Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Look at your fingers. Name as many male artists as you can. Stop. Start again, this time with female artists. Have you filled one hand?
Statistics up to 2019 show that women earn 70% of Bachelor of Fine Arts and 65–75% of Master of Fine Arts degrees in the United States, though only 46% of working artists (across all arts disciplines) are women. In a study of 820,000 exhibitions across the public and commercial sectors in 2018, only one third featured women artists. The gap between men and women is, now that we have more explicit numbers, more obvious than ever. Maybe it is this which has inspired a big part of the art community to work on raising the visibility of great women artists who failed to get into the canon.
Ana Mendieta, a Cuban artist who lived from 1948 to 1985, is one of them. Although she was one of the most representative Hispanic artists in the world of contemporary art, and her work is now exposed in big museums such as the MoMa or the Metropolitan Museum, she is unknown outside the world of art. Her artwork was known for breaking boundaries and transgressing social rules. She dedicated her whole life to developing alternative movements to the classical fine arts, such as performance or what she called “Body Art”. Through the representation of her body, she reclaims, in a very provocative way, the power of women in society.
One of her most known artworks, entitled “Glass on Body Imprints”, is a collection of self-portrait pictures she took – it is essentially her body smashed onto glass. This deformation of the flesh is a way to express the oppression of women; an exhibition of the body itself. It was her identity which was smashed onto the glass, highlighting aspects such as the exile from her homeland, her experience being a Latina woman in the states, and her turbulent relationship with her husband. Her pictures show the pressures she has faced through experiences of racism, violence, and marginalization. The glass: the space where the pictures are taken, signifies the whole artwork. Initially seen as transparent and clean, but actually solid and unbreakable. No one sees what is happening behind it; it is not as innocent, as transparent, and as soft as it seems to be. It is a glass roof, just like the one that stopped her from getting into the Institute’s art books.
“Glass on Body” is not just a collection of pictures or a reminder that photography is also one of the fine arts, but also an expression of how important space is, how unstable and complex identity is, and how art is always political, even if it is unwanted. By transforming a simple thing – the body – into being the focus of her artwork, she invites us to think, question, and change our mindsets.
Why we did not know about Mendieta before? What art and which artists come to mind when we think of what art is? Why can’t we name as many female artists as male artists? Art is supposed to shake us, to shock us; to make us react. Let it be, let her be.