One of the more relevant definitions of “identity” provided by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is: “who or what a person or thing is; a distinct impression of a single person or thing presented to or perceived by others; a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person or thing from others” (OED Online-identity). This article is concerned with looking at the representation of identity in Latin American art by linking it to the concepts of hybridity, nationality, belonging, and construction of identity that characterize Latin America.
The previously mentioned definition of identity, when linked to its representation in art, is as a tool for understanding the beliefs, values, and cultural practices of individual artists. Art represents the way people understand the world, what their questions are, what their vision of both themselves and the world are, and gives them a sense of belonging. It is in this context that Latin American artists, through their works, express the construction, fragmentation and re-construction of their identities.
Latin American artists use their works to express their sense of who and what they are. They feel a connection with European art, and at the same time they want to express their belonging to something else. Latin American art represents different forms of identity that can be linked not only to hybridity and choice, but also to a deep sense of belonging and of nationality; all these identities are communicated and presented to a public that will then interpret these works in many different ways. The following paragraphs will analyze the expression of identity in Latin American art by looking at two artists that made their art a tool to express their identity as Latin American artists: Frida Kahlo and Ana Mendieta.
Bauman, in his book Identity, describes this concept in a way that can be used to help understand its relation with hybridity in Latin American art. He explains that the question of identity is linked to “ideas and principles around which ‘communities of believers’ grow that one has to compare, to make choices… to revise choices already made on another occasion, to try to reconcile contradictory and often incompatible demands” (Bauman 2013:11). This choice can be linked to the selection of any part that forms a hybrid identity when an artist decides to represent it.
Frida Khalo is a great example of how an artist represents the aspect of “who or what a person or thing is” (OED Online-identity) of identity throughout her art. She projects the image that she has of herself and how she sees the world through her paintings: “Her paintings invite examination of how Khalo portraits self, and how she depicts ‘reality’” (Latimer 2002:46). When portraying the herself in her paintings Kahlo constructs her identity not only by basing it on her condition of hybridity (she places herself at the border of European/American and Mexican/autochtonous identities), but also by constructing herself through choices in selecting which aspects of her identity to represent. She portrays a “vision in which she refuses to allow Frida to be reduced to a singular perspective, a singular category, or even to some story of multiple realities… Kahlo’s portraits offer us a way of imagining self that resists the very notion of subsuming self to a singular, categorical identity” (Latimer 2002:51). Frida Kahlo also represents what Bauman describes as ambivalent identity, because she portrays herself as having been made of many different connected others. For example, she uses Mexican monuments and totems along with representative images of her European identity and moments of physical and psychological pain in addition.
Identity as “a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person or thing from others” (OED Online-identity), is also extensively portrayed in Ana Mendieta’s art which links the representation of her identity through art with the concepts of nationality, belonging, and the fact of being a female artist. Nationality is a recurring concept in Mendieta’s work, and with it national identity and its representation. In this connection, Bauman explains that “the thought of ‘having an identity’ will not occur to people as long as ‘belonging’ remains their fate, a condition with no alternative” (Bauman 2013:11-12), and it is exactly this sense of belonging that Ana Mendieta lost when she was a child that has been sent from Cuba to the USA. Mendieta’s work may be also read as a “critique of the objectification of ethnic Others and [to] conv[ey]… her emotional need to identify with an exiled community” (Cabañas 1999:13). We can say that it is in this type of community that Mendieta sees herself as brown and not white. According to Kaira M. Cabañas, Mendieta represents Cuban national identity in many of her works, as for example Body Tracks, an art performance that is accompanied by drums, chants, and melodies proper of Cuban culture. Her art can be considered as the expression of her vision of life and its relation with living as a Cuban female artist in New York. It made her “the other” in relation to the artistic community she frequented but the loss of identity that she suffered when she moved to the USA also gave her the strength to perform such loss through her art; this is what Muñoz (2011) names “brownness.” According to Muñoz, “So much of the weird vitality of Mendieta’s endeavours emerged from the strain of the kind of negation that is loss of homeland, ethnos and other vagaries of selfhood” (2011:192). Mendieta’s Siluetas series can thus be said to show not only a representation of Mendieta herself but also of the world around her as seen through her eyes. For Cabañas, the Siluetas “represented Mendieta’s continued search for identity and belonging in the split experience of exile, [and] her incorporation of Santeria practices embodied a community of experience of exile and ethnic Other” (1999:14). Thus the Siluetas represent the links that can be found between the social relations and the questions of national identity that form a large part of Mendieta’s life.
In conclusion, identity in Latin American art is based on choices. These choices serve as a tool to select what aspects of the self the artists want to communicate to the public. The resulting works of art represent hybridity, national identity and belonging, which are major questions and concerns related to the identification of the self, felt by many Latin Americans due to their particular cultural history.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Identity. Second ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013. Print.
Cabañas, Kaira M. “Ana Mendieta: Pain of Cuba, Body I Am.” Woman’s Art Journal 20.1 (1999): 12-17. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
“Identity.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
Latimer, Joanna. “Unsettling bodies: Frida Khalo’s portraits and in/dividuality.” The Sociological Review 35.2 (2007): 46-62. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
Muñoz, José E. “Vitalism’s after-burn: The sense of Ana Mendieta.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 21.2 (2011): 191-98. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.