In its last week at the Hayward Gallery, the show explores the life and art of this brilliant, magnetic artist

On December 26, 1960, a dozen children and their parents arrived at Havana’s José Martí International Airport. The children boarded the plane. Over the next couple of months 500 children followed. By 1962, over 14,000 Cuban children had landed in Miami.

Codenamed Operation Peter Pan by the CIA – Pedro Pan by the Catholic organizations on the Cuban side – it was an attempt either to protect the children of people who opposed the new regime or to destabilise the government. Depends to whom you speak.

Ana Mendieta was only 12. She grew up with her elder sister in a foster home in Iowa. It took 18 years to be reunited with her father who had been imprisoned for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion. By that time she was starting to establish herself as an artist. Six years later, aged 36, she was dead.

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The show at the Hayward Gallery is the first major retrospective of her work in the UK. It is an intensely personal show. It begins with her MFA work conducted under the guidance of her professor and lover, Hans Breder; featuring a re-hanging of her two main exhibitions held during her lifetime. This includes her 1978 show at the all­female A.I.R gallery, and ends with her wooden sculptures – a beginning of a “totemic grove”, carved during her year abroad as winner of the Prix de Rome.

The brevity of her career, its cohesion, and her magnetism as an artist go some way to explaining the show’s success. The role of her work in the feminist movement, and in the development of Latin American art and performance art are also important factors.

It is difficult to banish the thought of her death when looking at her work – her siluetas often bring to mind crime scenes or open graves. The exhibition delicately sidesteps her notoriety – her husband, the artist Carle André, who was acquitted of her murder, is mentioned only once in the catalogue.

However, it is really the story of her early exile from Cuba that is helpful in interpreting her oeuvre. And indeed, she described her departure from Cuba as being “cast from the womb”. The majority of the exhibition concentrates on her famous works: the haunting siluetas, reiterative outlines of her body carved into the earth, marked with leaves and vines or traced by flickering melting black candles. She uses the imagery of Santería, the fusion of voodoo cult and Catholicism, and the mystery of a distant land barely remembered. It is as if she is trying to reconnect with mother earth, melding with her, leaving only the trace of her outline in an attempt to find a resting place.

Mendieta was used to being an outsider. When she arrived at the newly established intermedia program at the University of Iowa, she was the only woman on the course. While she worked on sculpture and performance art using blood, hair, feathers and documenting it with photography and film, her classmates – all men – were more interested in conceptual art and by the clean lines of minimalism.

In 1973, she invited some of her colleagues to her room. When they arrived, she had exactly recreated, using her body covered with ox­blood as a prop, the scene of the rape and murder of a young nurse that had happened on campus months before. A series of murky photos are displayed on the white walls of the Hayward.

In another photograph she awkwardly crouches naked, covered only with blood, for tar, and feathers, a strange chicken­like figure. It prefigures the video shot in grainy super­eight where she stands, holding a chicken, its throat cut spraying blood, in a ceremony reminiscent of village magic.

There is a sense that Mendieta was most inspired working within constraints. She eventually visited Cuba in 1980, where, more established and able to afford a better camera, she could print large­scale black and white photos of the symbols of Taíno goddesses she had chipped away in caves. In Rome, having a studio allowed her to carve large­scale totemic sculptures in bark. These seem far less visceral and urgent than her earlier stuff. The polish of the later photographs and the graphic drawings on bark paper and sculptures meant to evoke archetypal earth symbols are less arresting. More generic, they look like you could buy them in a Cuban market on your holiday.

Damning, perhaps, and unfair; she was never able to build on the new direction her work had taken. But as you look at the hypnotic archive of all of the photos that she could never afford to print and documentary evidence that she collected while working, you can tell there is a search for that perfect place, that perfect moment and you wish you could wander though the totemic grove she was in the midst of shaping.

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