The Black Angel and Ana Mendieta

The Black Angel, seen from behind on Oct. 12, 2022, in Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

“I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is … a return to the maternal source. Through my earth/body sculptures I become one with the earth … I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body.” —Ana Mendieta

In 1961, as part of a covert U.S. government action called Operation Peter Pan, 12-year-old Ana Mendieta and her older sister were flown from Havana to Dubuque. In all, 14,000 Cuban children were evacuated in response to their parents’ fears of Fidel Castro’s Communist regime. The sisters were lodged at St. Mary’s Orphan Home in Dubuque (run by Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, the facility shifted its mission in the 1960s to serving “hard-to-care-for children,”) and then, for the next four years, were shuttled between foster homes in Cedar Rapids until Ana graduated from Regis High School. She studied at the University of Iowa from 1969 to 1977, earning two master’s degrees and jump-starting her career as a groundbreaking multimedia performance artist. One of her performances would happen at a notably conspicuous site on Iowa City’s north side.

This year, on the last night of August, as a crescent moon was rising on the eastern horizon, my friend and I walked one block from her house on Brown Street into Oakland Cemetery. We commented on how dark it had suddenly become — no streetlights, no house lights, no headlights and large trees blocking out the city around us. We were soon engulfed by the sonorous call-and-response of a choir of tree frogs. Walking deeper into the cemetery, we could see a glimmer in the distance. As we approached the light, we realized it was a street lamp illuminating the Black Angel, likely placed there by cemetery staff to discourage acts of vandalism or bacchanalian gatherings.

The Black Angel in Oakland Cemetery has long been the subject of local lore, including the rumor that one was destined to die within seven years if they defaced the sculpture. That hasn’t stopped vandals from taking her fingers as souvenirs over the decades. Oct. 12, 2022. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The Black Angel is a popular local attraction, a statue commissioned by a mother to look down on the grave of her son, who died at the age of 18. To the left of the angel stands his headstone, a sculpture of a ragged tree stump with an ax head buried in it to symbolize a life cut short. The last three lines of the headstone’s inscription: “I was not granted time to bid adieu / Do not weep for me dear mother / I am at peace in my cool grave.” The unusual color of the angel, combined with the overactive imaginations and superstitious tendencies of college students, has led to a plethora of urban legends about curses of all types, which enwrap the statue in a patina of mystery and might explain the offerings left at its feet.

I’ve walked and biked past the Black Angel many times. When I arrived in Iowa City in 1975, my first apartment was two blocks away on Reno Street; then in the 1990s, I would bike by it on a shortcut from my home on the east side of town to my job on the north side. I’ve admired it, studied it, but always respectfully kept my distance. It is rather foreboding — the angel, her enormous wings raised, towers 13 feet above ground level and has been blackened by the natural oxidation process of the bronze.

The Black Angel in 2017. — Dawn Frary

But that night I felt emboldened, perhaps because my friend was with me, perhaps because no one else was in the cemetery. I climbed atop the four-foot-tall pedestal, using the tree stump gravestone to give me a boost. I sidestepped the day’s offerings* and, with little room to do anything else, looked up at the Black Angel and hugged her around the waist. I never realized how attractive she is. Her long sheer gown clings, revealing the figure of a young woman. When viewed at ground level, her facial features are enshrouded by hair that hangs down around her face. But from my vantage point, I could, for the first time, see her face clearly. Although her eyes were closed, I felt her looking down at me. Some artistic vandal had smeared her lips with red lipstick, which somehow made her look more beautiful. Graffiti had been scratched into the bronze of her upper torso, but the accretion of patina was slowly obscuring those marks. A swarm of paper wasps had built a nest in her left armpit. I was smitten. I hugged her longer than seemed proper, and then carefully climbed down.

Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The Czech Bohemian woman who commissioned this statue**, Teresa Doležal Feldevert, immigrated with her son to the nearby Goosetown neighborhood in 1878 and found work as a midwife. After her son’s death in 1891, she moved from city to city, eventually settling in Eugene, Oregon, and remarrying. When this husband died, Teresa inherited his cattle ranch and used some of her wealth to build this monument. On the base of the statue, beneath the raised letters “Rodina Feldevertova” — Czech for “The Family Feldevert” — are engraved “Nicholas Feldevert 1825–1911” and “Teresa Feldevert 1836–”. They are buried beneath the large stone slab that extends in front of the sculpture. She died in 1924, but no one was left to add her end date.

Still from Ana Mendieta’s series ‘Siluetas’

In 1975, Ana Mendieta, as part of one of the early iterations of her earth/body sculpture series Siluetas*, filmed herself lying face down on this slab, arms outstretched, dressed in black, then rising to sprinkle handfuls of black pigment powder to form a body outline, adding a pile of red pigment powder in the area of her heart and a large black X over the entire silhouette and finally looking directly at the Black Angel and swinging her leg in a wide arc to sweep away the silhouette. We can offer many interpretations of this performance: an act of commemoration, an identification with maternal grief and the immigrant’s pain of displacement, a ritualistic enactment of death and rebirth, a healing ceremony. Perhaps it was all of these and more.****

My friend and I continued our walk. We headed back toward her house, taking a different route, picking our way through an unfamiliar corner of the cemetery that borders Church Street. The large oaks, hickories and pines intensified the darkness. The 19th century gravestones leaned off-kilter, rimed with lichen. At one point, I came to a stone border that demarcated a narrow paved lane no longer in use as a cemetery entrance. Ten feet to our left stood a locked gate. I looked down in the dark and estimated that the lane was at most a foot below where I stood. As I stepped down, I realized I had gravely misjudged the distance and was stepping into air, unsure when I would land. It felt like slow motion, like an unseen hand had reached out to help me down.

Emma McClatchey/Little Village

When I was a child, one of the few framed artworks in our house was a small reproduction that depicted a guardian angel hovering over a boy and girl at play unaware of their proximity to a precipice. The scene gave my mother some reassurance as she sent the 10 of us out to play beyond her reach and sight. The actual distance of that step down was three feet. I tipped forward, breaking my landing with my hands and right knee, while my left ankle scraped against that stone border. My friend said I just disappeared from sight in front of her. That misstep earned me a few scrapes, but no blood, no broken bones, not even a bruise. Some might say my fall was the Black Angel avenging the liberties I had taken with her. I prefer to think she was protecting me.

On September 8, 1985, the Cuban-American feminist artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her 34th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Many believed she was pushed, whether intentionally or accidentally, by her husband, the artist Carl Andre, in the midst of a heated argument. I want to believe an angel was with her, perhaps not to save her but at least to hold her hand as she flew to the earth, filling her with peace in that last moment of her life.

* Norway spruce cones, a pair of tea roses, small piles of quarters and pennies and two seemingly active credit cards!

** The sculptor was a Czech-American artist, Mario Korbel, who also sculpted the Alma Mater statue located at the entrance to the Universidad de La Habana, which young Ana Mendieta may have seen.

*** The Stanley Museum of Art is now showing a piece of hers documenting three other Siluetas, as well as two films she made during her years in Iowa City.

****I want to credit Jane Blocker as my source for the description and analysis in this paragraph. See her essay “The Black Angel: Ana Mendieta in Iowa City,” published in The Latino/a Midwest Reader, University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Born in Akron, Ohio, David Duer has lived in the Iowa City area for 47 years and, most recently, taught English at Cedar Rapids Washington High School. This essay was originally published in Little Village issue 311.

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