A Word With: Raquelin Mendieta


An interview with Ana Mendieta’s sister Raquelin by Randy Kennedy for The New York Times.

When the Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta died in 1985 at the age of 36 after falling from her apartment window in Greenwich Village (her husband, the sculptor Carl Andre, was acquitted of her murder), she left behind an unruly body of work whose sweep belied the number of years she had to make it.

Since her death, her short career has gained steadily in importance, taking its place in the pantheon of Conceptual and performance art that belatedly brought the experiences of women and immigrants to the fore, augmented in Ms. Mendieta’s case by a certain earthy spirituality little seen in the art from those years.

Her body of work consists primarily of photographs, documentations of her performances and often-fragile sculpture made from wood, soil, leaves and roots. But in recent years, as her archive has begun yielding previously unknown pieces, her films have come to be counted among her primary achievements.

And the world is about to see more of them than ever. Opening on Friday at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea, “Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films,” is the first full-scale gallery exhibition dedicated to her film work in New York. It features 15 pieces — nine never before exhibited — newly transferred to digital from formats like Super 8 and early videotape. The show coincides with a traveling exhibition of her films, “Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta,” organized by the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and opening this month at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Since Ms. Mendieta’s death, her older sister, Raquelin Mendieta, has been the keeper of her legacy, and it was through her research that many of the new films came to light. In an interview this week from her home in Whittier, Calif., Ms. Mendieta, 69, who is also an artist, spoke about her sister’s early love of film and about the effort to bring her work behind the camera back into the world. Following are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. It’s been more than 30 years since Ana’s death. How did some of these films — including her first known one, “Untitled,” a kind of abstract painting along the film surface, made around 1971 when she was a student at the University of Iowa — remain unknown for so long?

A. The films were stored at our mother’s home in Iowa for quite a while, and my brother, Ignacio, back in 1987 when there was a retrospective for Ana at the New Museum, had many of the films transferred onto video, which was not ideal; the quality was not great. My brother made a list of what he found and transferred, but what Ana left behind was very confusing. It was a lot of canisters and a whole lot of film and video in there. We thought we knew what we had, but as it turned out, we didn’t. It was kind of hiding right in front of us for years.

Q. In one of the films, “X-Ray,” from 1975, she enlists a technician to film her head with an X-ray machine while she’s speaking, a work that seems deeply connected to pieces she would come to be known for, focusing on the body and corporeal existence. In another, “Dog,” filmed in Mexico, she crawls on the ground, with the camera filming her at a great distance. Did you have any idea that she had made these works?

A. It was a complete discovery. In “Dog,” she seems to have been doing some kind of public performance. You can see that there are people walking by, glancing at her and hurrying on. I have no idea what they must have been thinking, seeing this person crawling down an alleyway with fur on her.

Q. Well, it was the 1970s. Maybe people expected things like that.

A. I don’t know if they expected it in Mexico. [Laughs]

Q. Did it surprise you that, even as such a young artist, Ana had the ability to pull off performances like that, which required so much self-exposure and belief in what she was doing?

A. That was part of her personality. Nothing that she did ever surprised me. She was always very dramatic, even as a child — and liked to push the envelope, to give people a start, to shock them a little bit. It was who she was and she enjoyed it very much. And she laughed about it sometimes when people got freaked out.

Q. The two of you went to the University of Iowa at the same time. Did you have a sense then that film was important to her?

A. Well, I’ll put it this way: She spent six years getting her M.F.A., not because she needed to stay that long but because she wanted to have access to all the materials — a Super 8 camera and film and video — that the university had and that she needed. She had very little money. She had no budget to be able to get those things for herself. So she did what she needed to do.

Q. What was it like for you, seeing some of the previously unknown films for the first time?

A. I always feel like I continue to have a relationship with my sister through her work. She was three years younger than me. I was the one who was supposed to look out for her, and I feel like I still perform that role by doing what I’m doing. I’ve felt very close to her through the art and I’ve known about her in ways that, even when she was alive, I didn’t really know.

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