Despite her untimely passing in 1985, Cuban-born, American artist Ana Mendieta continues to shape modern thinking about many themes including gender, cultural displacement and body discourse. Among those profoundly influenced by Mendieta’s legacy are contemporary artists Simone Leigh and Gina Osterloh. This research critically compares Mendieta's artwork to that of Leigh and Osterloh in terms of identity, feminism, and the body. While their approaches to these themes differ, all three artists incorporate their bodies within their work in order to connect with the rest of the world.
Twelve year-old Ana Mendieta and her sister involuntarily left their family in revolutionary Cuba to live in an orphanage in Iowa. Mendieta’s art legacy includes an innovative combination of numerous mediums, including her earth-body sculptures, which amalgamated land art, body art, and performance. Realizing the feminist movement of Western (white) society largely neglected women of color, Mendieta explored her Cuban roots. Her work is both semiautobiographical and ambiguously political, appropriating indigenous components of art to address issues of identity, feminism, and ethnicity.
To begin, in chapter one I will analyze Ana Mendieta’s work in terms of a search for her personal identity. Art critics plagued Mendieta throughout her lifetime placing her in identity categories. Mendieta’s struggle to defy social constraints led her to explore identity politics throughout her work. Simone Leigh and Gina Osterloh further Mendieta’s emphasis on identity politics through complex explorations of identity within their works. Politics of identity, specifically fragmentation, cultural and self-identification, shaped Mendieta’s works. Gina Osterloh explores themes of visibility and invisibility, attempting to abstract and obscure the identity of subjects within her work. Like Mendieta, Leigh explores her diasporic roots through numerous media, including sculpture and video. Her practice is very research based and heavily considers feminist discourse and histories of political resistance.
In chapter two I will argue that Mendieta did not essentialize the female body. Her observation that the 1970s feminist movement overlooked women of color plays a significant role in her work as well as in the work of Osterloh and Leigh. All three artists seek to break through social constructions of race, gender, and ethnicity. Gina Osterloh’s performance Prick! is a post-feminist critique on call and response relationships. Mendieta’s work encapsulates third wave feminism, she sought to challenge second wave feminism’s essentialist view of femininity. All three artists address the complexities of feminism within their work explore the social constructions of gender and femininity and attempt to break down boundaries to open dialogues for new discussions about feminism. Gina Osterloh works in Los Angeles and uses photography and video as integrative sites for questions of visibility, invisibility, and perception. Within her constructed paper rooms, the body—whether human, paper-māché, wood cutout—explores the idea of camouflage.
In chapter three I will assess Mendieta’s contribution to body discourse. All of Mendieta’s video works are mute, underscoring the focus on the actions of her body. Osterloh uses abstracted bodies within her paper-constructed rooms as a means to bring awareness about the importance of not making conclusions about people and their affiliations. Leigh uses the body to go beyond Mendieta’s exploration to show the racial and gendered body in a positive light. Mendieta traces the outline of her body in the Silueta Series similar to Osterloh’s use of camouflage. Mendieta, Osterloh and Leigh use their own bodies to explore themes of the displaced, marginalized and disempowered.