Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 24, 2020
Genevieve Hyacinthe Radical Virtuosity: Ana Mendieta and the Black Atlantic Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019. 352 pp.; 78 color ills.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780262042703)

Genevieve Hyacinthe’s Radical Virtuosity: Ana Mendieta and the Black Atlantic bridges a gap in scholarship on Ana Mendieta (1948–1985), exploring the role of Afro-Caribbean syncretism in the Cuban artist’s work. Although the titles of her Earthworks, performances, photographs, and moving-image works directly reference non-Western deities, and while several scholars note the importance of spirituality for Mendieta, no publication until now has extensively contextualized her work in Black Atlantic cultures. Hyacinthe convincingly argues that a Black Atlantic lens sharpens our interpretation of the sculptor’s practice. At its most successful, Radical Virtuosity revitalizes readings of Mendieta’s artworks by theorizing Black Atlantic rituals, polemicizing reductive identity politics, and placing both experience and reception at the core of art historical inquiry. At other times, the author could more fully embrace its speculative approach and work less to try to verify the artist’s awareness of specific rituals or deities.

Borrowing Paul Gilroy’s notion of supranational “polyphonic” Blackness, Hyacinthe interprets art through practices such as Haitian voodoo, Afro-Brazilian candomblé, and especially Afro-Cuban Santeria. Practiced primarily in the Americas, Santeria combines Catholic saints with Yoruba deities in el monté, the in-between underworld housing these deities, or orichás. Initiated devotees and believers are called aborichas. Hyacinthe repurposes terminology from the Santeria and Yoruba religions to reinterpret established readings of Mendieta’s work.

Serio (“embodiment”) and árbitra (unconventionally translated to “witnessing”) are for Hyacinthe “two modes of indoctrinating an aspirant” (75). In the first chapter, she explores how such witnessing and embodiment enable new interpretations of Mendieta’s process and access to her “collaborative performative structures” (75). She carefully observes Imagen de Yágul (1973) through serio, resulting in the piece’s reenactment. Just like Mendieta, Hyacinthe lay down naked, covered in flowers, in an old pre-Hispanic tomb near Oaxaca City, Mexico. This experience raised Hyacinthe’s awareness not only of Mendieta’s endurance in performances but also of her controlled posture and the risks of working in a guarded archaeological site. Simultaneously, such “serio engagement” risks exaggerating the significance of otherwise practical aspects in artistic production: for instance, that the flowers covering Mendieta’s body were purchased from a Oaxacan saleswoman ought to evoke “a feeling of the coalition and collectivity in Mendieta’s performatives with people located peripherally to socioeconomic and cultural centers of power” (95).

In the second chapter, Hyacinthe focuses on el monté to interpret Mendieta’s work and biography. Roughly translating to “wilderness” or “the bush,” the term is expanded by Hyacinthe to mean a strategy of resistance against the established order at times embodied by the trickster orichá of the crossroads, Eleggúa (105, 155). Here Hyacinthe’s claims of influence are on solid ground: El Monte (1954) is also the name of a publication by Lydia Cabrera and considered a “black bible” among Santeria practitioners; Mendieta owned a copy. Hyacinthe notes that Mendieta became acquainted with Santeria early in life through her nannies, as the child of a white, upper-class family in Havana, before being relocated in 1961 to a foster home in Iowa. Less compelling is when she assimilates Mendieta to deities. For example, “Eleggúa has his feet in two worlds, like Mendieta, a young girl in exile who in turn becomes an artist in exile” (127); “Mendieta, as a self-proclaimed Afro-Caribbean and Mayan shaman, is Eleggúa’s aboricha and Ixchel’s devotee” (176). Although Mendieta did call herself “shaman of pre-Iberian-Afro-Caribbean goddesses” in a private letter to friend and curator Lucy Lippard, it remains purely conjectural if in her work Mendieta portrays herself as a deity (134).

If such claims overburden the artist’s identity, Hyacinthe’s unwonted observations on playfulness cleverly combine a Black Atlantic lens with biography. She notes that during the artist’s residency in Rome, she signed letters as Itali-Ana, as opposed to her usual Tropic-Ana (292). Discussing Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) (1972), a photograph of Mendieta with a mustache, Hyacinthe identifies “brown countercultural machismo” coalescing with playful cross-dressing (160). Julia Bryan-Wilson has observed that Mendieta’s drag conveys “an exaggerated playful artifice” amplifying the “performativity of gender and race” (in Ana Mendieta: Traces, ed. Stephanie Rosenthal, Hayward, 2014, 30). Hyacinthe expands upon that reflection to argue that Mendieta channels the playful devilishness of Eleggúa, who “cross[es] genders with impunity” (175). The artist’s sense of play is no doubt tragically obscured by her to-this-day unresolved death. In this instance Hyacinthe works both with and against the artist’s biography. Her Black Atlantic approach highlights Mendieta’s signature wit and the works’ playful character.

In the final chapter, the author counters the ephemerality attributed to Mendieta’s Earthworks (unlike the permanence ascribed to Robert Smithson’s) by emphasizing the inscription of labor and endurance in her Siluetas. The multimedia series consists of silhouettes abstracted from her body’s contours and imprinted in wood, mud, and sand. Mendieta’s Earthworks, following Hyacinthe, endure in terms of performative duress and intermediality. Hyacinthe credits still and moving images, commonly misread as performance documentation, with making the Earthworks more accessible; for the author, Mendieta’s “accessibility” challenged Smithson’s monumental scales and “puppet-master control . . . with the collectivizing outreach of her hand to marginalized everyday people” (196). Although the Black Atlantic is less present in this chapter, Hyacinthe does point out that Mendieta usually worked in the countryside, which she reads as the wildness of “el monté settings” (205). Contrary to Land art, Mendieta’s “intimate relationships with earth” enable connections with the marginalized worldwide (214).

At the core of Radical Virtuosity lies the recognition of the potential of Mendieta’s art to forge collectivity and affirm the radical politics of aesthetic experience. The multiple films, contact sheets, and photographs of the same performance make possible a plurality of aesthetic responses. Hyacinthe’s main thesis holds that “these performatives resonate with other similarly occupying positions of marginalization in global contexts” (61). Such shared identifications, borrowing from scholar bell hooks, “facilitate an audience’s ‘talking back’” (24). Hyacinthe argues that Mendieta’s “performatives” not only endure in their multiple media but also register endurance and therefore “foster collaborative audience engagement and signify notions of collectivity” (202). Nonetheless, if the many “vistas of her intense work” are time-based media—which, as such, organize time—what is the specific temporality of their experiencing? Hyacinthe asserts “we collaborate by prolonging her works’ temporality through engagement and callback, extending their presence and relevance,” but she does not tend to the specific organizations and experiences of time resulting from the chosen media, nor to how this prolonged temporality impacts “talking back.” Does it matter what experiences of time and place arise from viewing Mendieta’s films or photographs of the same Silueta? Are such spatiotemporal orders so specific to her work while also so universalizing of human experience that they radicalize forms of collectivity? Hyacinthe invites such questions but does not address them.

Yet Hyacinthe’s discussion of slowness hints at what a thorough exploration of the temporal dimension of aesthetic experience could achieve. She mentions how “the artist’s transposition of any one performative into various media begs us to look at any one work with a slow temporality” (73). Discussing Mendieta’s Siluetas in Bear Mountain, New York, Hyacinthe notes how “down-tempo . . . further connects you to Mendieta and the collective of black Atlantic Latino refuge-seekers” (99). However, how “slow” experiences help marginal subjects to coalesce remains unattended. Similarly missing is a consideration of how the aesthetics of slowness or a Black Atlantic approach could counter what Elizabeth Freeman terms “chrononormativity,” the organization of time geared toward productivity (Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press, 2010, 3). The time of waiting might come closer to the temporality shared by her intermedial works, the aforementioned “refuge-seekers,” and a temporal regime enabling collective formations.

Although Hyacinthe misses the opportunity to engage temporality more thoroughly, she succeeds with her suggestive attention to appropriation. As a white Cuban, Mendieta could be accused of appropriating Black Atlantic cultures. Yet Hyacinthe borrows scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s expanded definition of brownness as a “sense of the world” to endorse intersectional politics that are not reduced to skin color. She deems appropriation acceptable when it seeks “to forge alliances and political intimacies with other subalterns or marginalized people” (272). This understanding of aesthetics urges for solidarity and Global South allegiances, opening Mendieta’s work up to conversation with a wide range of artists, such as David Hammons, Frida Kahlo, Yolanda López, Wangechi Mutu, Adrian Piper, Leandro Soto, and Rufino Tamayo.

Radical Virtuosity concludes with a discussion of Mendieta’s rich legacy and influences. Hyacinthe addresses Beyoncé, Destiny Frasqueri (Princess Nokia), Félix González-Torres, Mexican eighteenth-century casta paintings, and much more. Although the relationship between Mendieta and these varied comparisons grows thin at times, the book extensively revises the reception history of her work and successfully argues for the political and historical import of a Black Atlantic lens to explain how “hegemonic whiteness is ‘othered’” in Mendieta’s art (38).

José B. Segebre Salazar
Doctoral Candidate in Philosophy/Aesthetics, Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) Offenbach am Main