Who is Ana Mendieta? Maybe if you know her name it’s because she went “out a window,” as her husband Carl Andre put it when the police came to question him about her mysterious death. (Charged with her murder, he was later acquitted.) Maybe a few people know that she was once an important visual and performance artist who has been forgotten since her death in 1985. But anyone who has seen her work melding nature, self-portrait and Thanatos would have trouble forgetting her.
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She’s now the subject of a heartbreaking graphic biography, written and drawn by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron, following Mendieta through her development as an artist and her death at the (alleged) hands of her husband. It opens with a history of the women killed or assaulted by their male artist counterparts—from William Burroughs’ wife (shot in the face) to Norman Mailer’s wife (stabbed in the chest). A large number of women have been lost to the rage of their artist husbands, and for the most part, those murders and assaults have been forgiven by the audience and the artistic community. Redfern and Caron have halted this impulse, and asked us to remember and honor this woman, both her life and her work.
Who is Ana Mendieta? is the first in a series called Blind Spot, published by The Feminist Press, re-introducing women artists and writers to a contemporary audience. Christine Redfern was kind enough to answer some questions about her collaboration with Caron.
I wanted to ask about your connection to Ana Mendieta's artwork. Why tell her story?
La Centrale is a feminist artist-run center, and we were talking about how when we looked at the art scene around us, we could easily see what an integral role women played in the vitality of that scene. We’re working, working, working. But we also noticed that the women who were active the generation before us, the stories about their work and contributions, were not being passed on as much in art schools, institutions, nor by individual artists when discussing their predecessors.
Pascale Malaterre I remember suggested Mendieta [for a subject]—though she had forgotten her name and said, “You know, the one who did the piece where she was kissing the skeleton?” And we started talking about Mendieta and after that, we never discussed anyone else, she was it. To tell the truth, that was the first time I had ever heard her name or had heard about her work or heard about how she died. I had two university degrees at that point, had been pursuing my path as an artist for around 15 years and had been writing about the visual arts for four years. Her name never came up before that meeting.
That introduction with the list of women killed/attacked by male artists is brutal. What do you think Mendieta's story reveals about how male violence is enabled and protected in our culture?
I think people are uncomfortable talking about it and like it says at the end of the comic, they hope it will all just go away. I find there are a lot of similarities between Carl Andre and O.J. Simpson. I didn’t watch the O.J. Simpson trial, but I actually remember I felt sorry for the guy on the day they were announcing the verdict. They had the close-up shot of him on TV and everyone, everywhere was watching, myself included. It felt like I was watching a hanging: this widespread public interest in watching someone else go down. Then they said “not guilty” and my mouth fell open. I just couldn’t compute how this could have happened. I know that some people thought it was a victory. And I realize that discrimination is not a thing of the past in the States and elsewhere. But as a woman, I was horrified. I remember these two women next to me laughing, and I said to them, “They are telling us you can behead your ex-wife and get away with it.” They looked at my outburst like I was insane, but it really bothered me.
Or how about all the weirdness recently with Charlie Sheen? The media was all over his every word, every move—seemingly enjoying giving him a ridiculous amount of airtime because he was acting so bizarre. Yet not many journalists took the time to bring up his history of violence against women and confront him on this issue. The truth is, people don’t want to acknowledge it. Like inequality, violence against women is not something people want to discuss, because if they pretend it isn’t there, they do not have to do anything about it.
Projects like Blind Spot or even the Orange Prize for fiction written by women tend to be criticized, because supposedly if these artists or writers were any good, they'd already be in the canon, or they'd already be winning the other awards. How do you feel about that line of thought?
Yeah, right! Ha, ha. I suppose my answer to that question would be to look at an example from the musical world. There was a time when certain orchestras were male-only, and when certain instruments were considered masculine or feminine. The process of hiring was found to be too subjective, filled with favoritism, so “blind auditions” became mandatory in the field. Everyone applying for a position had to audition anonymously behind a screen. You know what? The strangest thing happened. Women started to be hired in record numbers, and on “masculine” instruments. Why? Because they played the instruments the best when the hiring committees listened with only their ears and were not affected by preconceived ideas they received from their eyes. When you hire the best musicians, better music is the result.
In the arts specifically, I do believe women do not get the same opportunities as men and the prizes and Who Is Ana Mendieta? are a way to bring public attention to creative work by women. A few years ago, I did an interview with Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and we touched on this topic specifically. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
CR: I notice the Whitechapel started giving an award for the top female artist (in Britain).
IB: Yes...the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. I was asked quite recently about why should we need to do this, because there are so many women who are prominent in the art world. If you look at art schools it is usually 50/50 in female/male students, in fact maybe a bit more than that. Five years down the road where are the women? The first year Margaret Salmon won, a complete unknown from Hunsford. But as a consequence of the prize she got into the Venice Biennale, a gallerist in London, one in Germany, so it just went ‘Fumpf’ for her. And she has a baby, she has two actually, and the prize made it possible for her to do all that.
Are there other writers or artists you'd like to bring out of our blind spot?
The possibilities are endless—but the next book I am working on is about the life and work of Judi Bari. She led the fight in Northern California in the 1980s and ’90s to save the ancient Redwood forests. Her story is interesting as it brings together issues involving the environment, labor, security, big business and government. Hers is a voice that, like Mendieta’s, seems to become more relevant and powerful as time passes, not less.
Jessa Crispin is the editor-in-chief of Bookslut.