Ambiguous Categories: Strategic Essentialism in Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series – Emily Draicchio

MARCH 10, 2019

Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) was a crucial figure in the development and continuous transformation of feminist art in the 1970s and onwards. Mendieta challenged the male-dominant view of contemporary art by incorporating feminist ideals through what she defined as “earth-body” art (Viso 11). Earth-body art is best exemplified by her Silueta series (translating to silhouettes) completed between 1973 and 1980 that emphasize gender issues of the twentieth century by using her own body in nature, in turn “resisting the gallery system and the commodification of the art object” (299 Raine) and thus women as objects. The Silueta series were recorded by photographs and invoke a dematerialization of art in which Mendieta would lay naked in the natural environment, sometimes in mud or sand, and make an imprint of her body. She would either remain lying on the ground or fill the silhouette with other resources such as fire and red paint. The series consisted of 200 earth-body works that are often classified as being of essentialist feminism origins in which Mendieta embraces a conventional alignment of the female body and nature. Although Mendieta critiques the early 1960s and 70s essentialist feminist art as failing to remember women of colour, she herself uses essentialist techniques to strategically subvert the notion of the conventional woman by using her disappearing body, gender performativity, and abjection to dispel tropes (Blocker 62).  Specifically, we will look at three pieces from Mendieta’s Silueta series first being Flowers on Body [Fig.1], then Untitled [Fig.2], and lastly Alma Silueta en Fuego [Fig.3] and comment on how they use essentialist techniques and subvert essentialism regarding the deconstruction of gendered stereotypes. Through an analysis of these three works, we will see how Mendieta strategically uses essentialist techniques of the woman and nature dichotomy, goddess imagery, and her naked body in the Silueta series to both subvert conventions and empower two marginalized groups, non-western women. As such, I will argue that the Silueta series by Mendieta cannot be categorized comfortably in the art historical binary of feminist essentialism versus anti-essentialism/feminist deconstruction of the 1980s since she was both “embracing and dissolving boundaries” (Viso 32) and thus must be looked at through both lenses.

Ana Mendieta was a Cuban born artist who had to move to the United States at age twelve due to her father’s political affairs with the anti-Castro forces in 1962. She studied art at the University of Iowa and finished her MA in 1972, one year before completing her first piece in the Silueta series, Flowers on Body, 1973 (color photograph of earth-body work with flowers in rock cavity) [ Fig.1]. Being an early feminist in the 70s, Mendieta asserted a new position for women in art as “subject rather than object, active speaker and not passive theme” (Garrard 21). Being an educated non-western woman artist, Mendieta was already subverting the convention that “women plainly provide the male spectator with an object onto which he can project his sexual desire” (Blocker 33, 1999), reflecting the notion that women were merely sexualized models rather than active intellectual artists. Therefore, to further pursue her feminist goals, Mendieta brought a new female perspective to pictures of sexualized women in nature reclaiming it from masculine objectification. For example, in Flowers on Body we see Mendieta’s naked body covered with flowers in a rocky womb-like cavity [Fig. 1]. This image was taken at a Zapotec tomb in the city of Yagul, Mexico. We see Mendieta lying on her back with dense green and white flowers covering her face and female genitalia. The cluster of flowers is most dense over her face and chest making her identity and gender unrecognizable as her body slowly disappears under the foliage. The present yet disappearing state of her body comments on women artists’ struggle for recognition in the western art canon. Women are often cast in the shadows of men and are subjugated to roles prescribed to their gender that misinterpret their identity (Tepfer 237). By having flowers be the source of her disappearance, Mendieta additionally suggests that, instead of being identified as an artist, she is associated with delicate flowers that are desired and made sexualized by the male viewer as they cover her naked body. However, the disappearance of her body and her unrecognisable identity/gender also informs the viewer that she rejects the tropes associated to women that are considered essential to femininity, such as the passive and fragile woman. Instead, by “staging a mute and passive femininity, the artist is anything but passive, in so far as she is the cultural producer (Solomon-Godeau 343), enforcing that Mendieta was an active artist, not a fragile flower. As such, Mendieta used her body, an artistic aspect in essentialism that indulged in the notion of “a female essence residing some where in the body of woman” (Lippard 75),  but had it disappear under the flowers enforcing the “erasure or negation of the body” (Kwon 168) that points to an irretrievable origin, “an impossibility of connecting with an essential identity” (Gonzalez 51). Therefore, Mendieta uses essentialism by putting her body on display in nature, but she subverts an essentialist position through her body’s disappearance and hidden identity which is pertinent to the anti-essentialist notion that no fixed gender exists since her body cannot be traced to an origin; making it impossible to connect to an essential identity of women. With regards to the Silueta series, Mendieta described it as a “return to the maternal source” (Mendieta qtd’ in Meyer 323), explicitly reifying the notion of male as culture versus female as nature. However, in Flowers on Body Mendieta subverts the dichotomy of nature/female and culture/male (Blocker 56, 1999). The photograph does so via its location and materiality at a monument of Zapotec civilization. Specifically, the tomb constructed of stone formed by the earth is, in an essentialist theory, associated with the power of culture suppressing nature. The tomb is rough, dirty, and eternal which contrasts with Mendieta’s body and flowers that are fragile, pale, and transient. Thus, Jane Blocker explains that “culture, the masculine element of the pair, appears always to be more valued” (Blocker 56, 1999). However, Flowers on Body subverts this since the tomb is composed of rocks predating the monument itself enforcing the notion that all begins with the formation of the earth (Blocker 56, 1999). As such, Mendieta uses essentialist feminist techniques in Flowers on Body of aligning woman with nature to subvert the binary gender in which men are perceived as the powerful culture and women as the fragile nature constructed by men (Best 57). In fact, the natural materials that make up culture, like the rocks in the tomb, predate the cultural creation; and thus “culture does not have the last word in Mendieta’s performance” (Blocker 56, 1999). Therefore, as in early essentialist feminism, Mendieta “celebrated the female body” by actively using her nude body to show women’s independent power and freedom from male dominance (Meyer 322). In celebrating the female body through essentialism at the Zapotec tomb, Mendieta also presents the notion of nature’s dominance over culture, thus deconstructing the “traditional, gendered, nature-versus-culture dichotomy” (Gonzalez 41) used in essentialism in which “women are earthbound and primitive whereas men belong to the superior intellectual and spiritual order of the heavens” (Gonzalez 38). Instead, Mendieta embraces the anti-essentialist theory that neither culture nor nature has a fixed gender. Although Mendieta’s body is present but disappearing in Flowers on Body, it becomes absent in her following works of the Silueta series such as in Untitled, 1976 (color photograph of earth-body work with sand and red tempera) [Fig.2] that further allows her art to challenge essentialist critiques.

In Untitled, we are presented with an imprint of Mendieta’s body in sand filled with red tempera that is slowly being washed away by water from La Ventosa beach in Mexico[Fig.2]. The red tempera is bright and contrasts with the pale beige sand and clear blue water. It can be argued that the red tempera symbolizes blood, which in turn would reflect the notion of abjection in which we see the transgression of the inside and outside of the body and between self and other (Kristeva 1). The abject, coined by Julia Kristeva, refers to the reaction one has when presented with an image that collapses meaning and is thus considered dangerous causing anxiety (Kristeva 4). An example of the abject would be blood for it is a “signifier of the abject, of the body without boundaries which threatens the illusion of the contained, controlled, rational subject, and as such, threatens stability and social unity” (Ussher 6). As such, the notion of abjection can be applied to Untitled since Mendieta strategically pours red tempera in her silhouette acting as blood to represent her defiance against gendered identity (Kristeva 4). Specifically, blood is used by Mendieta to symbolise the rejection of concealing bodily functions that women are shamed for, such as menstruation or childbirth. Thus, it can be argued that the blood represents Mendieta’s menstruation that is concentrated below her abdomen while also crossing the border of the sand and into the water. Viewing the red tempera as menstruation is considered repulsive, but Mendieta overtly exposes her menstruation to show her rejection against the female convention to conceal and be ashamed of her bodily functions (Ussher 11). As such, Mendieta reinforces male fears in which the menstruation fluids, representing women’s rejection of disguising themselves in traditional modes of femininity, is being drained into the sea, crossing the boundaries of sand and dispelling into the world threating to distort social unity. However, the female body is not abject, “it has merely been positioned as such, with significant implications for women’s experiences of inhabiting a body so defined” (Ussher 7), which is what Mendieta portrays in Untitled. By positioning her silhouette in nature, a traditional mode of femininity in essentialist theory, Mendieta appears to reinforce the conventional role of women. Yet, by making the silhouette abject, she encourages women to break the stereotype of the female adjective body that must be hidden.   Furthermore, the sand represents a border that can both “contain and constrain women” (Ussher 7) from the threat of danger they impose to society. On the contrary, in Untitled the blood surpasses the border and Mendieta’s defiance to conceal her bodily fluids spreads into the water, into mainstream culture, symbolizing her desire for all women to stop disguising their body through nature that upholds the gender binary in which they are ashamed of their body. The blood crossing the border thus acts as a “breach between self and other” (Blocker 110, 1999). Therefore, Mendieta both disturbs identity and collapses the meaning of what it is to be a woman for it breaks the rules women are to follow regarding their body. The use of abjection emphasizes what is considered female taboos that Mendieta uses to make the identity of women ambiguous and not defined with nature, since the blood in her silhouette dispels male anxieties against the female body (Kristeva 4). The abject and the masquerade of femininity are both encompassed in this photograph. Therefore, Mendieta uses the essentialist technique of placing the female body in nature to suggest nature’s use as a traditional disguise of the female abject body. Mendieta brings this to the surface by explicitly exposing her bodily fluids in nature via her silhouette and instead Mendieta does so to transgress the boundaries that constrain women and position them as abject bodies according to male fears. Once the silhouette has been emptied of all the red tempera and dissolves, it reflects the notion of the “self as contingent and ephemeral rather than as solid or unified” (Tepfner 240), indicated the inability to have strictly constructed gender binaries enforced in anti-essentialist theories. Another aspect to consider in Untitled is that the imprint of Mendieta is presented in the form of a “Great Goddess” with arms held above her head in a T shape, a common motif in essentialist art used for celebrating the female body (Meyer 322). However, Mendieta uses the essentialist feminist goddess technique to deconstruct gender roles via gender performativity.

Similarly, in Alma Silueta en Fuego, 1975 (color photograph of earth-body work with rocks, sand, fire, and leaves) [Fig.3] the imprint of Mendieta is also in the Great Goddess form that, according to essentialists, “focused on breaking out of patriarchy by locating a separate history of women, by reclaiming the female body” (Blocker 59). The Great Goddess in Mendieta’s Silueta series has thus been viewed by scholars like Mira Schor as a “constant repetition of an unquestioned, generic Great Mother” (Schor 66), which is problematic for its claim to essentialist universalism that “presents a limited view of form and experience of femininity” (Schor 66). However, I argue alongside Susan Best and Jane Blocker who use Judith Butler’s idea of performativity to show that Mendieta “bypasses essentialist categories” (Blocker 25, 19999) while using goddess imagery. Gender performativity is described by Butler as when “we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us, but actually it’s a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time” (Butler), underscoring the fact that gender binaries are constructed via dominant social norms. Ultimately, Butler’s theory negates any notion of an innate gender identity. Therefore, gender is a performative act constructed by culture in which Mendieta “is and is not “herself”” (Blocker 25, 1999). In doing so, Mendieta comments on how women are meant to conform to the stereotype of woman as passive object rather than active subject. Gender as performative focuses on repeated actions, in this case the narrative of the female goddess body in nature, in which Mendieta disguises herself through traditional female behaviours as her body is considered an erotic object for the male gaze (Best 64). Thus, Mendieta creates a female identity over and over again. In both Untitled and Alma Silueta en Fuego, Mendieta associates women with the Great Goddess by using her silhouette that is encapsulated by two contrasting elements, fire, and water. The Great Goddess is constructed as a “female archetype that incorporated deities from many cultures” (Gonzalez 39) in which women are regarded as strong. Butler describes that “the critical task for feminism is not to establish a point of view outside of constructed identities” (Butler 201), reflecting Mendieta’s use of goddess imagery that conforms to the constructed identity of positive images of the female in essentialism (Broude 190).  In Alma Silueta en Fuego [Fig. 3], Mendieta used a cardboard model of her silhouette in goddess form and wrapped a white cloth around it which was drenched in liquid and gunpowder. She ignited the silhouette in the earth of Iowa and it was slowly consumed by fire (Viso 169). Once the fire died out, Mendieta’s silhouette remained filled with ashes. The performativity of this piece suggests that as the flames fade away and the ashes in the goddess shape disappear in the wind, so does the sense of innate identity (Gonzalez 52, Merewheter 133). Similarly, in Untitled [Fig. 2], as the red tempera disappears in the water and the goddess formed silhouette slowly disintegrates in the sand, the sense of identity also disappears in which woman is no longer constrained to nature. As such, fire and water were “metaphors for contemporary social struggles” (Viso 186) regarding identities. Therefore, both works display that the “dissolution of the body represents the lack of an essence” (Gonzalez 52). As such, Mendieta’s disappearing goddess silhouettes evokes Butler’s notion of a fluid identity as it is transient, washed away by the elements (Butler 188). Additionally, Alma Silueta en Fuego [Fig.3] translates to Soul Silhouette on Fire and when incorporated with the goddess pose, the uplifted arms, the work connotates the subject of the “soul burning in purgatory” (Viso 169) or a crucifixion referencing both Catholic tradition and Mexican folk art of burning effigies. As such, “the allusions to Jesus Christ allow Mendieta to equate a more primitive female figure with the Western world’s spiritual figurehead” (Gonzalez 61), emphasising the essentialist notion of the empowered woman. At the same time, Mendieta was also performing an identity that was not intrinsically hers in the sense that her inspiration derived from a culture that was not her own. Thus, by using the archetypal goddess pose in Alma Silueta en Fuego, Mendieta incorporated “an image present in Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures in Europe and Latin America as well as various ancient civilizations of Asia and the Middle East” (Gonzalez 61), in which she performs a culture foreign to her. The repetition of associating women with nature and the archetypal goddess while incorporating foreign cultures in Alma Silueta en Fuego, underscores the gender performativity of her Silueta series informing the viewer that gender is a social and cultural construct (Butler 202). Specifically, Mendieta’s performativity destabilises “the easy location of identity in part by undermining the coherence of categories like the personal and the political, by seeing individual acts as inseparable from complex discursive power relations” (Blocker 25, 1999). In Alma Silueta en Fuego, the subject is both Mendieta and a universal female figure (the Great Goddess) that are constructed by culture norms associated with essentialism, but whose disappearance in nature brings forth Butler’s idea of a fluid gender and anti-essentialism. As such, Mendieta used the traditional goddess imagery pertinent to essentialism to demonstrate the performativity of her Silueta series that focuses on the absent body in which gender is presented as fluid and nonbiological, a key aspect of anti-essentialism (Garrard 23).

Mendieta died in 1985 as a crucial figure in history for she left a great impact on the position of female artists. Through an analysis of her Silueta series and their iconography, it can be argued that Mendieta’s aim was to overcome the marginal role assigned to women by challenging pre-determined gender roles. Although Mendieta’s art has been described as “encouraging a glorification of women” (Cabañas 15) and “overly narcissistic and reductive” (Raine 303) by 1980s feminist artists of the deconstruction movement, Mendieta demonstrates through her strategic use of essentialism, abjection, and performativity, that she did not depict women as objects. Due to backlash on 1970s feminism, Mendieta was either labelled as an essentialist feminist or as ethnically other, but few ask how Mendieta’s feminist art was different from other women (Blocker 21, 1999). It can be stated that Mendieta’s Silueta series does address traditional concerns of 1970s essentialist art for she does use her body, goddess imagery, and she draws on a personal quest to find her identity (Tepfner 240). However, Mendieta does so without establishing a definite identity based on gender since it was impossible to trace a point of origin, as seen in Flowers on Body [Fig.1]. Thus, in her own identity quest, Mendieta “forces us to question the difference between the sexes” (Creissels 183). Furthermore, in each work, Mendieta’s body is either absent or disappearing which is “striking given that most feminist artists during the 1970s vied for visibility” (Kwon 168). Instead, Mendieta used her absent body as an impersonal screen with no gender fixed identity, as seen in Untitled [Fig.2] and Alma Silueta en Fuego [Fig.3], which goes against the essentialist belief of an innate sexual identity (Solomon-Godeau 343). As such, Mendieta incorporates aspects of first wave essentialist feminism in which she posits an empowered vision of women, and second wave anti-essentialist feminism by challenging notions of a fixed femininity. She challenged notions of a fixed femininity via the absence of her body in each work, through deconstructing the gendered nature/culture dichotomy in Flowers on Body, by using abjection in Untitled, and by using gender performativity combined with goddess imagery in Alma Silueta en Fuego. Each work thus uses essentialist techniques, precisely the female body as goddess aligned with nature, but Mendieta deploys them strategically to comment on the inability to have a female essence that is universal. Therefore, “Mendieta exploits this slipperiness to produce a work of bewildering complexity in which the meanings of gender, race, and nation are by turns fixed and disrupted” (Blocker 126, 1999). It is for these reasons that Mendieta’s Silueta series has resisted easy categorization as either essentialist or anti-essentialist. Thus, her earth-body works encourage viewers to look through both feminist lenses to see how her work is multifaceted and that the feminist binary historical categories are rather ambiguous due to Mendieta’s propositions that are “between feminist claiming and negation of the body” (Creissels 183).


Works Cited

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