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This Artwork Changed My Life: Ana Mendieta’s “Silueta” Series

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.
Out today on Elephant is Harry Burke on Cecilia Vicuña’s Arte Precario.
A few years ago, I came across ’sSilueta” series (1973–78) online and was immediately entranced. The sculptures seemed to contain a sense of mysticism; they appeared tangible and urgent—both ancient and immediate.
I discovered the “Silueta” series shortly before I learned that I had fibromyalgia. Before I knew the pain that eddied around my body had a name. Before I found a new way to navigate my estranged body; a space that had once been familiar, but one I was now in the process of losing.
The “Siluetas” comprise more than 200 earth-body works that saw the artist burn, carve, and mold her silhouette into the landscapes of Iowa and Mexico. The sculptures made tangible Mendieta’s belief of the earth as goddess, rooted in Afro-Cuban Santería and the indigenous Taíno practices of her homeland. Exiled from Cuba at a young age, Mendieta said that she was “overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature).” Seeking a way to, in her words, “return to the maternal source,” she used her body to commune with sand, ice, and mud, among other natural media, as a way to “become one with the earth.”
Yet these works resist easy categorization in form or theme. The “Siluetas” are not self-portraits or performance pieces, except perhaps to the few who witnessed them. Each piece was subsumed by the earth, meaning photographs are the only remaining traces. Similarly, the thematic complexity of Mendieta’s life and these sculptures resist collapsing into neat categories of nation, diaspora, race, or gender. By using the body as both an image and medium, these aspects of identity are complicated. Mendieta’s earthworks occupy a liminal space between presence and absence, balancing the inevitable politicization of the self while searching for meaning in older, sacred traditions.
Before my diagnosis, I lived in a liminal space between what Susan Sontag called the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. I repeatedly Googled “pins and needles,” “burning,” and “fatigue” in order to decipher what was happening inside my body (an unquantifiable absence), which outwardly appeared able (a presence). These searches led me to forums, magazines, and artworks by people whose disabilities and chronic pain informed their art, as well as their personal narratives. After being told I had fibromyalgia, I found connection and support in these virtual kingdoms of the sick.
I initially grappled with inhabiting this newly named part of my identity, attempting to accept what this categorization—and the proximity to disability—meant, and whether or not I felt “legitimate” enough to begin using this pain as a source of creativity. In Where is Ana Mendieta? Jane Blocker writes, “In the performance of identity, and in identity as performance, Mendieta is and is not ‘herself.’”
Acknowledging the shifting nature of identity in Mendieta’s work, and what it means to present a “self” in creative contexts, freed me to mindfully work from the messy entanglements of identity. The shifting nature of pain in fibromyalgia means that it is both present and absent—two states coexisting in the same body.
The “Siluetas” were an ongoing, ritualistic relationship between Mendieta and the land. I read each work as a spell, a fragment of an ongoing incantation that was not “the final stage of a ritual but a way and a means of asserting my emotional ties with nature,” as Mendieta once said. She wanted to send “an image made out of smoke into the atmosphere,” so that each work was designed to disappear, to be reclaimed by the force she revered in an effort to come closer to it.
Persistent pain by nature contains elements of ritual—hot water bottles, timing painkillers, and quiet ways of passing time when sleep proves difficult. As Elaine Scarry wrote, “to have pain is to have certainty,” but when a flare fades, it is soon forgotten. To try and capture the feeling is like pinning down fog, so I’ve started writing as a reminder, in attempts to capture painful moments and transform them into something new.
The temporality and intensity of the “Siluetas” encouraged me to explore states of anger, isolation, desire, and longing that fibromyalgia has imprinted on my body’s landscape. Challenging myself to write during flare-ups has uncovered a new shade of creative practice. The tone is darker, carnal, and emerges from a place that seems to live outside of me.
It is for this reason that Mendieta’s earthworks took on a mystical quality for me. The “Siluetas” not only act as a symbol of the temporality of pain, but as a reminder to inhabit such moments fully, to see what words burn through.
Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series, Harry Burke on Cecilia Vicuña’s Arte Precario.

Did an artwork change your life?

Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected] with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life.”
Jennifer Brough