Summary

This is a colour photograph showing a view across low stone ruins to green hills and cloud-covered mountains in the distance. In the foreground, the roughly delineated silhouette of a human figure appears to have been painted on the sandy ground. The photograph was taken in the ruins of the ‘Labyrinth’ in the Palace of Six Patios at Yagul, an archaeological site in the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. Ana Mendieta bought blood from a butcher at a market in the city of Oaxaca and poured it onto the earth within the outlines of her body, created with the assistance of her lover and teacher, the artist Hans Breder (born 1935). Breder traced her outline on the ground before she scooped the earth around it to create a rim which would hold the blood. It is the second of her series of Siluetas or silhouettes that Mendieta created in Mexico and the first in which she used the outline of her body, rather than her body itself. Two years later, at the Basilica of Cuilapán de Guerrero, near Oaxaca, the artist created another Silueta based on her outline using twigs (see L02835).

As a student on the innovative Intermedia art programme run by Hans Breder at the University of Iowa from 1972 to 1977, Mendieta developed a personal fusion of performance and land art which she termed ‘earth-body work’ and ‘earth-body sculptures’. Unlike the contemporaneous work of such male American land artists as Robert Smithson (1938–73) and Michael Heizer (born 1944), Mendieta’s ephemeral landscape interventions, designed to survive only as photographs, are small in scale and firmly rooted to her female body. Usually her body or its outline feature in relation only to elements from nature, in contrast to the work of Dennis Oppenheim (born 1938), who was exploring similar territory using his body in outdoor sites in such works as Parallel Stress 1970 (T12403). In a statement she wrote about her work in 1981, Mendieta explained:

I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source. Through my earth/body sculptures I become one with the earth ... I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body. This obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is really the reactivation of primaeval beliefs ... [in] an omnipresent female force, the after-image of being encompassed within the womb.

(Quoted in Petra Barreras del Rio and John Perreault, Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 1988, p.10.)


Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba, into a family of prominent politicians. During the political turmoil of the early 1960s, she and her sister Raquelín were sent – together with many other Cuban children – to the United States under the auspices of Operation Pedro Pan. As a result, Mendieta was shuttled between foster families and an Iowa boarding school from 1961 until 1966, when her mother and brother left Cuba for the US. Having taken a course on Primitive Art as part of her BA (1967–9) at the University of Iowa, Iowa City in 1967, Mendieta visited Mexico for the first time in 1971 while undertaking an archaeology module on her MFA. However, it was not until she travelled to the valley of Oaxaca with Breder and a group of students from the Intermedia programme in summer 1973 that she connected with Mexico on a personal level, identifying its mixture of indigenous and European cultures with her own hybrid Cuban heritage. She created her first SiluetaImagen de Yagul (reproduced Ana Mendieta, p.53) – covering her naked body in sprays of white flowers in an open Zapotec tomb in Yagul during this trip. From 1973 until 1980 (the year her relationship with Breder ended) she created over a hundred Siluetas in Mexico and Iowa, using such natural materials as earth, flowers, leaves, sticks and stones as well as fire, gunpowder, fireworks, candles and cloth. Legs are rarely differentiated in the Siluetas and the figures appear either with their arms raised in the manner of the Minoan snake goddess – as in Tate’s two Silueta images – or with them held close to the body. Where the artist’s body features, it is usually buried, relating to the Mexican preoccupation with death, still visible in its Day of the Dead celebrations and more historically in the traditions of ritual sacrifice belonging to many Mesoamerican cultures.

Mendieta documented her earth-body works with 35mm colour slides, from which she made unique prints, of which this is one. As well as documenting this work in 35mm slides (taken by Breder), Mendieta recorded it in Super-8 colour silent film which she called Untitled (Laberinth [sic] Blood Imprint) 1974.

Further reading:
Ana Mendieta, exhibition catalogue, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona 1996.
Olga M Viso, Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972–1985, exhibition catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 2004, pp.143 and 169, reproduced p.142.
Olga Viso, Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta, Munich, Berlin, London and New York 2008, p.78, reproduced p.76 (detail).

Elizabeth Manchester
October 2009