SPEAK: The Practice of Conjure Art in the Making of EarthBodyHOME

By Amara Tabor Smith

September 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Photo by Robbie Sweeny
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

AS A DANCE MAKER over the past ten years, my work has been in an evolutionary state. I have resisted the confines of existing labels though I realize most funders and some audiences unfamiliar with an artist’s work request a descriptive moniker in order to give a context for, or sum up the nature of what you do, your aesthetic, movement genre, etc. It is understandable, and yet for me (and many artists that I know), it continues to be problematic.

Until very recently, I didn’t have a way of describing my work that felt genuine or allowed for the full expression of my
interests and potential. Or allowed for the un-namable aspects of my work to remain un-named. During the making of EarthBodyHOME, I decided to play with the problematic idea of labeling my work. This creative process was reinforcing a way of working which had begun for me two years ago when I made the 5 ½ hour site specific work, He Moved Swiftly But Gently Down The Not Too Crowded Street in honor of my teacher, local dancer/choreographer Ed Mock who died in 1986. During that process, I incorporated spiritual rituals from my religious practice to conjure the spirit of Ed Mock in a way I had not attempted before. Though my spiritual practice as a priest in the Yoruba/Lukumi tradition known as Ifa has always been an underlying source for my creative work, it was through the making of He Moved Swiftly that I brought my spiritual practice to the forefront and engaged my collaborating artists and performers in the ritual process as well. I have a difficult time articulating the power of what happened for the artists and for many of the audience who witnessed/participated in this ritual event.

Suffice it to say, we summoned the spirit of Ed Mock, and he showed up.

When I began to research the life and work of Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), a Cuban born visual and performance artist who created work in natural landscapes (i.e., forests, rivers, mountain sides, the ocean, etc.), it was clear from the beginning that I would continue this way of working in order to bring her story forward. It was also clear that telling some portion of her story would present even more challenges for me than telling the story of Ed Mock. Ed was like my father. I knew him well and I was a part of his community. I didn’t know Ana Mendieta personally, knew very little about her work, and her death was sudden and tragic in a very different way. Quite frankly, it scared me.

And so, I decided that before I would begin this daunting project, I would find a way to “name” this way that I am working now.

I call it Conjure Art.

The following is a work in progress definition of Conjure Art:

Conjure Art is music, visual or performance work that utilizes indigenous spiritual rituals to conjure the energies of gods, deities, and/or ancestor spirits with the intention to manifest personal, social, spiritual, and/or environmental justice, alignment and healing. For conjure artists, the art practice is the spiritual practice. The manner in which they worship or pray is inextricably linked to the making of their art. The work of the conjure artist explores traditional spiritual myths, images and/or practices from a contemporary or experimental art perspective. Conjure artists believe in the forces of nature such as ancestor spirits, gods and/or deities found in indigenous cultures and recognize these energies as the guiding forces in their art practice. Though a conjure artist may not necessarily be formally ordained or initiated into the spiritual practice presented in their art, they have a deep understanding of, and respect for, the tradition they are drawing from through extensive personal study and/or cultural experience. Additionally, Conjure Art is rooted in a womanist or feminist philosophy regardless of the artist’s gender identity.

From the beginning, I recognized that the work of Ana Mendieta could be described as Conjure Art and in fact, her work informed the content of the written definition. Defining Conjure Art through the life and work of Ana Mendieta provided me a path into the making of EarthBodyHOME.

I first encountered the work of Mendieta over six years ago. An artist friend turned me on to her work and shared the details of how she died. “She was murdered by her partner,” was how my friend described her death. I remember my body feeling chilled by her statement. I knew in that moment that I was not ready to do any further research about her. I felt instinctually that it was more than I could handle at that time.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014.

I was in the first of a two-summer MFA in Dance program through Hollins University. In my Dance History, Theory and Criticism course led by Adrian Heathfield, we were given an essay to read on the work of Ana
Mendieta. The essay focused specifically on a series of works she created in 1973 entitled Rape Series. I remember seeing the images of her depiction of a rape scene, using her own naked and bloodied body in an open fi eld and being moved by the depth and power of these images and by her bravery as an artist for creating such painful and violent images which were created in response to the rape and murder of a female classmate at the University of Iowa where Ana was a student studying art. Reading this essay, I was reminded of how I had avoided studying this artist years before. Her work scared me in deep and unexplainable ways. But unlike my previous encounter with her work, this time the fear served to draw me closer and I wanted to know more. I left class that day feeling a clear resolve that I would make a piece about her.

This was my introduction to the life, work, and spirit of Ana Mendieta.

And she has been with me ever since. Ana Mendieta’s Earth Body works were created in natural landscapes such as forests, rivers, meadows, and ocean shores. She spent countless long hours creating these pieces, the majority of which were only ever seen in photographs and fi lms. The majority of these works were meant to remain in the environments where they were created and deteriorate or decompose with time.

“I have been carrying on a dialogue between
the landscape and the female body. Having
been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during
my adolescence, I am overwhelmed by the
feeling of having been cast out from the
womb (Nature).”

– Ana Mendieta

Mendieta’s work has been described by herself and others as being deeply influenced by her early experience of exile from Cuba through Operation Peter Pan, a collaboration between the US State Department and the Catholic church following the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, during which over 14,000 unaccompanied minors immigrated to the United States between 1961-1963. Ana and her sister, who were ages 12 and 15 years old respectively, arrived in the US in 1961 and spent the rest of their adolescence in Iowa, separated from their parents, moving between orphanages and foster homes, as was the case for many children who arrived through Operation Peter Pan. This experience is an under told travesty in US history that left indelible emotional scars on the children who ended up in the country as a result of that experience.

As my research deepened into the life of this artist, I found myself troubled and deeply haunted by her work and her story that many nights I could not sleep. Much has been written about Mendieta, and most of the writing inevitably focuses on the controversy surrounding her death. In 1985, as Mendieta was beginning to achieve international recognition for her work, she fell to her death from the 34th floor window of her husband’s apartment. Her husband, minimalist artist Carl Andre, was tried and ultimately acquitted of her murder. Her death and the mystery that surrounded it caused a deep divide in the New York art community and for many, remains unresolved to this day.

It is a haunting story, and it can be very easy to get caught in the sensational aspect of the nature of her death. We are a culture that thrives on sensational deaths and Mendieta’s life and death are extraordinary

As one of my collaborators on this project, Xandra Ibarra (AKA La Chica Boom) says, “We love to stick our fingers inside the dead.” There is this fascination with artists such as Mendieta, Frida Kahlo, and La Lupe – artists who were connected to deeper realms in their art. There is a safety to exploiting the “magic” of these artists after they are dead. These artists in some ways were more intimidating when they were living. Once dead, they can become commodities, they become public domain. And yet, how does one tell a story about Ana Mendieta and not deal with the nature of her death? I was clear from the beginning of the project that the heart of this story would center around her body of work and the inspirations for her art, and her death is also a part of this story. Navigating the complexity of this story has been challenging. I felt skeptical for the reasons that Xandra Ibarra expressed: more fingers in the dead. I thought about how in the 1980s and 1990s, many artists were making work inspired by the beautiful, haunting work of Frida Kahlo. We not only put our fingers in the dead, but the more tragic the death, the deeper our fingers go.

So, I had to first come to terms with the fact that I too, would be putting my fingers in the story of Ana Mendieta. Acknowledging this would have to be a part of the story I tell.

Photo by Robbie Sweeny
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

“It is this sense of magic, knowledge, and
power, found in primitive art, that has
infl uenced my personal attitude toward art
making. For the past fi ve years I have been
working out in nature, exploring the relationship
between myself, the earth, and art.
Using my body as a reference in the creation
of the works, I am able to transcend myself in
a voluntary submersion and a total identifi –
cation with nature. Through my art,I want to
express the immediacy of life and the eternity
of nature.”
– Ana Mendieta

 Mendieta’s work was inspired by preChristian indigenous religions, most specifically the cosmologies of the Taíno, Mayan  and Afro Cuban Santeria/Lukumí spiritual traditions. As a practitioner of the Santería/ Lukumí tradition I knew that the rituals I utilize in my creative process were familiar to her and somehow I felt this gave me more connection to commune with her spirit. The result of this process is shaping to be a multimedia allegory that speaks of exile, spiritual longing, ritual grieving, disruption, the politics of identity and naming, and our cultural fascination with exotifying the memory of dead artists.

“ location is only breath
the museum occupies the space of nature
then bans her from it
this is how the frames first fell
and thus the tree in the field has a crown on
its head”
– Amara T. Smith

I am honored to be working with such a fantastic team of artists—performers Zoe Klein, Laura “Larry” Arrington and Xandra Ibarra, video artist Eric Koziol, musician/ composer Jackeline Rago, visual artist and costume designer Dana Kawano, lighting designer José María Francos, and co-madre/ co-director Dohee Lee. Collectively our process involves an ongoing search for Mendieta, questions about the power of presence through absence, and the myriad of ways that exile was experienced throughout her life and her death, and how we are navigating our own experience of exile in this creative process as we struggle to bring the natural elements explored in Mendieta ’s work, inside of a theater space where these elements are notoriously excluded.

We are moving through, and embodying questions about the intersection of spiritual ritual and art, and the complexities of racism, cultural identity and a societal acceptance of violence against women in our culture, all while grounding our practice in the rituals of Conjure Art in an effort to

and re/earth the extraordinary legacy of
Ana Mendieta on the 30th anniversary of
her transition.

“In Cuba when you die
The earth that covers us
The earth is invigorating
(it gives life) Life becomes
immortal when
it ends
and when life departs.
It is engraved
On the motherland alive, eternal
In memory”
– Ana Mendieta

Amara Tabor-Smith is a dancer/choreographer/ San Francisco Native and Oakland resident whose work can best be described as Afro Futurist Conjure Art. She is the artistic director of Deep Waters Dance Theater and is the co-artistic director of Headmistress, an international duet collaboration with danc- er/choreographer Sherwood Chen. Tabor-Smith has performed in the works of artists such as, Ed Mock, Joanna Haigood, Adia Tamar Whitaker, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Aya de Leon, Anna Deveare Smith, Faustin Linyekula, Anne Bluethenthal and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. She is a former dancer and associate artistic director of Urban Bush Women Dance Co. Tabor-Smith is an appointed lecturer of dance in the Theater, Dance and Performance Studies department at UC Berkeley and is currently finishing her MFA in Dance at Hollins University and the University of Music and Performing Arts in Germany.