What landscape can one describe as the meeting place between artistic practice and political practice?
– JACQUES RANCIÈRE, 20071
In Landscape and Power, W.J.T. Mitchell offers a number of theses that help to define “landscape.” Landscape functions as a medium of exchange between what is human and what is natural. Thus, landscape operates as a site of contact between the human and material worlds. While landscape is a medium found in all cultures, it is particularly associated with Western imperialism. Mitchell argues that violence connected with imperialism and nationalism becomes naturalized through the medium of landscape.2 However, what happens when the artist transforms the landscape to challenge this process? The act of inserting silhouetted bodies into the landscape reflects an intervention by the artist, as is illustrated by the artworks of Ana Mendieta and Kara Walker. What questions does the artist pose through this intervention? What political narratives does the silhouetted body challenge when it interrupts the landscape?
In an earth/body sculpture series titled “Silueta,” Ana Mendieta used her own body as a medium to create an artwork that transformed the landscape. A photographic print of one of these performative sculptures displays an imprint of the artist’s body in the ground. Mendieta dug the silhouette of a female figure with arms raised into the sand, and added deep red pigment. This sculpture series transformed landscape into a site of art, rather than the subject of the art. Further, the sculpture placed an emphasis on a new relationship between the human body and the landscape: this relationship becomes embodied. Body becomes a site where the human and non-human material worlds occupy the same space. These worlds become inseparable through Mendieta’s earth/body sculptures.
The artist’s intervention in “Silueta” explicitly made both a personal and political statement. Mendieta has stated that through her earth/body sculptures, her body became an extension of nature, and nature became an extension of the artist’s body. Mendieta’s reassertion of her bodily ties to the earth reflects a reactivation of what she terms “primeval beliefs… [in] an omnipresent female force.”3 Mendieta used the meeting of the female body (the artist’s body) and land deliberately. Her sculpture series was not meant to be an imposition of the human on the landscape, but a refusal to separate questions of cultural identity and gender from how we conceive the relationship between the human and material world.4 Mendieta used an animistic view of nature, which drew upon motifs from ancient and non-Western cultural traditions, in direct opposition to how nature is typically viewed in the modern industrialized West.
In Kara Walker’s series “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” the artist applied black silhouette figures on top of illustrations taken from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, a collection of images and essays published in 1894. In Walker’s annotated pictorial history, the artist has enlarged and reformatted the original prints as lithographs. The original images become backdrops for Walker’s silkscreen silhouettes, and Walker created an alternative pictorial history of the Civil War that explicitly centers this period of American history on the lives (and bodies) of African Americans.5
In Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, a silhouette of a nude male figure appears in the left side of the foreground. The figure walks towards the right with his arms outstretched. In the background, three men in a small boat row past cotton bales in a swamp. The moss hanging from the silhouette’s arms mimics the moss that hangs from the trees in the background swamp. His body simultaneously becomes part of the landscape in the background and part of a new landscape of political discourse.
In both of these artworks, the artist has intervened in a landscape to create a new political landscape. These new landscapes enable the artist to draw attention to gaps in dominant Western narratives of race, gender, and politics. By inserting silhouettes of human bodies into these landscapes, each artist makes the body the central focus of a new narrative in different ways. Mendieta’s silhouette emphasized the importance of non-Western views of relationships between gender, the body, and the landscape. In contrast, Walker’s silhouette brings the black body out of the background and into the foreground. Through Walker’s intervention, this new landscape makes it possible to reconsider what is considered an official narrative of race and politics in American history.
1 Jacques Rancière, “The Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Artforum, trans. Jeanine Herman (2007).
2 W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1994): 5-31.
3 Anne Raine, “Embodied Geographies: subjectivity and materiality in the work of Ana Mendieta,” in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings, ed. Griselda Pollock (London: Routledge, 1996): 228.
4 Raine, 235-237.
5 Patricia A. Banks, John R. Stomberg, and Elizabeth Young, Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (South Hadley: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 2013). Published in conjunction with the exhibition held at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.