If you’ve never heard of Ana Mendieta, the visionary Cuban feminist artist who died in 1985, then Who is Ana Mendieta?, a new graphic biography by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron, published this month by the Feminist Press, will provide an introduction to both her life and to her art.
Mendieta died in 1985 from a fall from the window of her 34th floor Greenwich Village apartment during a fight with her husband, the renowned minimalist sculptor, Carl Andre. Andre was eventually tried for her murder and was acquitted. Who Is Ana Mendieta? does not strive to be a complete biography of Mendieta, but instead reintroduces the importance of her work and how her life reflects on the troubles women continue to face, from domestic violence to marginalization in the arts. Mendieta was performance artist but also worked in a number of media, including painting, video works and sculpture. Her works focused on the female body and its silhouette invoking a powerful sense of spirituality in concert with nature. Mendieta’s own naked body was often featured in these works.
“People feared Mendieta would be remembered for how she died rather than the work she created,” said Redfern, who wrote the script for the graphic biography, “how she died still makes people uncomfortable. People don’t want to admit to violence against women and the still uneven playing field.” Redfern continued, “Between generations women get lost. I want to bring back some of the previous generation and introduce them to the new generation.”
The Feminist Press Editorial Director, Amy Scholder, reiterated this point, tying Who Is Ana Mendieta? into a broader effort to “find new, younger readers for feminist ideas and books, like Ana Mendieta, the most famous Cuban artist [who is unknown] outside a certain audience. Her story and work are remarkable.”
Who Is Ana Mendieta? is the first comics work published by The Feminist Press. “I always thought comics was a great way to communicate ideas about visual arts,” explained Redfern. She said she wanted to make an “art publication more relevant and with a longer shelf life” than traditional art books, claiming a comic is “more accessible” to a larger audience. The book will also be available as an e-book.
Through various grants Redfern got the funding to start the project and contacted Montreal-based illustrator, painter, and cartoonist, Caro Caron to do the illustrations. With much of the text based on quotes directly from Mendieta and from other notable artists of the time—among them, pioneering feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann—the page layouts are mostly free of panels and Caron’s imagery and Redfern’s text flow together. The images draw on Mendieta’s own work and other important art of the time, roughly the mid-1970s up until her death. Indeed, the only page that is in a more traditional comic layout is when the police come for Andre after Mendieta’s death.
Redfern said it took her a while to find a publisher for the project, after first receiving funding for the book in 2004 and 2005. “It took a long time to find a publisher. I really didn’t want to self-publish through a gallery; shelf life is better with a real publisher.” She also had little luck pitching the book to comics publishers, and she ran into problems with publishers due to the novella length of the book. And while literary agent and former comics publisher Denis Kitchen briefly represented her, Redfern said, “nothing came of that.” Eventually, Carolee Schneemann brought the book to the attention of Scholder, who said she “thought the project sounded fascinating and thought it could be a good fit” with The Feminist Press.
Redfern sees universities as the primary audience for this book, and expects the book to be “picked up by art history or women’s studies” classes. And while she said they would “definitely put it out in the comics world,” she acknowledged that, “it’s a niche book. It doesn’t fit neatly into the comics or art world. We’re hoping it’s at home in either and embraced by both in a best case scenario.” Scholder said they will “branch out marketing to comic book stores,” and she is also “hoping to get it into the museum and gallery bookstore market.”
Who Is Ana Mendieta? is the first book in a planned series of Feminist Press graphic biographies to called Blind Spot, which will focus on “interesting [women] lost when looking back on history,” said Redfern. “It will be a mixture of cultural and political figures,” explained Scholder, “the idea is not to generate a whole graphic biography, but create a cultural biography of someone who captures so perfectly what’s going on in her own work and for feminists at that time.” The next book will be on the environmental activist and ecologist, Judy Barry, and another future volume will be about the writer Kathy Acker.