Sunday, February 10, 2013

Earth, Blood, and Feathers: Ancient Northern Mesoamerican Tradition in the Work of Ana Mendieta

Earth, Blood, and Feathers:
Ancient Northern Mesoamerican Tradition in the Work of Ana Mendieta

Is it true one really lives on the earth?
Not forever on earth,
Only a little while here.
Though it be jade it falls apart,
Though it be gold it wears away,
Though it be quetzal plumage it is torn asunder.
Not forever on earth,
Only a little while here.
-Nezahuacoyotl (tr. Miguel Leon-Portilla)[i]

In a relatively short span of time between 1972 and 1985, Ana Mendieta created one of the richest and most distinct bodies of work among the early earthworks artists. Though she was of the generation of artists like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, she eschewed their geometric, formal minimalism in favor of a fully embodied, spiritually infused earth art. Jane Blocker writes, of Mendieta’s relationship to the earth: “To anthropomorphize the earth is to endow it with sentience, desire, and identity: it is to think of the earth as more than merely sculptural material.”[ii] Breaking land art from its geometric precedents, she embraced an alternative aesthetic heritage in the feminist earth goddess movement, and drew from religious rituals like those of Santeria, Mesoamerican religion (such as those of the Aztec, Zapotec, and Mayan), Taino religion, and Catholicism. In addition, her practice drew from the tradition of the performance and body artists more than the minimalists. Mendieta’s earth was an extensions of her body, and that body was permeated with spiritual immanence. In this essay, I will explore Mendieta’s view of landscape through the body, specifically the female body, and particularly how this exploration was informed by the religious ritual and practice she was inspired by. While the influence of Santeria and Taino religion on Mendieta’s work has been well documented, the role of Northern Mesoamerican (Aztec, Zapotec) though and ritual has been explored less. This essay will focus on the role of Northern Mesoamerican art in the earth/body works of Ana Mendieta, particularly her Siluetas and bird series.

As a young girl, Mendieta was taken out of Cuba and away from her family by counter-revolutionaries intent on rescuing the young from the threat of impending Communism.[iii] Raised by nuns in Iowa,[iv] Mendieta felt a strong sense of exile from her homeland—a sense of being “ripped from the womb” as she described it later. In this borderline space between nations, not feeling at home in either territory, she felt compelled to engage with the meaning of her own identity. As a young art student, she received an opportunity to travel to Mexico in 1971 and work at an archeological site in Teotihuacan, site of the ancient Aztec capitol city (the largest city in the world, in its day). Here, surrounded by Hispanic culture and art, she began to feel a sense of the culture from which she was exiled for the first time since childhood. Exiled from Cuba and uncomfortable in the United States, she “saw Mexico as a surrogate motherland.”[v] As she said at the time, “Plugging into Mexico was like going back to the source, being able to get some magic just by being there.”[vi] In Mexico, her exposure was not only to living Mexican culture and contemporary life, but also to the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica—specifically the Aztec and Zapotec, with whom she was already familiar through study but was now able to experience more directly. Thus, her reacquaintance with her roots was filtered through her exposure to ancient Northern Mesoamerican archeology and mythology. On returning back to Iowa, her painting shifted to include themes and motifs from Aztec culture.[vii]

She was able to return to Mexico on several occasions, and created some of her earliest characteristic work while in Oaxaca at the Yagul archeological site, including the beginning of her long Silueta series. Thus, Northern Mesoamerican art and mythology as experiences at the Yagul site in Oaxaca became the impetus for Mendieta’s most distinctive body of work.

One of the first pieces created on her Mexican sojourn was Image from Yagul, the work that Mendieta considered to mark the beginning of her Silueta series. Created in 1973, the photographic documentation of the performance depicts Mendieta lying nude in an ancient tomb, her body mostly covered by layers of white flowers, which almost appear to be growing from her supine form. It is an iconic image, and one of Mendieta’s most recognizable. Flowers played an important role in the symbology of the Northern Mesoamerican imagination. Flowers were mythologically conceived to have been created from a bit of flesh torn from the genitals of Xochiquetzal, the goddess of love, thus giving them a highly sexually charged significance.[viii] Flowers also played a hugely important role in Aztec life through the Flower Wars—ritual mock wars fought with flowers instead of weapons in which enemies were captured rather than killed (though many of these captives were simply saved for later ritual execution).[ix]  Thus flowers played a powerful role in Aztec thought, their hidden corollas functioning as a portal between the intertwined realms of life and death. In Image from Yagul, Mendieta references this significance. Although her prostrate body is laid in a tomb and appears lifeless and dead, it also brings forth flowers and new life. Mendieta was fascinated by this theme of death and renewal, the endless cycle of nature, and would return to it again and again throughout her Silueta series and further career, creating works made from melting snow, spreading grass, and blooming flowers. This crucial aspect of Mendieta’s work appears to have direct roots in ancient Northern Mesoamerican thought.

Another piece, created in 1974 while Mendieta was in Oaxaca at the Yagul site, is Untitled, pictured above (Mendieta didn’t expend much energy on titles). This piece, a continuation of her Silueta series, uses the “Labyrinth” site at Yagul as it’s setting, and features a body imprint Mendieta created by pouring animal blood on her body and lying on the earth. This performance was then documented in a photograph. The effect is haunting, and becomes a record of Mendieta’s absence as much as her bodily impression. The ancient sacrificial site only reinforces the sense of mortality and evanescence which this piece evokes. In Aztec practice, as Mendieta was aware, blood contained a vital, life-giving energy. In one creation myth, the feathered serpent-god Quetzalcoatl bestowed life to humanity by offering them his own blood, and there are other examples of Aztec gods offering their blood to mankind as a form of divine aid.[x] In return, man’s blood was required to keep the universe in a kind of cosmic balance. Thus, at Aztec temple sites like that in Teotihuacan, human sacrifice was practiced routinely to replenish the life-force of the earth. This ritual fascinated Mendieta, and informed Untitled, which functions almost as a memoriam to the slain victims of the Aztec priests. The record of violence remains, the body’s blood forever connected to the earth, but the body itself has long since vanished. But the work is not purely negative—again the life-force of blood plays a role, and the piece can be read as a recognition of the continuation of life in nature. Again, life and death are presented not as opposites, but as complements—differing points on a vast and endless cycle. The presentation of this piece and it’s specific location reveal a clear Northern Mesoamerican, and specifically Aztec,  connection.

Mendieta also worked extensively with feathers, connecting the human body to the earth and also the avian kingdom. Feathers have an important role in ancient Northern Mesoamerican art. Aztec artists created elaborate headdresses and masks with feathers from the sacred quetzal bird, and also wove feathers together into tapestries. One of the most important gods of the Aztec pantheon was Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent—as a mixed creation, he was able to traverse the worlds of both earth and sky, making him a boundary-crosser, a transgressor. Like flowers, the feather became a symbol of traveling between states, of moving between one state and another—for example, navigating between the states of life and death. Mendieta’s 1977 Silueta piece, Untitled, annexes this meaning to create a profound experience of both connectedness and loss. In this piece, Mendieta has again created a silhouette of her body in the earth. This time, her shape has been dug into the ground and filled with large white feathers. This feathered shape has then been surrounded by newly growing grass—another allusion to the cycles of death and rebirth which Mendieta returned to again and again. Here she has used the Aztec theme of feathers to represent the liminal state between life and death, creating another portal between worlds. This becomes a transgressive boundary-crossing, a view which becomes even more apparent when looking at another, slightly earlier work, Bird Transformation.

In this piece, conceived soon after Mendieta’s return from her first trip to Mexico, she has adhered bird feathers to the body of another woman. In doing so, she creates a boundary-crossing transgression between human and animal, as she has elsewhere between earth and body. Like the god Quetzalcoatl, the woman in this piece begins to mysteriously take on the elements of both worlds. The feathered face recalls feathered masks created by Aztec artists. Mendieta has left the genitals of her female form unfeathered and intact, allowing the creative sexuality of the creature to continue to play a role. For Mendieta, sexuality cannot be separated from nature. And in her eyes, this refiguring of the human body is a source of transcendence. In a review of her work, Donald Kuspitt remarks: Mendieta wants to reconsecrate the body, that is, restore the sense of it as a miracle, and with that, restore the value lost by its reduction to a kind of machine—its modernization, as it were. The body becomes increasingly differentiated—grandly simplified and emblematic—in her art, and finally becomes a vital aura, a ghostly abstraction of organic life. Mendieta’s mystical body stands in opposition to the body as conceived by science.  Hers is the body as it is experienced from the inside, rather than the body as it is understood from the outside. Her art is an attempt to demonstrate that woman’s body is holy, not profane, as science and man have conceived it to be.”[xi] Mendieta’s religiously inspired art aims at a celebration of the body as sacred and sublime. In her bird series as well as her Siluetas, the source of that divinity is nature, and specifically life on earth itself, rather than an abstract, otherworldly deity.

Mendieta continued the bird series with Ocean Bird Washup, created in 1974. In this piece, as in her earlier Blood Feathers, she covers her nude body in animal blood and then adheres white bird feathers to herself. In Ocean Bird Washup, she then floats out at sea and allows the feathers to slowly, over time, dissolve away from her until she returns to fully human form. This process was filmed on a short, four-minute reel. The theme of temporality and passing away, central to Aztec poets like Nezahuacoyotl (as in the poem quoted at the opening of this essay), is poignantly expressed in this image. The body has become a sacred space, and a divine metamorphosis has occurred, if only for a brief amount of time. Before long, the feathers drift away and the image, as is so often the case in Mendieta’s work, becomes one of a pulsating absence. Jane Blocker describes this as Mendieta’s “performative practice of marking through disappearance…a redundant absence, an amplified sense of death” also apparent in her Siluetas. Mendieta chose to disappear into the elements rather than dictate to them, just as the Aztec poets described. As Nezahuacoyotl sang, “Not forever on earth / Only a little while here.”[xii]

Ana Mendieta’s art is unquestionably informed by religious ritual. As Donald Kuspitt asserts, “Mendieta’s art… is profoundly religious—eschatological…She experiences the body as a sacred space: a kind of cathedral in which consciousness can soar.”[xiii] The roots of much of this religious impulse lie in the ancient Northern Mesoamerican artists and thinkers. In the Aztec art of ancient Mexico, Mendieta found her inspiration and muse, and this experience ignited her imagination to produce some of the most incredible land art of her time. Her religious study and experience were enriched by Santeria, Taino religion, Catholicism, and other sources, but her deep passion and recognition of Aztec art remained central to her work and provided her with a rich tradition from which to draw inspiration. Mendieta’s use of Aztec ideas and mythology was not only exhilarating and innovative, but also relevant to her time—and, through her universal themes of body and earth, just as relevant to our time as ever.

[i] Miguel Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, (London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 80.

[ii] Jane Blocker, Where Is Ana Mendieta?, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 18.

[iii] Olga M. Viso, "The Memory of History," Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985, ed. Olga M. Viso (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 38.

[iv] Mary Jane Jacob, "Ashe in the Art of Ana Mendieta," Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, ed. Arturo Lindsay (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 191.

[v] Olga M. Viso, "The Memory of History," Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985, ed. Olga M. Viso (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 143.

[vi] Petra Barrerras del Rio, “Ana Mendieta: A Historical Overview,” in Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987), 31

[vii] Olga M. Viso, "The Memory of History," Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985, ed. Olga M. Viso (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 143.

[viii] John Bierhorst, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 147.

[ix] Miguel Leon-Portilla, Native Mesoamerican Spirituality, (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1980), 6.

[x] John Bierhorst, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 84.

[xi] Donald Kuspitt, "Ana Mendieta, Autonomous Body,"Ana Mendieta, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 1996), 39.

[xii] Miguel Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, (London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 80.

[xiii] Donald Kuspitt, "Ana Mendieta, Autonomous Body,"Ana Mendieta, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 1996), 39.


  1. Thanks for introducing me to this artist. I really enjoyed learning about her.

    Your essay was informative and thought-provoking. I loved the poem at the beginning and the way you tied it into the essay, discussing Aztec culture and how it influenced her work. I can really feel the theme of renewal and rebirth, the cycles of life, coming out in her work, especially in Image from Yagul from the Silueta series, which I loved. The idea of the earth and body being connected, representing nature, this is all beautiful and seems very spiritual. Her use of feathers, flowers (I also loved the description of the ritual “Flower Wars”), and blood is effective and moving. I agree that Untitled, which uses the “Labyrinth” site, is extremely haunting, especially when thinking of this author’s untimely death (which I researched after reading the piece, out of curiosity — such a tragedy).

    Again, thanks for sharing.
    -Allison Wright

  2. Thank you for such a wonderful scholarly post. I am familiar with Mendieta’s body art but I did not know she also fell into the category of earthworks. I knew she used the outdoors, but I was under the impression that earthwork artist’s had to physically alter the earth. Though after thinking about it, I realized I can argue that just by placing one’s self within the space, the person’s presence is what alters the experience. Therefore I now understand why she is considered an earthwork’s artist as well. By including herself in the work, she is adding a strong personal dimension to the pieces and that is what really captured my eye.

    I also found It interesting that we both chose artists that deal with identity. Mendieta is discovering her identity through her art process. She uses art as a catalyst to mend her childhood trauma. This is very similar to the artist I chose, Kusama. Both have troubled backgrounds and both use their art as a kind of therapy but yet, there work is so different and that is exciting.