The Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta once said that the most fundamental turning point in her practice came to her in 1972. It happened, she said, “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.” From that moment in her oeuvre onwards, Mendieta focused mostly on creating photography and film works, and she continued to seek the essence of that power—tempered with a little of the magic she spoke of—through camera lenses until her death in 1985.
I thought a lot about Mendieta when spending time with the new photobook by Spanish artist Carlota Guerrero, Tengo un dragón dentro del corazón (or ‘There Is a Dragon in My Heart’) for this review. I thought about how important the liberation of the female body was to Mendieta, and about how important the beauty of it was to her too—and I saw those impulses in Guerrero’s work. I thought about how photography and moving-image are the most present mediums in both of their practices. And I thought about how Guerrero’s visual language privileges softness in ways I haven’t seen since discovering Mendieta’s work. Both of these artists—one now reaching entirely new heights in her career; the other whose presence remains felt through an unforgettable legacy—capture the potency and sensuality of feminine energy in the most visceral of pictures.
Spanning almost a decade of Guerrero’s practice, Tengo un dragón traces the evolution of the artist, with pictures dating from 2014 to the present. The first two images in the book are from a series called La Danse, shot by the artist in 2016. The first of those is grainy and fractal—a blown-up, black and white photograph depicting the bodies of a group of women interacting—and the second image is a contact sheet, in full colour, showing a series of images from the same shoot. Made in the image of Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting, La Danse, this photograph formally echoes that seminal work right down to the colours of the background (blue) and the floor (green). Just as in the painting, five nude women hold hands and dance in a circle. This image is the first in a series of visual clues given to us by Guerrero—showing us how central the idea of connectedness is to her work. Later, as the book unfolds, bodies are physically connected in all sorts of ways—wrapped up in each other, touching one another, even bound together, at times, with reams of string, or fabric, or hair, or gauzy, nude-coloured tights.
Guerrero often shoots her subjects in light, airy studio spaces, but at times in this book, her women emerge into the outdoors—holding hands in fields, standing in streets together, and laying out upon rocks, the curves of their bodies echoing the grooves in the ground. These moments are particularly alluring because they reveal another of Guerrero’s key themes: nature, and our relationship to it. In one particularly strong example of this, she photographs a nude woman lying on the shore, and captures the exact moment a wave passes over the lower half of her, perfectly taking the shape of underwear. She often plays with how we can wear the natural world, covering bodies with chalk dust and seaweed elsewhere. At times too, the images in this book verge on something of a fashion-led style, but they maintain a conceptual feel regardless, echoing the early publications of photographers like Mark Borthwick.
Sometimes faces are obscured in Guerrero’s pictures, and these are perhaps our most powerful reminders that as an artist, Guerrero seeks a sort of oneness between women—when she shoots their pictures, she says, she often shoots “as if each woman were an organ or a cell that, by joining the others, makes up a whole being.” Bodies become serpentine in this book, interweaving, folding into one another, and moving closer and closer towards an ideal image—sublime, even—of the ‘divine feminine’ as this artist sees it.
Guerrero talks a lot in the book about the connectedness she seeks, and the constant associations she draws between ourselves, our environments, and our imaginations. “I cannot stop imagining things, new animals, auxiliary planets, colours I have never seen before, multiple extremities…I am a channel and sometimes a vessel,” she writes, and I’m reminded one final time of something Mendieta said in an interview decades before. “My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world.”
At one point in the book, Guerrero tells a wonderful fable, which seems to neatly epitomize her aesthetic: “I once read a story about a woman who was telling a traditional tale in her village. As she told it, she noticed a hand touching her foot. Looking down, she realized that she was sitting on the shoulders of an older woman, correcting her way of recounting the story. In turn, that woman was also sitting on the shoulders of a still older woman, and so on, all the way down, creating an endless ladder of women passing along their wisdom, from time immemorial. This image is with me always; it obsesses me. I try to depict it time and again.”
Violence has been acted out upon the site of the female body—and upon the feminine space —throughout history. Whole myths are built from stories of women being slain or punished for embracing their bodies and voices as weapons. Perhaps the most powerful thing about Guerrero’s work is its debt to the legacies of women who have come before her—before us—while also offering us new goddesses and deities, made in the image of those archetypes. All sorts of references can be unearthed in her pictures, from painters and muses to classic statues from centuries since passed.Bodies and their movements are central to Guerrero’s vision. Women cry in her pictures, they sweat, they laugh, they gasp, they dance, and this is just the way they should be. In Tengo un dragón, the artist’s formula for visualizing the divine feminine is through the use of real bodies and real lives, but crucially, with a touch of magic and mysticism drawn from art history too. Ultimately, this remarkable photobook offers a refreshed and contemporary take on the legacy of female performance art, mediated by a deep connectedness to the natural world, and an unfaltering mission to visualize what it means, fundamentally, to be a woman—now and always.