Sweating Blood, November 1973

Sweating Blood, a film created by and featuring Ana Mendieta, is one of the 21 films that will be presented in Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta, an exhibition that will debut at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery in September of 2015. Sweating Blood is a 3-minute long silent film created on super-8 color film in November of 1973. In the fall of 1973, Mendieta began teaching art at an Iowa City public school.[1] Eight months after the rape and murder of fellow University of Iowa student Sara Ann Otten, Mendieta was still actively creating response pieces surrounding violence enacted on women and rape. She employed blood as a powerful symbol with strong violent and political connotations. Many of her pieces created around this time, such as Untitled (Rape Performance) and Untitled (Bloody Mattress), involved very literal implications in her usage of blood.1 She clearly communicated an emotional response to Otten’s death and a call for awareness and action on violence against women. Sweating Blood, however was a bit more ambiguous in Mendieta’s usage of blood and the films overall meaning.

The film opens to Ana Mendieta’s face. It is central and takes up a large portion of the frame, surrounded by black darkness on all sides. Her eyes and mouth are closed; her face is calm and relaxed. Slowly, like little pores, specs of red appear on and around her hairline. Over the course of a minute, the flecks progressively darken and her hair begins to take on a reddish tint. The blood begins to pool in little dots and the parting of her hair grows increasingly red. As the blood-sweat accumulates the camera shifts ever so slightly, evidence of the edits made to the film. Each shift zooms minimally in towards her face. Almost two minutes into the film a drip forms beneath her part and blood runs slowly down the center of her forehead, it rolls off to the left over her eyebrow and trails down the edge of her nose. By this point in the film her face, from top to bottom, almost fills the full height of the frame. A second drip forms along the left side of her hairline and it rolls down the side of her face, tracing the curve of her cheek. The blood has filled her hair entirely and the dots of perspiration have colored a solid centimeter of red along the edges of her forehead. The frame goes black.

In an undated statement, Mendieta is quoted as having written “the turning point in [my] art was in 1972, when I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I want the image to convey and by real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic.”[2] She is later quoted as having said, about her work from this time, “I started immediately using blood- I guess because I think it’s a very powerful, magical thing. I don’t see it as a negative force.” 1 Many have related Mendieta’s usage of blood to her diverse religious history. Though she was born and raised Catholic, she was exposed to Afro-Cuban practices of Santeria at an early age by way of her family’s housekeepers.1 She continued to have an affinity for religious and spiritual practices, as she grew older. After and during her studies at the University of Iowa, she traveled frequently to Oaxaca, Mexico; Miami; and to her birth country Cuba. During this time she became absorbed in and experimented with Afro-Diasporan syncretic spiritual practices, traditions and rituals.2 Within Catholicism, blood, often metaphorically represented by wine, is consumed in a holy sacrament through which one can receive the divinity and grace of Christ.[3] Similarly, within Santeria, blood is used in Ebo sacrifices and is a required part of any initiation to have the presence of Orishas, the deities.[4]

Mendieta’s stance and facial expression in Sweating Blood evoke images of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Her silence adds to the spiritual, ritualistic aura as cow’s blood slowly trickles over her face. The integration of blood, as a primal and primitive element, reduces Mendieta to her essential self. Drawing the viewer into her spiritual space and presenting this reduction of herself, she traces phenomenological terms of identity. As she said of her oeuvre, “My works are the irrigation veins of the Universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world.”[5] By employing universal, authentic elements in her work she distills communication to an omnipresent, innate experience and understanding. With this view on her work, the blood in Sweating Blood reads as symbolic of reproduction, the earth, female empowerment, menstruation, maternity, life and spirituality. Unlike her other films I have analyzed, Sweating Blood doesn’t depict a clear message or narrative. However, I see the ambiguity of the film as lending to its power and universal transcendence.

[1] Mendieta, Ana, Olga M. Viso, and Guy Brett. Ana Mendieta – Earth Body: Scultpure and Performance, 1972 – 1985;. Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, 2004. Print

[2] Rochelle Barbour, Rhonda. PERFORMANCE OF MEMORY AND RITUAL: SELECTED WORKS BY ANA MENDIETA AND TANIA BRUGUERA. Thesis. University of Southern California, 2013. N.p.: n.p., 2013. Print.

[3] “Tracts.” Who Can Receive Communion? N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

[4] “Rituals and Sacrifice (Ebó).” Santeria Church of the Orishas. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

[5] Ultan, Deborah K. “From the Personal to the Transpersonal: Self Reclamation Through Ritual-in-Performance.” Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society of North America; 20.2 (2001): 30-36. Web.


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