topic ever since. Some art historians, critics and art lovers believe that her death is a direct eerie reflection of her dark, obsessions with mortality and death. Her images are often viewed as acts of bringing violence towards women to the forefront and exploring death and mortality. While this rings truth, I believe a large part of her oeuvre is often ignored, due to her eerie death. Much of Ana Mendieta’s work has to do with a celebration of the body, transformations, purification and a sense of spirituality and cleansing, which is echoed through her series Siluetas.