I flew into Jamaica on a cloudless Friday afternoon, in time so that the Blue Mountains were still visible on my descent: a sublime hello.
I am here continuing my research into the political legacy of the death of Cuban-born performance artist Ana Mendieta in 1985. Many people believe that her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, killed her (he was cleared of her murder in court in 1988).
In the years following her death, protests have followed the exhibition of Andre’s work, and the chant ‘where is Ana Mendieta?’ has come to signify a number of things. ‘Why is she no longer here?’, ‘Where is the work of women of colour in public institutions?’, and ‘Why do institutions continue to lionise violent men?’, among them. Due to the Andre retrospective that is currently touring internationally, her story has recently attracted the attention of a younger generation of protesters.
Since arriving in Kingston, I have been speaking with various people who have been involved in the protests (and those who oppose them), and thinking through a dilemma that has faced feminists for decades. Does turning Mendieta into a symbol of gender-based violence and institutional prejudice run the risk of overshadowing the work she produced, and flattening her identity? Or, is it crucial that we make visible a narrative largely ignored by the institutional and commercial art world, because, among other reasons, it could undermine the value of Andre’s work, which has been heavily invested in? The answer, so far, seems to be both.
On Saturday, Deborah Anzinger – director of New Local Space, the artist run space where I am based – invited me to join her on the Tambourine Army protest, an event organised in response to recently publicised accounts of sexual violence against girls. It was a timely reminder of the importance of standing together and taking action, and not getting caught up in the internecine struggles that can hamstring movements for change.
I also spoke with the artist Christen Clifford over the weekend, who organised two protests in New York City when Andre’s touring retrospective kicked off at Dia Art Foundation. At one of the protests, Clifford emptied a bag of chicken guts onto the pavement in front of the gallery, echoing Moffit Building Piece, an artwork Mendieta made in 1973. In conversation, Clifford offered an important reflection on causality. Of course it is a shame that Mendieta has become a symbol: how much better it would be if she was still alive.
In my first week, New Local Space arranged for me to meet with a number of academics at the University of the West Indies (UWI), who have been helping me to access some of the broader issues raised by Mendieta’s case from a Caribbean perspective. My first meeting was with Tracy Robinson, a lecturer in the faculty of law. Robinson has a history working for the rights of women, and in LGBTI advocacy, and she has served as commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I have also met with Sonya Stanley-Niaah, who gave me a quick introduction to the history of theatre in Jamaican, and Lisa Tomlinson, who explained the differences between Cuban Santeria (frequently referred to in Mendieta’s work) and Jamaican Obeah.
I have never been to a university in the tropics before, and it is wonderful to see pelicans flying over the faculties. More wonderful: seeing so many women on campus. The student body at UWI, I am told, is almost 75% female.
For about 15 years now, art has been a priceless excuse for getting to know people and places. Luckily for me, my stay in Jamaica coincided with the Jamaica Biennial, taking place over two sites in Kingston, as well as in Montego Bay. I have met a number of participating artists, and last week I took a tour of the National Gallery and Devon House, with director Veerle Poupeye and curator O’Neil Lawrence.
I have also been familiarising myself with the ubiquitous radio DJ, Barry G, whose show is a guaranteed feature of any afternoon taxi ride. On the subject of taxis, on the way back from Coronation Market, a driver named Ritchie gave me the low down on the popularity of Clarks shoes in Jamaica. He knows people, he told me, who carry toothbrushes around for cleaning them with, to keep them in mint condition. There is a Clarks factory outlet half a mile from where I live in London. If only the British Council had told me before my flight, I could have really made an entrance…