Thursday, March 26, 2015

Missing In Action: What's In a Name?

What's In a Name? I want you to consider this question.

This all started with Ana Mendieta, and before that, my mother. But in the present tense, I am lucky to co-teach a college course this semester, Women, Art and Culture. It's a Humanities course, classified as both within Women's Studies and Fine Arts. I am also lucky to teach the course with the woman who started the Women's Studies program at the college, who holds a PhD in philosophy, and who was cool enough to give me the room to learn how to teach this class myself, and free reign on the artists I chose to cover (other than Judy Chicago. The Dinner Party was a must-have for her, and I totally understand why).

One of the "Modern and Contemporary Masters" I chose was Ana Mendieta. I had this whole presentation with tons of stills of her work, the earth goddesses. She was to appear as one of a handful of artists whose work we would "hardcore, cold-critique"; she was to be used for illustrative purposes, mainly. Don't get me wrong, each of these artists has had extreme hardship in their lives. All of these artists were ruminated over for months, and included for specific reasons; for their clear ties to one another. But I didn't often understand the depths of my choices until I was in class, in the moment, presenting to my students. "Teaching", and therefor, "learning", are often like that, in my experience..."synonymous".

I started the course with several challenges..."How to teach someone to look at art and understand it, understand the language inherent in art." and "How to look at women's art, while also explaining the context of it, the almost hyper-importance of it, culturally-speaking." My approach was to start with the emotion, the feeling, and the healing that I saw Art play in many of these artists' lives. Art had a big, visceral role to play, as large as their pasts, as large as their families, maybe even larger. I picked artists that I was "fired-up" about, personally, and I explained this to my students, and why. "If I'm not excited about these artists, you won't be excited about these artists either. These women are all very strategic, and purposeful, and I love them. They're important to me, as a woman and an artist". I realized in the meantime, that my life, in some ways, also mimics theirs.

My approach to teaching, has always been one-part physical contortionist/mimic, one-part stand-up comedian, one-part honest storyteller. A solid account of a personal experience can captivate an audience. Rawness, can captivate an audience. As a professor in this class, I am striving to be a very "raw" human being. And I learned all of this from my mother's very real example. I learned this through seeing, with new eyes, the large collection of women artists who I am interested in, and through the strength of all the women I have known, personally.

Back to Ana Mendieta...the presentation of her work, very unfortunately, fell on a snow day. Which meant I had exactly one more class to spend with them on critiquing art and learning about (even more) contemporary women artists. *PANIC* I spent about about five hours on the morning of the cancellation, finding, watching and collecting documentaries about each of my featured artists that week, "the women artists M.I.A.". I really didn't want them to go down like that, so I was able to post documentaries on the course's online forum. The assignment was to watch the films at home, on their snow day/long weekend.

The Assignment was as follows:


Since we have a cancellation on our hands and I don't want you to get too far behind, I'm going to give you some films/readings to look at from your computer at home, and I'll set up a 'discussion' section for you later this morning, as well, with some prompts.

Today we would have been looking at several artists. I think you will notice some thematic similarities in their does this affect their work? What drives them to create art?

Georgia O'Keeffe - (2 shorts)
Louise Bourgeois - 'The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine':
Frida Kahlo - 'The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo':
Faith Ringgold - (a series of shorts)
Ana Mendieta - (and if you can find the film, "BloodWork" anywhere for free, go for it)
Amalie Rothschild - Baltimore-based, take a look around her website:

The Discussion Questions are detailed below, but the students were encouraged to take a different road if they so desired:

Faith Ringgold talks about the time, place and identity of the maker. How does this concept encourage the 'reading' of art works for you? What about the artists within this grouping?
How did the politics of the time(s) shape these women artists? (Please give an example to start)
Are there common threads between these artists? What are they?
How did Louise Bourgeois' relationship with her family (father/mother) shape her art? What role does her history and/or memory play in her body of work?
What did everyone think about the Tangerine, referred to in the title? Why is that story she told so important/integral in the film, that it made it into the title? Try to think about it that way. The title of something is almost always what are the specific items in the title of the Louise Bourgeois doc. alluding to?

"Who is Ana Mendieta?"... and why is this question so important, within the history of art?


Pay attention to that last one.

The discussion had a very rocky start, I am not going to lie. They were not speaking amongst themselves, and the last question, which appeared as it does here, bolded, was the one they were specifically not understanding. Even after so much prompting, "What's the greater meaning behind this question...? Explain what else it could mean. What's the broader context here within the history of art, within everything you have seen so far?", I had to really assess why they seemed to be exhibiting a certain lack of critical thinking in regards to Ana. They were not understanding the metaphor, there was a block of some kind.

But then someone stuck a toe in the water...


Student: "Is it because of the way that she died and was just forgotten that makes her an especially important subject here?"

Shana: Yes, exactly...she can be seen as a symbol / a stand-in, if you will, for virtually all the women artists we have looked at thus far. She's been on the verge of being lost completely...repetitively, continuously! She was actively pushed out by the Art World, that very much values male artists above all I think we also see in her, in the tragedy and circumstances of her death, how very little society is willing to support a victim, even an incredibly, undoubtedly talented one! Ana, and the question, live in active erasure territory.

So we're looking at the question here as a metaphor, not so much literally.

Remember, that history is really for the winners, and dying in the prime of one's life could never be considered winning...just sayin'.

Student: ...One thing I don't understand in this case though, is who decides whats good art? Its sort of true that there is no such thing as good art. Anyone's art is just as good as anyone else's art. If someones art is better than other persons art, its because of an especially unique perspective. Some people may just be born with a greater connection to the world, and have a natural artistic perspective and are good at expressing it so that it appeals to others, and all artists are formed by their life experiences (which I guess include degrees).  By this logic, it REALLY makes no sense that the ratio of men and women in the art world isn't more even. 

Shana: ...They have actually done 'blind' studies on artwork and the same piece of work with a male artists' name scored as/was recognized as a more significant piece of ART, than if it was attributed to a woman artist. Same art, different names, males sweep the game.

In all honesty, sometimes I just use my first initial to submit work, if I can get away with it, because I have a heavy masculine sounding/looking last name. I also have a friend (last name Garzelloni) who does the same, if she can. It's not an outright effort to deceive, but sometimes I feel more powerful with just the initial on my jpg. files (but how screwed up is that?) I just... know what is IN a name. It's a connotation of my gender, and sometimes I don't want those rules factored in, on a first impression. Obviously they will find out I am a woman, BUT if the person jurying is only given a name and a piece of 'evens out' the playing field a bit in my mind. I am actually IN the game this way, for sure. I get taken seriously. But it's a crazy game in which I am a willing, knowing participant!

I think, although I cannot be sure...that a man would never even need to think this way or have these thoughts. What does your name say? Just think about it.


Then the most curious thing happened, when we looked at the work of Ana Mendieta* in class the next week (the discussion online transpired over the course of several weeks). The students, many of them not having looked at the links or documentaries yet (I'll leave that be...), still really understood her art. I had them look at the smaller parts of the wholes, and she continued to make a big impression, image after image. In fact, she made the biggest impression in terms of shock, but also in understanding of imagery. They understood why these were successful, elemental pieces, and for perhaps the first time in the course, they started to understand why She was important. For some reason, I never considered that Ana Mendieta would be the one to begin to illustrate these two, important themes: "What's In a Name?" and Active Erasure of women in culture.

*with back-up from: Kathe Kollwitz, Faith Ringgold, Georgia O'Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, The Guerrilla Girls, Vanessa German, Joyce J. Scott, Judith Scott, Marina Abramovic, Chakaia Booker, Kara Walker and Marlene Dumas.

We were getting somewhere, for sure. The next week though...


Student: The thing about Ana Mendieta is that she WASN'T forgotten. the art world SAW they could NOT push her out of the art world, and I really don't see how one can say she was "almost lost forever". If you ask me, it looks like NO ONE could push her out of the art world, even if she WAS pushed out of a window. She suffered a very provocative and controversial death, and even though it sounds morbid to say "it suited her", it definitely seems to me that it has not only had a similar effect on the public as her art did (challenging one to really think and stirring up inner conflict and uneasiness within the observer) but it has partly attributed to the fact that her name will never be left out again. Ana Mendieta was NEVER going to be lost, and never will. And was her art SO good and SO unique that it, had she not suffered such a provocative death, would still serve the same iconic purpose as it does now? Is seven years post death even a long time for an artist to not receive the timeless type of recognition? Not every famous artist is celebrated from the moment of their death I don't think. 

Shana: Did you ever consider, that the real reason why you know about Ana Mendieta is because I know about Ana Mendieta? And that I keep her in my thoughts as an artist, purposefully, for a reason. She lives only until I die, in this way, unless I tell people. If I don't know, I don't know to tell people, right?

If they had chosen another professor, for might not have known her (you know by "chance", in fact). I helped shape this curriculum, and have had very little oversight (from the other professor) about the WHO of it, she is mostly concerned with the WHAT of it.

So you see... This is all about perspective, history is all about perspective, and from whose perspective it is told. You know because I know, and care enough to tell you. Not because everyone knows!!!

...I know many female artists who do not know about Ana. They are always shocked and surprised that they don't. I would suggest that this alludes to a fractured or mutable sense of history. There are NO RULES for history books. I could write one right now and include whomever I wanted, and exclude whomever I wanted, because I wanted to. There is no advisory board for the history book makers, unfortunately...or fortunately?


Shana: These women are only alive in our minds and history because we fight for them to be there. Someone could fight us to get them right back out again in ten years...and we'd have to start the process all over again. Ana really IS on the verge of being forgotten, with each new generation that passes. We can't even watch the 11 minute documentary online...why? I could find multiple full docs on Frida though! And Frida is a much older artist...

These are the things I want you to consider. Ana Mendieta is certainly not universally known! And she has her husband's supporters constantly trying to revise this history in favor of him. If you bring up HER, then you bring up HIM, and her mysterious death, as well...and that re-implicates him, in a certain way, in certain minds. Thus, my question, "Who Is Ana Mendieta?" as a metaphor. They are eternally linked through her story, by virtue of the manner of her death...and that complicated things for her memory, more than it ever helped.

and lastly

Shana: ...and now, you will never forget Ana Mendieta.

Student: ...It helps to get an idea about how things are from your perspective as a woman artist. I definitely have a better idea about why Ana Mendieta was so important, but you are right, now that I've been introduced to her, I will not forget!


This has been, and continues to be, a round-about way of exploring my own struggles. And I hadn't realized the extent of the parallel's inherent in Ana's story and my own until this morning. At the same time that I was actively gathering, and presenting, and defending, and reminding my students about Ana Mendieta, I was also reminding my small section of the world, about Carolyn H. Goetsch. Life Imitates Art. Art Imitates Life.

I had previously applied for an exhibition that interested me, with a piece I created last year, which still terrifies me, in a certain sense (It's terrifying, so I know it's important. I know it's important, so that terrifies me more). And in an extraordinarily tight turn-around time, I was accepted and will drop off the piece for installation this Saturday, shaking in my boots the whole way there. I honestly don't know if I was thinking about why the call interested me, or why I chose the piece I chose (because of said terror)...but I felt compelled, and I am leaning towards a better understanding with everything I write on the subject, present piece included.

The discussion section with my students, the in-depth look at Ana Mendieta and what she stands for, all of this, I believe contributed to the choices I made outside of the classroom, and through my art. This is why I believe teaching to be a reciprocal process, a very exciting and needed energy and idea transfer for me.

To explain this more, perhaps even to myself, I wrote an email last weekend, to my nearest and dearest, about What's In a Name:


Hello Friends,

I'd love it if you could join me for this exhibition.

This is a big deal for me, mainly because of the piece I chose to show. This piece, Ring of Fire, was created last August, as my personal response to the exclusion of my mother's name, Carolyn Goetsch, in favor of my brother's full name, twice, within the same Baltimore Sun article. There's nothing quite like the feeling of someone publicly favoring a narcissistic murderer over the woman he murdered, and setting it within the context of art as a tool of healing...(!)

I can't say this hasn't happened before with Her story, or that anyone has ever bothered to spell her name correctly within the many articles on her murder. And I can't really say I was not ashamed, all over again, that the narrative got away from her / me. What was a very personally expressed connection from me, was returned tarnished and sensationalized and just wrong. So I fought against it, in my own way.

At the time, I wrote a personal letter to the author, excerpted below, and attached the jpg of the artwork:

"...She appears as ever, 'the mother of' or 'the wife of' or 'the victim of'. That last descriptor may have been lost entirely in this case; she was the victim.

Beyond that, when will someone ever mention who she was? I did. And if she did not seem sensational enough for this story, it was probably my mistake in not expressing her essence more clearly within the short time I had with you. But I assure you, she was sensational, if she was anything.

Every one of us has a bottom line...The relevance in my art only lies in the loss, or absence of her. All of my work, all of me, leads back to her...not him.

 Ring of Fire (Carolyn)

Long story, short: My art has always been about her, but this one is the most direct, and the most visceral encapsulation of that loss to date, and therefor the most severely painful for me. BUT it is an ode to a fully formed person -- not a mother, not a wife -- but a vibrant spitfire of a woman. I enlarged the piece from its original, postcard size, and she looks resplendent and powerful in this way. 

It would be really great to see some friendly faces, as a show of support on the night of the reception.

I hope to see you there, thanks tons for reading/listening!--shana


To really and truly solidify my experience with Names and Active Erasure, I happened upon this video and social media call...

It's really quite simple. Give Her her name back.

كيف اجاب المصريون على سؤال "اسم امك اية "
لو بتتكسف تقول امك أسمها ايه اتفرج علي الفيديو ده
Posted by ‎اليوم السابع‎ on Saturday, March 21, 2015

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