Body on Fire: Thunberg, Mendieta, and Womanhood Earth as the Female Body
Recently, 15-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg stood up on a stage at the United Nations Climate Summit in Poland COP24, in front of prominent world leaders, in a call for action against the destruction of our planet. Greta, calmly and composedly, addressed the scarification of our planet at the benefit of corporations. She spoke of how a lack of drastic measures in climate change laws is stealing children’s future, and made sure that the world leaders knew that the kids of today are ready and willing to bring forth a change.
The bravery and intelligence displayed by Greta Thunberg made me think a lot about ecofeminism and how there seems to be a constantly resurfacing relationship between gender and nature. I first began thinking about this when I learned about Cuban artist Ana Mendieta in a Women in Art class I recently took. I couldn’t help but see a connection between the environmental activist work of girls like Greta and the relationship between Earth and the female body that Mendieta explored so deeply in the 1970s.
Ana Mendieta was a performance and land artist, born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba. She spent most of her youth in the United States, after being displaced with her sister Raquelin after the rise of Fidel Castro. The transition between Cuba and the U.S. was one of the inspirations for her Silueta Series, as the artist explained that a return to her roots awakened her desire to become one with nature.
The Silueta Series is a collection of photographs and films of sculpted figures of her body in nature, using the landscape as both a medium and a canvas. Earthy materials, such as mud, grass, and branches, came together to shape a female silhouette directly in the ground and in the nature.
The series began in 1973, while Ana was in college, and was the beginning of a body of work focusing on themes of womanhood, violence, and nature. That same year, in fact, Mendieta composed the piece “Untitled (Rape Scene),” after learning about the assault and murder of a nursing student in her college campus. Mendieta’s anger and pain at the event, turned into a meditation of the status of women everywhere, challenging a patriarchal model that sees women as inferior, weak, and inevitable victims of violence.
Ana Mendieta took the traumatic event and went back to her roots, getting back in touch with primitive arts and cultures traditional of her homeland Cuba. She began the Silueta Series as a way to “express the immediacy of life and the eternity of nature.”
“Imagen de Yagul” is perhaps one of Mendieta’s most widely known Silueta piece. The artist used her body to lay nude in a tomb in Mexico, placing flowers over herself, showing nature growing through her physical body. The piece showcases the association between the woman and natural forces, as the two become one in the “Earth-work.”
Through these pieces Mendieta metaphorically returns to Earth, recalling the age-old concept of Mother Earth, the Earth as a woman. This connection between femininity and nature appeared to me so tightly bound to the Ecofeminist school of thought. Ecofeminism sees the connection between the exploitation of our Earth’s natural resources and the exploitation of women under a patriarchal world. The need for Ana Mendieta to feel so close to Earth, as well as Greta Thunberg’s words at the United Nations Climate Summit, recall for a deep connection between womahood and the Earth.
I often found myself looking through landscapes and seeing my own body in the curves of the mountains, the hollows of lakes, and the raging violence of natural disasters. Nature’s force and beauty made me think of my own womanhood and the endurance and strength of all the women in my life.
I can’t help but look at Mendieta’s Siluetas and feel somehow understood, as my own body craves a return to nature and the freedom to be as powerful as the natural elements. I can’t help but wish that the words of women like Greta Thunberg and the art of Ana Mendieta would be taught and spread around the world, so that more women like me could discover the deep eternal connection between the female body and Earth.