Theses Doctoral

Performance as Translation in the Americas: Ana Mendieta's Feminist Ethnographies, 1973-81

Ray, Montana

Many scholars have considered Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta to be a translator of Afro-Cuban culture. In her 2019 monograph on the artist, for example, Genevieve Hyacinthe writes: “brownness made Mendieta a powerful translator of Black Atlantic forms into contemporary art language because she was not, and could never be, part of the dominant white culture.” Mendieta also announced herself as a translator (and inheritor) of Siboney and Taino cultures. Her gallery notes that to celebrate her return to Cuba’s “maternal breast” as an adult, the artist titled the rock carvings she made there with “names of zemis, or Taíno spirits, such as Bacayu for ‘Light of Day.’” I argue that alongside her claims on Taino cultural heritage we might consider her actual ancestry and claims on Indigenous women in the art of Cuban settlers before her.

My dissertation considers Mendieta as a translator not of Taino myths or Black cultural practices but of ethnological texts and nationalistic folklore which catalogued and caricatured Black and Indigenous cultures. “Bacayu,” for example, is not a Taino “zemi” but rather a word she culled from a glossary of Black and Indigenous terms: a performance of knowledge over Indigenous cultures rather than a Taino cultural product. It hails from a lecherous story written by a Havana dentist about the death of an “Indian doncella.” Each chapter considers her translations of such pieces, focusing in particular on her translation choices which I suggest are motivated by her feminist and anti-imperial politics.

My first chapter considers the influence of ethnographic studies on Abakuá and particularly the writings of Fernando Ortiz in her Iowa campus performances which reference crime scenes and “sacrificial” initiation ceremonies. Rather than offering unmediated access to Black religious practices, I suggest she is performing an abased view of Abakuá as seen through the (exterminationist) lens of Ortiz’s scholarship from his criminological ethnography, Los negros brujos (1906), to his less punitive but still highly fetishizing account of Abakuá in “La ‘tragedia’ de los ñáñigos” (1950). I don’t believe Mendieta translates this work to oppress Black people. Rather as a bodywork artist composing a militant, corporal language of feminist critique, she aims the violence of cultural translation toward her chauvinistic art school cohort.

The second chapter considers her literary translation of “La Venus Negra, based on a Cuban legend,” which was composed by Adrián del Valle, Ortiz’s secretary at La Sociedad Económica de los Amigos del País for which he collated Cuba’s first public library among other projects. The original legend can be contextualized by del Valle’s broader stewardship of Cuban letters: he penned “La Venus Negra” for a collection celebrating the Centenary of Cienfuegos from the family notes of a prominent cienfueguero, Pedro Modesto. Examining the tacky national showcase in which the legend originally appears, I consider the ways Mendieta repositions la Venus Negra as a display of her own “will to continue being Other.” In particular, her translation imposes a “Siboney” ancestry on la Venus Negra and dispenses with the conditions which determine the protagonist’s muteness (in the original, la Venus Negra is a nude Black woman who is captured and displaced from her island hideout by criollo enslavers). In Mendieta’s translation la Venus is not muted Black protest incarnate but becomes an anti-colonial symbol. Mendieta publishes the piece in the feminist magazine Heresies, illustrating the legend with a silhouette of her own body from her Silueta Series.

Again, I don’t think Mendieta poses as a Ciboney woman or absents Black women in a gesture of ill will toward Black and Indigenous people. Rather, she does so as an anti-imperial strategy consistent with Fidel Castro’s cadre, as her unavowed translation of Roberto Fernández Retamar’s “Calibán” into her “Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States” curatorial statement indicates. In the essay, Retamar, a white Cuban scholar, aligns the revolution with Black and Indigenous Cuba by “reclaiming” the caricature Caliban, which, as Coco Fusco writes, Shakespeare himself had based on an “Indian” exhibited in London.

In the third chapter, I consider Mendieta’s Esculturas Rupestres, not as tributes to Taino spirits but as monuments of settler longing for mutilated Indigenous women. The legend I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, “Bacayu,” for example, is settler fanfiction about a daughter of a “cacique” whose death portends the coming of the white man and includes a lengthy description of the dead woman’s body. I also point toward the misnamings of Black women which appear within this rock series (Black Venus, Mother) which are often overlooked by scholars who ask us to read the work as Taino myth. Finally, building on these themes, I suggest a comparison to the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica: emphasizing the similarities in their “cannibalistic” approaches to translation.

Although differently aligned politically (leftist, anarchist), Oiticica’s family, like Mendieta’s, were culturally and politically prominent settlers; and, like Mendieta, Oiticica is often read as a translator of Black Atlantic culture. Further both artists engaged in the caricaturing of Indigenous “American” cultures. In New York, Oiticica translated Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” (1928) to contextualize his work and the work of his friends. Artists in Brazil had adapted de Andrade’s manifesto into a translation program “cannibalizing” European and North American cultures, a practice they misidentified as Tupi as de Andrade had. Comparing Mendieta and Oiticica as translators reveals shared patterns of Latin American vanguards employing caricatures of Black and Indigenous cultures in anti-imperial performances. These caricatures and their resemblance to caricatures in the U.S. also point to older (and enduring) transnational networks of white nationalism in the Americas.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Edwards, Brent Hayes
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2021