Published  13/03/2014

Ana Mendieta in Rome: interview with Raquel Cecilia

Ana Mendieta in Rome: interview with Raquel Cecilia

Studio International talks to film-maker Raquel Cecilia about documenting Ana Mendieta’s last creative years in Italy


Since Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta died in 1985 at the age of 36 in tragic and obscure circumstances, many efforts – including the seemingly definitive 2004 travelling exhibition Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985 organised by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC – have been initiated to ensure her presence in contemporary art history and revisit critical appraisal of her work.1

In 2013 alone, two retrospectives reminded visitors that Mendieta’s voice continues to resonate even after her death: Ana Mendieta. She Got Love at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin followed by the Hayward Gallery’s Ana Mendieta: Traces in London.2 Apart from her haunting, experimental earth-body works, sculptures, films and photographs, Mendieta has become a symbol for many people who draw strength from her fearless dialogue with their concerns: gender bias in the arts; violence against women globally; racial discrimination; personal and cultural alienation; and the enduring ability of nature – in Mendieta’s view a benevolent feminine power celebrated in matriarchal societies and primitive religions – to restore and heal the soul.

Although less widely covered than the Hayward Gallery show, the Turin exhibit provided another reminder: Mendieta spent her last and most settled years in Italy while in residence at the American Academy in Rome. As the exhibit developed, an idea for a short film about Mendieta’s work at the academy blossomed between the artist’s sister Raquelin and Mary Sabbatino, vice-president of Galerie Lelong in New York City, which represents Mendieta. It was not difficult to find the right person for the project: Raquelin’s daughter, Raquel Cecilia, studied film at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and the University of Miami and earned her MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles. She shot her first short narrative piece in 1995, at the age of 25. Titled Sonia, the film rendered the emotional world of a college girl who has a crush on her best friend.

As her godmother, first art teacher and creative inspiration, Mendieta left an indelible impression on the young Raquel Cecilia. After making a few trips to Italy and New York for research, the film-maker realised that only a full-length feature encompassing an entire life could convey the urgency, complexity and humanity of its subject. Describing herself as a writer and director, Raquel Cecilia says that documentary is a new form for her, but adds: “I have wanted to tell this story since I started film school.”

In a moving essay she wrote for the Turin exhibition catalogue, Raquel Cecilia explains the effect of visiting Italy nearly 30 years after Mendieta lived there: “Retracing my aunt Ana’s footsteps became a sort of pilgrimage as soon as I came to Rome. Walking through the cobbled streets, I wondered how many times she had done the same. How many times had her feet struck the same stone, the same stairwell that led from the American Academy to Trastevere.”3

Although conscious of Mendieta’s deep connection to Rome, Raquel Cecilia was not prepared for how the city would “entice me, would make me feel that Ana’s presence still lingered in the places like the restaurant near the Pantheon that she frequented and the print shop where she created the book Romolo Bulla printed,” a collaboration between the artist and her husband, sculptor Carl Andre, on a series of limited-edition lithographs.4

Cindi di Marzo spoke with Raquel Cecilia about her documentary-in-progress; the discoveries she made in Italy; and the sculptures Mendieta worked on during the American Academy residency.

Cindi di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with Studio International, Raquel. What stage are you at with the documentary?

Raquel Cecilia: We are in post-production. I have been editing for over a year now, but the process of editing a documentary is so different from editing narratives as there is no script. With a documentary, you are finding the story as you edit. Because of this we have continued to shoot interviews through the post process.

CDM: Do you have a title? The possibilities that may be drawn from her themes and imagery are daunting.

RC: We’ve played with a lot of titles, but it was difficult to commit to one because the film kept changing and I feel that a title should capture the theme of the film. Now that I’m committed to the direction we’re moving in, I have found a title that is exciting to me. But we’re keeping it under wraps until we’re ready to release the film to the public.

CDM: How are you approaching your aunt’s position as both an artist in her own right and a symbol whose devastating end continues to overshadow much of what is written about her? Can the two be separated?

RC: I am hoping that this film will show Ana as a real person, someone who was multifaceted and had dreams and fears just like anyone else. This is why I interviewed her friends and people who knew her. They are the ones telling the story, so it is like a memory piece. Several people told me that the most important thing for Ana was her work, that she was driven by it. Ana had many friends. I believe we interviewed more than 30 people and that doesn’t include many others she knew well.

I discovered an interview she did with art historian Joan Marter in February 1985 that had never been published. In the interview, Ana says: “One of the things that I have found is important to me in my life, and I have found it’s the same in Italy, is friends. You know, that’s a value. If I had to make a list of what is important for your quality of life to live, I would say that after health, my biggest priorities would be my friends.” So although her work was important to her, Ana’s friends and family were just as valued by her.

Before we started shooting, I had to ask myself if questioning people about her death would be appropriate and I wondered how I would approach that part of her story. The answer came quickly to me. We can’t ignore the fact that she’s gone and how she died, but that isn’t her story. It’s just a part of it. To me, the most interesting part is her life and the work she created in such a short time.

CDM: It must be difficult for you and your mother [Mendieta’s sister Raquelin] to revisit painful events and memories. Has doing the documentary also been cathartic or, perhaps, transformative?

RC: I think it’s probably very different for me than it is for my mother because she is part of the story and was a big part of Ana’s life. I’ve always been on the outside of it. Although my aunt was a big part of my life, I can’t say I was a big part of hers. It was very traumatic for me when she died. It was such a shock and it affected our entire family and changed my approach to life. My aunt was a hero to me and I admired and looked up to her. Doing this documentary and learning about her life and her work was like getting to know her as an adult and seeing her accomplishments and flaws from the eyes of a peer. She was younger than I am now when she died and that was eye-opening for me. [Making the film] was cathartic and I feel it was for a lot of her friends. Some of us have become very close and I love that because it’s like having my aunt back in my life again.

CDM: Your previous films have been narratives. Has doing a documentary affected your methods?

RC: I am in love with documentary now. I am a screenwriter and never considered that I would [do a documentary] because I enjoyed creating the story and the characters on paper, but this process of having just an idea and meeting with people and hearing stories and then going to the editing room with a bunch of talking heads has been a really creative experience for me. I found it was like putting a puzzle together when you don’t have the picture to look at and that is a challenge I find exciting.

CDM: How are you balancing the great potential for dramatic storytelling inherent in your aunt’s extreme life and art with the serious need to clarify aspects of them?

RC: I have let Ana’s friends tell the story. If more than one person tells me something, then I assume it’s valid because it’s not just a faded memory of one person. There are parts of Ana’s life that not many people know about because there hasn’t been an opportunity for them to be written about other than in the book Naked by the Window, which is out of print.5 This documentary also focuses on Ana’s art and the themes she explored in her art, so I am trying to balance biography and art.

CDM: Are you bringing your shared love of experimentation into this film?

RC: Yes. It’s very challenging to make a film about a person who isn’t alive anymore and you don’t have video or film of them talking. Because of that, I’ve had to be creative and that is when I find myself feeling the most liberated and inspired.

CDM: In your catalogue essay, you wrote about meeting people who worked with your aunt on her “trunks”. These sculptures marked a transition from the earth-body works to permanent objects. What did you learn about the trunks from the people you spoke with and your own observations?

RC: The trunks, her final pieces, were, I believe, the beginning of something new that she was excited about. They were prototypes for an outdoor work she planned to do at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. She was supposed to travel there in the fall [1985; she died in September] and install similar sculptures in a semi-circle of trees. These sculptures would have been the most permanent pieces she had created outdoors. The others were not meant to endure, but she was researching how to preserve these trunks.

Before she started working with wood in Rome, she was making floor pieces out of sand and dirt. She had created some similar works prior to being in Rome and exhibited one at a show at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in 1983, which was curated by Nancy Spero.6 The floor pieces are like the siluetas she created in nature, but are transportable and not connected to the earth. The images and shapes are the same, but she was exploring how to make the work permanent. The first piece she did like this was done in Iowa in 1980. It is like a mini floor piece.

CDM: How do these trunks connect to the tree of life motif evident in many of her earlier works and the shield project she made in 1982 for the Lowe Museum in Miami?

RC: Ana spoke several times about recurring themes in her work. One of these was the tree of life. Early on, her work was influenced by Mexican art and culture and played a large role in the shift to her working in nature. Ana’s final pieces, the four trunks that she was proposing for MacArthur Park, were obviously connected to that theme because of the shapes she burnt on to the trees with gunpowder. I had read in a letter about shields she was creating in 1984 and discovered that the first trunk originally had a handle inside, like a shield, so I knew these were the pieces she had described as shields.

The works she did on wood slabs could also be like shields. Ana was interested in African art and had taken a roll of photos at a museum of African shields. You know the ones that are made of wood and have carved images on the outsides of them? They remind me of the wood slabs she created in Rome. One of the pieces that she created for the show at the Lowe in 1982 was a tree of life, but she also referred to it as a shield in her personal files so I believe she saw a connection between the tree of life and these shields.

CDM: I have read that your aunt’s restless energy and nearly obsessive need to make art calmed when she was in Italy. What did you learn about her demeanour while you were there?

RC: She created so much work in that two-year period, and I don’t think her energy towards her art dissipated at all. She also travelled all over Europe while maintaining friendships with people in the United States and making new ones in Italy. She was excited about having a studio and exploring works that could be more permanent. I think she made at least nine floor pieces that no longer exist and 11 that remain. She made six burnt wood slabs, four “Totem Grove” trunks, about 300 drawings and sketches, works on leaves, and her book with Carl Andre. She also did an outdoor work at RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design]. But I do think that her attitude towards balancing work with her personal life shifted.

Being in Italy reminded her of what was important. She felt a strong pull back to her family and friends because of the Italian culture being similar to Cuban culture. Ana always placed an emphasis on her friendships, but being in Italy brought it to the forefront of her awareness. She felt like she belonged there. At the time that she died, she was making plans to stay.

CDM: It seems that the permanent objects are not a departure. Could they be seen as a natural progression?

RC: When you look at Ana’s main body of work starting with the siluetas and its progression to the final wood sculptures, it all connects fluidly. I was fascinated by the works she did in nature that look like the floor pieces but that are in the earth. She changed the shape of the silueta to become more universal and almost primitive, which makes them timeless. After doing these for several years in different locations, she started the process of creating these shapes in more permanent forms. First, she painted on to amate paper; then she scratched on to leaves; finally, she formed sculptures out of sand and earth.7 When she went back to working in wood she used gunpowder, which is a material she was familiar with, and she integrated these shapes with the wood. It is the perfect marriage between nature and the human body.

She was also beginning to experiment with bronze. A cactus leaf pressed into wax was found in her studio after she died. The leaf had sprouted and grown. It’s such a beautiful image.

CDM: Is this part of Ana’s untold story, what might have been?

RC: I don’t think I can guess what Ana’s life might have been. She was very spontaneous and she was an adventurer. We all know that she was planning to stay in Rome, but I wonder if she would have stayed there.

CDM: Are there one or two characteristics that define your aunt for you? Something that spurred you to become an artist and pass the tradition on to your five-year-old daughter, who I understand is a budding artist?

RC: The fact that she had a dream and didn’t give up, that inspires me daily. That she had something to say. You have to be true to the voice within you and not be affected by other people. It’s important to believe in your work. My daughter is constantly telling people about her great-aunt Ana who worked in nature. She totally gets it.

CDM: What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?

RC: If they don’t know who she is, I hope they walk away with a true understanding of the person she was and want to learn more about her work. If they know who she is, I hope there is a clarification of some of the facts that have been misunderstood about her, or that they revel in the memory of her, which I hope makes them smile. Ana loved to laugh and have a good time. She wasn’t just an ambitious person. She enjoyed life, which is why I want to celebrate that part of her through this film.

CDM: Thank you for speaking with Studio International, Raquel. We wish you the best for completing your documentary and look forward to its release.

• For more information about Raquel Cecilia’s documentary on Ana Mendieta and updates on its release date, projected for autumn 2014, visit Corazón Pictures:

1. For a recap of the circumstances of Mendieta’s death and subsequent acquittal of her husband, artist Carl Andre, on murder charges, see Studio International’s review by Anna McNay of Traces, held at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, in 2013:
2. The title, Ana Mendieta. She Got Love, derives from one of Mendieta’s more controversial films, in which she recorded herself writing these words with blood-covered hands across a white door.
3. Ana Mendieta. She Got Love, edited by Beatrice Merz and Olga Gambari, published by Skira, 2013, page 58.
4. Pietre Foglie (Duet of Stone and Leaf) by Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta, published by RR Bulla, 1984, a limited edition of 20 lithographs presented at the AAM Gallery in Rome on the day that Andre and Mendieta wed.
5. Naked by the Window: The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta by Robert Katz, published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991.
6. Seven Women/Image Impact (25 September – 20 November 1983). Artists included were Mendieta, Sonia Balassanian, Anne Pitrone, Judy Rifka, Susan Rothenberg, Dena Shottenkirk and Mimi Smith.
7. The making of amate paper from the bark of the amate tree by the Otomí Indians from the Sierra de Puebla in Mexico dates to pre-Colombian Meso-American culture. 

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