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Theater + Arts

Ana Mendieta's body of work at NSU Art Museum

Late Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta leaves her mark at @NSUArtMuseum.

Cuban artist Ana Mendieta died 31 years ago, but her earthy spiritualism endures in dozens of bizarre art films at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, where her pioneering performance art traces themes of death, rebirth, feminism and the refugee experience.

A collection of 21 projected videos play out in the museum's semi-dark second-floor gallery for the new show "Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta." They depict Mendieta in grainy, silent, Super 8 footage (her preferred film stock) shot between 1973 and 1981, often communing with the planet. Clips show her buried underneath mounds of soil, wood and leaves; smearing cow's blood on her naked body; appearing to merge with a tree; and in silhouette in gunpowder.

During her short but prolific career, Mendieta shot 108 films, every one brisk (the longest clocks in at nine minutes) and unseen by anyone outside her family. They stayed hidden until her death in 1985, from a 34-story plummet from her Greenwich Village apartment window. Her posthumous fame soared after the resulting controversial court case, involving Mendieta's husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was tried and acquitted for her murder in 1990.

Mendieta also became a feminist icon, says Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, a filmmaker who helped convert her aunt's Super 8 footage into high-definition digital video for this exhibit.

"It wasn't just her amazement with film and nature. It was her drive. For me, it was inspiring," says Mendieta, who was 17 when her aunt died. "She looks calm in all her videos, but it was actually really intense for her. She would say in interviews, 'This freaks me out, but I'm here to be brave and do it.' And she knew her body could convey her art, because she'd say, 'I'm a beautiful woman, but don't look at me because I'm naked and covered in blood.'"

The exhibit was put together by her family's estate with help from Howard Oransky, the museum's guest curator and director of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota. But this is the first time her wide fascination with experimental video (she's better known for sculptures and paintings) has been explored so thoroughly, Oransky says.

One of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who fled Fidel Castro's new regime in Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, Mendieta arrived in Miami in 1961 with her older sister, Raquelin — Raquel's mother. But her love of celluloid was born while she was a student at the University of Iowa, where early Super 8 films tackled her longing to bind herself to Cuban heritage and to native Latin American culture. Blood, a reference to Afro-Cuban Santeria rituals, appears in multiple videos, including 1973's "Blood Inside Outside," in which Mendieta stands naked along the muddy banks of Old Man's Creek in Iowa.

"Energy Charge," from 1975, is another case study in experimental video. In the 45-second clip, Mendieta walks into a forest clearing and toward the trunk of a tree cloaked in shadow. Her outline — upraised arms, legs apart — begins to glow bright red to symbolize that "she has merged with the tree," one essay reads in the museum's catalog. In her film "Untitled: Silhueta Series," Mendieta's body is replaced by a surrogate: a trail of sand and gunpowder that resembles a female figure, which she sets ablaze from off-camera.

Mendieta's silhouette reappears in "Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures)" a video showing a series of female forms carved into the walls of a cave in Cuba, to which she returned in 1979.

"She wanted to leave her mark on everything, and she used her body to merge with the history of a place," Oransky says. "The land and earth became a metaphor for family and love and culture. You can sense a yearning for what she lost as a child, and that is powerful."

"Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta" is on view through July 3 at NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $5-$12. Call 954-525-5500 or go to NSUArtMuseum.org

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