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Ana Mendieta & Body Tracks: Redrawing a Legacy

Who was Ana Mendieta? A simple Google search might report that she was a Cuban American, a victim of domestic violence and a visionary artist who died when she fell (or was thrown) from the 34th floor of her New York apartment in 1985 at the age of 36. But for Christine Redfern, who recently co-curated an exhibition with Mireille Bourgeois and launched a book with Caro Caron exploring Mendieta’s life, work and legacy, this question is much more complex.

Redfern’s book is a graphic novel published in French as Qui est Ana Mendieta? by Éditions du remue-ménage in Montréal, and in English as Who Is Ana Mendieta? by the Feminist Press in New York. It is richly illustrated by Caro Caron, whose raw yet dreamy artwork perfectly complements the understated textual recitative. Redfern weaves together quotes, newspaper clippings, reviews, letters and other historical documents to produce what is both an accessible creative biography and an incisive critical mash-up of the paternalistic avant-garde American art world Mendieta inhabited.

Redfern initially chose the graphic-novel format to broaden the appeal of her narrative beyond the mainstream art world. Yet her choice also reflects Mendieta’s own commitment to non-traditional media such as performance films. Mendieta produced over 80 of these in her lifetime, which are now seldom seen.

One of Mendieta’s performance films was, however, recently on display at Gallery 101 in Ottawa as part of the exhibition “Body Tracks,” curated through SAW Video. This project, which will be shown in a slightly different iteration at FOFA Gallery in Montreal in September, was both intense and contemplative. It consisted of four videos exploring women’s bodies in performance along with several ink drawings by Caro Caron from Who Is Ana Mendieta?

The Mendieta performance series that gave the “Body Tracks” exhibition its name was represented in Ottawa by a 1974 film showing the young artist using her blood-soaked arms to trace a pair of vaguely fallopian tracks on a bare wall. Neither as savage nor as serene as related works by her contemporaries (say Carolee Schneeman and Eleanor Antin) Untitled aka Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2) suggests a potent symbiosis of embodied harmony and pain.

In self-portrait in alterNation between descension and ascension, Jude Norris wears a handmade traditional Cree dress as she endlessly steps in place on a moving escalator. In Lokhalle by Anna Peak, a half-naked woman smashes a wooden pallet with a sledgehammer in an industrial ruin. And in Philomène Longpré’s interactive Xia, a woman sleeps, skitters, twitches and runs in place across the large screen in response to motion sensors in the gallery.

So in “Body Tracks,” we saw the very themes that inspired Ana Mendieta’s work—and that seemingly contributed to her casual erasure from many art histories—such as her ethnic and national otherness, her fierce feminism and her technological adventurousness. We also saw how these themes, like the artist herself, serve as critical and inspirational sources for today’s women artists.

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