In a series of untitled photographs produced in 1972, Ana Mendieta presses her body against a plate of glass. The clear plane flattens her nose, stomach, thighs, breasts, lips, and tongue in sometimes grotesque and sometimes comical ways. But whether they're awkward or graceful distortions, all the photographs produce the unsettling desire to see what we simply can't — a portrait of the artist.
Amanda Crider, artistic director of IlluminArts, found the series particularly compelling as she investigated Mendieta for IlluminArts' 18th program of classical music arranged in response to visual artists' work. Titled A Female Force, the performance will include seven women musicians and two video screens, as well as a selection of music with origins ranging from 1100 A.D. to today.
"I’m a classical musician by trade, but it’s so wonderful to get to discover an artist and especially one like Mendieta," Crider says. "It’s like peeling an onion — there’s so much to discover about her and her work. I found that something very important in her work was her interaction with the Earth and the different elements: fire, blood, water. I wanted to try to incorporate that into the musical choices."
These elements appeared most frequently and famously in Mendieta's Siluetas, which she produced throughout her short career. (Mendieta died tragically in 1985 in New York at the age of 36.) Carved into the earth, drawn with blood or grass, or set aflame with gunpowder, the artist used her own body to, in her words, "reestablish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source."
In her selection of classical compositions, Crider was inspired by Mendieta's communion with nature. Performed in tandem with a film Mendieta produced in a creek is a composition of Sarah Kirkland Snider's that includes a flowing, meandering harp melody. A firey operatic solo with piano reflects the charred outlines of some of Mendieta's forms. And though it might be tempting to associate these earth-based works and the Yoruba goddesses that inspired them with an affirmation of female identity, it's clear to Crider it wasn't that simple for Mendieta. Though the title and imagery of the IlluminArts performance nod to the female body, the night is slated to go much deeper than the physical.
"The lines of [Mendieta's] own femininity were so blurred as well," Crider reflects, "making herself beautiful and also masculine. She had pictures of herself with facial hair. So I think we will highlight the feminine body in many different ways throughout the performance."
As part of Operation Peter Pan, a 12-year-old Mendieta was ushered out of Cuba and taken to Iowa. She maintained that her relocation was a centralizing drive for her craft, making the female form an exploration of not only home and identity but also spirituality and origin. Much of the process of her Siluetas came from Santería rituals, which imbue her images with a primitivism that personally fascinated her. But Crider hopes to capture some of the ritualistic elements of Mendieta's work through more than just the artist's imagery. By incorporating a batá drummer — a style of drumming derived from Santería ritual — Crider wants to honor that aspect of Mendieta's work.
"Traditionally, [batá] is only played by men, but within the last 20 years, women have been doing it," Crider explains. "So I have a female batá drummer who's going to open and close the program. I wanted the drumming to draw people into the space. To begin and end with that kind of ritual felt really appropriate for Ana’s work."
And though the music is related in content and practice, it also speaks to Mendieta's process as an artist. Working in film, performance, photography, sculpture, and drawing, Mendieta was a multimedia artist whose legacy is mostly the documentary of ephemeral acts. For Crider, this fact only made the artist more appealing for musical accompaniment. Mendieta's work didn't fit into traditional notions of performance art because she did not require a live audience to witness it. Her art was temporary, which is why she used photography.
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"Something that drew me to her work was that she performed it on her own. I thought that was a really interesting parallel to music, because at a concert, you just experience it in that moment. It’s just there for people in the room, and we document it through recording," Crider explains.
The night of music is sure to reframe and realize Mendieta's art within multiple new contexts. Those familiar with her work can appreciate the new life being brought to it and simultaneously be introduced to women in classical performance and composition. That is, after all, the ultimate goal of IlluminArts.
"When I moved to Miami, I wanted to bring something that I love to this community in a way that made sense to Miami," Crider says. "When we can be close to the art, it’s such a beautiful dance between the two art forms."