As chronicled in Jane Blocker's Where Is Ana Mendieta?: Identity, Performativity, and Exile, Ana Mendieta was a Cuban performance artist who lived in New York in the 1970s. The title not only refers to the suspicious circumstances of her death, but to the nonexistent presence of the work of women artists in mainstream exhibitions, to the absence of work that portrays the aesthetic rooted in Latino cultural identity.
Mendieta boldly explored women’s identity, sexuality, and spirituality in pieces that were deceptively simple. Her work was constructed from the elements themselves - dirt, water, and light in their most basic forms; her themes revolved around the ideas of burial, rebirth, submersion in the natural world. From a perspective beyond the dominant culture's construct of nation, a construct of governments, the hegemony of conquerors, Mendieta's work reverberates with an older, indigenous idea of nation. It challenges the viewer to envision an idea of nation and identity based on a direct relation to the Earth itself.
In a series entitled Tree of Life, Mendieta flattened herself against a large oak tree. She is naked, covered with gesso and paint to simulate tree bark. Where does the tree stop and Medieta begin? Where do we stop and our connection with nature begin? The work was simply done and deeply resonant. I immediately saw a connection between this piece and a Mexican/Chicano idea of rootedness to place that is not hemmed by borders, but by history and ancestral links to land, to nature itself.
In another, untitled series, Mendieta is shown in a series of photos. Again, she is naked, this time in an isolated field. Next to her is a skeleton. The photos show her climbing onto the skeleton, embracing it. She creates a powerful image of the life/death cycle, as well as a quintessential Latin commentary on mortality. At the heart of Latin cultural beliefs, life and death are united in an eternal embrace. In the midst of life, its fullness, its lushness, its sensuality - there, too, Death is a constant companion. While modern European-based culture constantly seeks to avoid aging and mortality, the Latin tradition accepts its centrality. Death is the endpoint and the beginning of all things, and Mendieta brilliantly illustrates this with economy and grace.