Coco Fusco on the Enduring Legacy of Groundbreaking Cuban Artist Ana Mendieta
Thirty years after her untimely death and murder trial rocked New York, Ana Mendieta has become a symbol of the sexism and seedy injustices of the art world—and the groundbreaking nature of her work is frequently overshadowed by that history. Fusing art and life, Mendieta took risks, experimenting with performance and other unconventional mediums at a time when the market had no interest in them.
Her “earth body” works—for which she imprinted her silhouette into archaeological sites, beaches, and caves in Mexico and Cuba—are her best-known. These ephemeral pieces, meant to live on in photographic documentation, evinced a stalwart belief in the body as an artist’s most potent expressive means. Mendieta also explored her Cuban roots and forged long-lasting artistic ties with the island at a time when the political cost of doing so was enormous.
A new exhibition of rarely- and never-before-seen video works by Mendieta, opening February 5th at Galerie Lelong in New York, is an opportunity to reflect more seriously on her work and enduring legacy. There is no better person to provide the critical and historical context for Ana and her work than her Cuban-American contemporary, the performance artist, writer, and curator Coco Fusco.
Jared Quinton: Can we start by talking about the significance of Ana Mendieta’s return from exile to Cuba in the early 1980s?
Coco Fusco: She and her sister were sent to Iowa as part of Operation Peter Pan when Ana was 12 years old. Her father was a political prisoner in Cuba. His imprisonment was one of the reasons why her separation from her parents and brother went on for so long, and this was painful for her. She became involved in El Diálogo (the dialogue) in the 1970s—an advocacy effort spearheaded by Cuban exiles to promote a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. One of their principal requests was family reunification visits. At that time, if Cubans went into exile, they were never allowed to return. This dialogue actually led to the legalization of family reunification visits, which began in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter.
Ana was among the first Cubans to return to the country in 1980. Artists on the island had not had a lot of contact with U.S. artists, although they did know about contemporary American art secondhand. When Ana went to Cuba, she met a group of young artists who had broken new ground aesthetically with a show called “Volumen Uno.” They were members of the first generation to be educated within the revolution. They had an advocate in Gerardo Mosquera, a critic who argued that Cuban art produced within the revolution should not be aesthetically restricted to a social-realist imperative, and who legitimated their interests in syncretic religions, Cuban folk culture, and postmodern art theories. The artists wanted to be able to work with Western styles. They wanted to be able to work with unconventional aesthetic strategies and experimental art forms such as performance—and not be derided by Cuban authorities as slavish to Western capitalist trends.
Ana met these artists and was very helpful for them. She brought them books and magazines. She gave them information that she had acquired as an art student at the University of Iowa and as a practicing artist in New York. She brought other New York artists to Cuba—Rudolf Baranik, May Stevens, Mel Edwards, Lucy Lippard, Luis Camnitzer. They all went to Cuba because Ana encouraged them to do so. And many of them developed longer-term relationships with the island. In 1985, Cuban artists Flavio Garciadía, José Bedia, Ricardo Brey, and the critic Gerardo Mosquera came to New York for an extended stay. Their visit was organized by Luis Camnitzer as a result of Ana’s advocacy. And that’s when I met them and they invited me to Cuba. And right after that trip is when she died.
JQ: Shortly after her death and Carl Andre’s murder acquittal, you wrote about the different issues raised by her work that was being posthumously released. Can you talk a bit about that?
CF: I have not continued to participate in the canonization of Ana because I don’t think that it is about her work. I think she’s become a symbol used by many people to address sexism in the art world through personal attacks directed at Carl Andre. Many younger artists exploit the memory of Ana for their own professional advancement.
I’m uncomfortable with what has happened since her death. When Ana was alive, she was struggling and poor. She was a marginal figure within the art world and was looked upon by many as a very difficult personality. All of the post-mortem canonization has nothing to do with how she lived or how she was treated during her life.
JQ: Do you think her death has rewritten the history of her work?
CF: I don’t think that what happened to her is that different from what happens to other artists after their death, particularly artists who die young, like Eva Hesse and Francesca Woodman. On the one hand there is a tremendous sense of a great loss, that here was a talent that could have flourished had they lived longer. On the other hand, once an artist is dead, the market can go crazy over a fixed body of work. And that’s essentially what happened to Ana. Much of what we look at now are works she never exhibited. A lot of the early work was just slides left in boxes.
JQ: So many of works weren’t necessarily meant to be exhibited as discrete artworks?
CF: What I mean to say is, because some of her work was posthumously constructed for display, we don’t know exactly what she imagined those works to be. Yes, she made everything we now look at of hers as art, but she didn’t have opportunities to exhibit all of it prior to her death. She was only 36! And she died before she had an opportunity to plan in a systematic way. She was in an economically precarious situation, and she was in a personal relationship that was very volatile.
JQ: How have you engaged with Mendieta in your own work?
CF: She has been a great influence on me, but I have not chosen to model my work on hers. Her influence has more to do with the community of artists I joined who are linked through her. I came to know all the artists she met in Cuba, as well as artists she knew in the U.S., and her cousin Kaki, who was an aesthetics professor in Havana, also became a friend. I appreciated the ways she explored her connection to the island through the symbols in her work as well. Her approach to investigating her roots was very profound.
In the late ’90s, I created a performance [Better Yet When Dead] that consisted of a series of wakes for Latina women who became famous for their dramatic, untimely deaths—Frida Kahlo, Evita Perón, Selena, and Ana. At the time it seemed that the only way a Latina could gain attention was to die dramatically. I lay in a coffin as each one of them for a day. One of the days I was Ana, naked and covered in mud, the way she appears in The Tree of Life.
JQ: Is there any important context you think people need when viewing her video pieces that are about to go on view for the first time?
CF: I think it’s important to understand where the art form was at the time. There was absolutely no market for the kinds of films that Ana was making at the time. Film and video were important means of documenting the ephemeral works that were being made in non-traditional venues, outside of museums, outside of galleries. I think that, to a certain extent, explains the rawness of the work, but it’s also due to the technology of the time. Everything is so glitzy now. Artists work with big crews and high-end editing effects and expensive HD cameras, but that’s not the world she was part of. I don’t think Ana imagined herself as a filmmaker, per se. I think she was a sculptor and a performance artist who wanted to use film to expand and document her practice.
JQ: Is there anything else we should know about Ana?
CF: She was a very vibrant soul, a very fiery character, and a serious and dedicated artist who made works that continue to move people. She was a real trailblazer in many ways. As an exiled Cuban artist, she delved into issues and scenarios and situations related to her connection to the island with amazing intensity. She ventured where others didn’t dare. She went back to Cuba when the price for doing so was to be excoriated by other exiles. And I have a lot of respect for her courage. She has been an inspiration to me for much of my life.