PRINT April 1992


Pain of Cuba
body I am
my orphanhood I live

In Cuba when you die
the earth that covers us speaks

But here
covered by the earth whose prisoner I am
I feel death palpitating underneath
the earth.

And, so
as my whole body is filled with want of Cuba
I go on to make my work upon the earth,
to go on is victory.

—Ana Mendieta, June 1981

“WHEN I MAKE MY ART, it is talking to the earth.”1 Ana Mendieta’s art, even when she was alive, was the stuff of myth. She worked alone, outdoors, in secluded, unexpected places, returning often to the same sites in Mexico and Iowa for the “Silueta” (Silhouette) series of 1973 to 1980.

“I work with the earth, I make sculptures in the landscape. Because I have no motherland, I feel a need to join with the earth, to return to her womb.” . . . Using earth, leaves, sand, stones, sticks, blood, water, tempera, tree trunks, gunpowder, grass, flowers, and fire, . . . Ana became the earth and the earth goddess became Ana. By 1980, when the series ended, Ana and the goddess were one.2

Ana carved and incised in the earth and stone, and in July 1981 on the almost inaccessible walls of caves in Jasuco Park in Cuba: always the symbol of the female body, the breathing woman’s body melding with the earth or stone or trees or grass, in a transformative representation of the living body mutating into another substance. This repetitive ritual, never the same, always the same, was in sum a constellation of tiny planets—the female mark, the vulva, featureless, sexual, dug into the ground.

Alone with her special tools and gear, she would hike to a chosen site, lie down and mark her body on the ground, dig trenches, filling them with gunpowder and setting them alight to blaze madly. Celebrating the small earthen shape of an abstracted female form. A violent ritual, yet contained. The land eventually covered up the traces of the performance as her art eroded and the earth returned to its previous state. The only records are photographs and videos made by the artist.

Ana did not rampage the earth to control or dominate or to create grandiose monuments of power and authority. She sought intimate, recessed spaces, protective habitats signaling a temporary respite of comfort and meditation. The imprint of a woman’s passage eroding and disappearing, the regrowth of grass or the shifting of sands or a carved fragmentary relief, a timeless cycle momentarily interrupted, receiving the shape of a woman—a trace, such as the smudged body print a victim of fire might leave, or a shadow, the recessive mark left by a victim of the bomb in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Art for me has been a way to sublimate rage. In fact it has been necessary to have such rage to free myself from confinement and the fury of confinement.3

Ana’s anger fed her desire to create works of endurance, works made to exorcise—with blood, with fire, with rock, with earth, with trees—her profound sense of displacement. Her art is an elemental force, divorced from accidents of individuality, speaking of life and death, growth and decay, of fragility yet indomitable will. It is an intense, unified oeuvre, encompassing the violent fire pieces and the quietly lyrical works in which she lay on the ground covered with leaves or flowers, observing the transmutation of matter and spirit that marks the rites of nature and of nature’s reclamation. If one of her sculptures were sent to a distant planet, or were kept sealed for thousands of years on earth, it would still convey the imagery, strength, mystery, and sexuality of the female human form—woman’s body and spirit inscribed. . . .

Walking around Washington Square Park, I sometimes think I see Ana running, circling the park as she used to. We would wave to one another and continue on our individual routines.

Nancy Spero is an artist who lives in New York.



1. Ana Mendieta, unpublished notes, n.d.
2. Raquel Mendieta, “Ana Mendieta: Self-Portrait of a Goddess,” Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, January–June 1988, p. 39.
3. Ana Mendieta. unpublished notes, n.d.