Ana Mendieta's (1948-1985) best-known works are her photographs displaying the contours of her nude body. Her photos of the 70s and early 80s representing women, goddesses and mothers, comprise a group of images that nourish an anthropological and deifying reading of woman. But behind this attachment to woman as a mythical or 'natural' figure lies an interpretation which posits serious obstacles for women's emancipation since it blocks any involvement in the historical transformation of power relations between men and women. Parked in this limbo without history and reduced to a quest for origin centred on the figure of Mother Earth, women run the risk of being dispossessed of their political sting.

As if participating in a sacred rite that demanded continuous reactivation, Mendieta serially inscribed the earth with her body in a sort of mythological fusion. The 1975 series titled 'Siluetas' utilised the most diverse media: ashes, red flowers on sand, white fabrics on dried wood, a bamboo framework with cords for the installation of rockets and black voodoo candles. The series is an expression of some tellurian cult as much as a deeply personal conceptual work. Mendieta has claimed that through her earth works she wanted to resurrect her spiritual links with her country: 'the exploration of the relation between myself and nature that I have created in my artistic production is a clear result of the fact that I was plucked out of my adolescence. To inscribe my silhouette into nature maintains (or establishes) the transition between my country of origin and my new home. It is a way of reclaiming my roots and joining myself with nature. Although the culture in which I live is part of me, my roots and my cultural identity are products of my Cuban inheritance'.

When she was twelve, Mendieta and her sister Raquel were sent by her parents to the United States from Cuba, fearing possible reprisals from the new Castro regime which her parents opposed. Her journey in 1961 was part of Operation Peter Pan which sent children out of Cuba under the tutelage of Catholic organisations. This forced exile contributed to the sense of solitude and isolation which flourished throughout Mendieta's work, and which Donald Kuspit discusses in psychoanalytical terms in one of the catalogue texts, grounding his argument in the emotional disjunction produced by the separation from her family. Thus, for Mendieta, the construction of a maternal figure amongst vegetation or in harsh, rocky places is equivalent to a re-encounter with her mother, with whom she became fused in a sort of mystical embrace. The interpretation, however, of The Tree of Life (1977) as symbolising her yearning to find her father seems a bit simplistic, especially if we take into account the discord that arose between mother and daughter, and the latter's resentment toward the former; family relations just aren't that simple.

The greatest rediscovery in this show were the performances created by Mendieta between 1972 and 1975. These depict an overwhelmingly critical vision of the female condition subjected to male rule.

In a dark room full of sophisticated technology, a gamut of slides, Super 8 films and videos are projected. In these, we see a neatly written sentence in Mendieta's hand - 'there is a demon inside me' - which seems to take on its full magnitude in this context. In Death of a Chicken, (1972) Mendieta presented herself before the viewers with a decapitated hen which, in its final spasm, spattered its blood over her naked body. In answer to the fact that, from a rather uninformed Western perspective, this act has been associated with Cuban santeriá rituals, Mendieta suggested that the violence of the sacrifice actually referred to the profane world in which she lived.

Blood appeared again in one of her most dramatic performances, incited by the rape and murder of a student at the University of Iowa. Staged in Mendieta's apartment, this performance required the presence of an audience (something which disappeared in her solitary works en plein air), in this case made up of friends and classmates. After finding the door half-open, they came directly upon a room illuminated by a single point of light above the table, accentuating the harshness of the scene. Tied to the table amongst broken plates and covered in blood, Mendieta lay with her back to the visitors in the blood-spattered room. This bloody continuum was made complete with the performance People Looking at Blood, Moffit, Iowa (1973). Passers-by came upon a trickle of blood and guts running under a door. A reference to domestic violence?

Or a re-creation of an archaic rite?

To categorise Mendieta through the single aesthetic of spiritual regeneration via the uterus is to limit the extent of a body of work that is nourished by female insight and effective in its critique of male violence. Her association of Minimal and Conceptual art with the 'male' facilitated her escape toward new territories, and hers is not an art which can be simply labelled body (or land) art. Such a reading would overly Anglo-Saxonise her and discount the traces of her Cuban culture. Nor is her work strictly indebted to animism; Mendieta's intensity dwells in her cultural mix, which hinders any attempt at compartmentalisation.

Translated by Vincent Martin