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Genesis


Discussion Questions

  • What about the shape and form of this sculpture stands out to you? What associations do you have with this shape?
  • What do you notice about the materials Mendieta chose to use for this work? How might this work differ if it were made of other materials?
  • What does the title, Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother), evoke for you?
  • How might this piece relate to Mendieta’s interest in feminism, religious traditions, or nature?
  • How might this artwork be connected to concepts of beginnings, creation, or birth?



Suggested Activities

  • Social Studies, Religious Studies, and Art: Mendieta and the Spiritual
    Ana Mendieta’s spiritual interests represent a fusion of traditions—Santería, which melds Catholicism with the Yoruba religion, as well as feminist philosophies and connections to nature. Ask your students to find connections to these ideas in Mendieta’s work. (They may need to do a bit of research to learn more about Santería.) Have them research and share their findings with the class. Then, have students create an artwork that reflects something about their own cultural or religious background.
  • Women and History: Mendieta and Feminism
    Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother) can be interpreted as an abstracted human form, with references to ancient fertility figurines. Have students research fertility goddesses, such as the Venus of Willendorf (c. 24,000–22,000 BCE). How are they similar to Mendieta’s sculpture? How are they different?
  • Artistic Comparisons
    Ask students to compare Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother) to Mendieta’s other work, such as her Silueta series, or her earth-based performances on film. How are they similar? How are they different? What elements related to birth, beginnings, the body, and nature do you notice? Now have them compare this work to Kiki Smith’s Lilith, also featured in the “Genesis” section of Beyond Belief. Ask students to create a Venn diagram to highlight the common themes as well as divergent approaches of these two artworks.


Genesis
Overview
Representing multiple generations and working in diverse media, the artists in this section, including Ana Mendieta, Robert Rauchenberg, and Kiki Smith, offer alternative and provocative interpretations of both the creation story and the concept of genesis. These artistic interpretations touch on birth and new beginnings, and feature projects ranging from adaptations of ancient symbols of fertility to the story of the origin of the world as told through a feminist lens.

Genesis—Greek for “origin”—refers both to the first book of the Bible, in which God created the universe, and to the process of creation or birth. The first chapter of Genesis, a foundational text, presents the creation of the world as supremely mysterious, but moving firmly from chaos into order, and from dark into light. The Book of Genesis goes on to recount the early history of humankind, describes the lives of the forefathers of Israel, and ends with the death of Joseph, the liberator of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt.
Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta
Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother), 1982. Ficus tree roots. 60 1/2 in. x 24 1/4 in. x 4 in. Collection SFMOMA, fractional purchase through gift and gift of Lenore Pereira and Richard Niles, and Accessions Committee Fund purchase. © Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Discussion Questions

Suggested Activities

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Discussion Questions

  • What about the shape and form of this sculpture stands out to you? What associations do you have with this shape?
  • What do you notice about the materials Mendieta chose to use for this work? How might this work differ if it were made of other materials?
  • What does the title, Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother), evoke for you?
  • How might this piece relate to Mendieta’s interest in feminism, religious traditions, or nature?
  • How might this artwork be connected to concepts of beginnings, creation, or birth?



Classroom Activities

  • Social Studies, Religious Studies, and Art: Mendieta and the Spiritual
    Ana Mendieta’s spiritual interests represent a fusion of traditions—Santería, which melds Catholicism with the Yoruba religion, as well as feminist philosophies and connections to nature. Ask your students to find connections to these ideas in Mendieta’s work. (They may need to do a bit of research to learn more about Santería.) Have them research and share their findings with the class. Then, have students create an artwork that reflects something about their own cultural or religious background.
  • Women and History: Mendieta and Feminism
    Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother) can be interpreted as an abstracted human form, with references to ancient fertility figurines. Have students research fertility goddesses, such as the Venus of Willendorf (c. 24,000–22,000 BCE). How are they similar to Mendieta’s sculpture? How are they different?
  • Artistic Comparisons
    Ask students to compare Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother) to Mendieta’s other work, such as her Silueta series, or her earth-based performances on film. How are they similar? How are they different? What elements related to birth, beginnings, the body, and nature do you notice? Now have them compare this work to Kiki Smith’s Lilith, also featured in the “Genesis” section of Beyond Belief. Ask students to create a Venn diagram to highlight the common themes as well as divergent approaches of these two artworks.


Ana Mendieta, Tallus Mater
(Madre Tallo/Stem Mother)
Background Information
The human body and its interface with nature are a defining motif in Ana Mendieta’s art. Exiled from her Cuban homeland and separated from her extended family as an adolescent, Mendieta spent her formative years shuttling through a series of orphanages and foster homes in Iowa. Eighteen years after her departure from Cuba, Mendieta returned there for a series of visits, immersing herself in the island’s rich Afro-Cuban traditions and the rituals of Santería, primarily a synthesis of Catholicism and the West African–inspired Yoruba religion. The ephemeral nature of her sculptures, which mark the presence and absence of her body on the landscape, makes them at once a form of private ritual and, through the documentation that survives them, enduring public art.

In 1981, Mendieta returned to her homeland to work in the caves of Jaruco. The mountainous area, located in the province of Havana, has traditionally given shelter to Cuban rebels and thus possesses an aura of maternal protection. Mendieta carved images directly into the soft limestone rock, creating forms similar to her later sculptures made of organic material.

Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother) is a wall sculpture made of ficus (weeping fig tree) roots. The elongated triple loop serves as a highly stylized version of a human form, referencing not only the artist’s own body, but also the forms of fertility goddess figurines created by prehistoric civilizations. “My art is grounded on primordial accumulations,” she commented, “the unbaptized earth of the beginning.”
Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith
Lilith, 1994. Bronze and glass. 33 x 27 1/2 x 19 in. Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. © Kiki Smith; photo: Ben Blackwell.

Discussion Questions

Suggested Activities

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Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe this sculpture?
  • What words would you use to describe the figure depicted?
  • What surprises you about this work?
  • How does its placement on the wall impact your interpretation of this artwork?
  • How might the sculpture be different if it were on a pedestal, in a case, or on the floor?



Suggested Activities

  • Religious Studies and Writing: Creating a Midrash
    Have students read Genesis Chapter 1, verses 26 and 27 and Genesis Chapter 2, verses 7 and 18–25. Ask the following questions: What repetitions do you see in the narrative? What do you make of the two versions of the creation story? How are they similar? How are they different?

    In Jewish tradition, a midrash is used by Jewish scholars or rabbis to explain biblical text, fill in missing pieces of narrative, or wrestle with inconsistencies. One such midrash is the story of Lilith, the first woman on earth, who refused to submit to her husband, Adam, the first man, and was banished from the Garden of Eden. This story is used to explain what happened to the mysterious first woman created in Genesis Chapter 1.

    After reading the two creation stories, ask students to create their own midrash to explain the discrepancies between them.

  • Movement and Storytelling: Human Sculptures
    Have students look closely at Lilith. Ask the following questions: What adjectives would you use to describe her physical form and position? See if you can use your body to imitate her posture, creating a “human sculpture.” What might happen if this sculpture sprang to life? What might Lilith say or do? If this sculpture was the middle of a story, what would happen before and after? Then, have students work in small groups to pose with their classmates to create tableaux that tell the beginning and end of the story.


Kiki Smith, Lilith
Background Information
Kiki Smith’s sculptures, often featuring historical female figures, ask viewers to think critically about how women are portrayed in art. Lilith, the title of the artwork, refers to a figure who, some scholars say, was Adam’s wife before Eve. Just as the mythological Lilith refused to serve Adam, this work literally upends traditional expectations of sculpture. Instead of resting on a pedestal, Lilith crouches impossibly on the wall.
Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg
Mother of God, c. 1950. Oil, enamel, printed maps, newspaper, and copper and metallic paint on Masonite. 48 x 32 1/8 in. Collection SFMOMA, fractional purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis and promised gift of an anonymous donor. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York

Discussion Questions

Suggested Activities

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Discussion Questions

  • What different materials do you see in the work? Where might you see these materials in everyday life? Why are these material choices significant?
  • How might you interpret the white circle at the center of the artwork? How might the color choice be significant? How might you interpret the relationship between the circular form and the maps Rauschenberg uses in the piece?
  • What are the different meanings and uses for the phrase “Mother of God?” Why do you think Rauschenberg used this title? How might the title relate to the visual elements in the artwork?
  • What references to a creation story might you see here?



Suggested Activities

  • Art Making: Artist as Creator
    The curators of Beyond Belief draw parallels between the act of the creation of the world and the act of creating art. The Bible tells of the step-by-step formation of the earth and living things from a chaos where nothing existed—a blank canvas. Inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s technique of using everyday materials to create art, ask students to bring in several ordinary two-dimensional or small three-dimensional objects or materials from home. Objects that they do not consider artistic are good choices for this activity. Then, starting with blank paper and additional materials such as glue, paint, colored pencils, or collage materials, have students transform these ordinary materials into a relief-style artistic creation.
  • Art and Writing: Interpreting Mother of God
    As a class, interpret the title and various components of this artwork by creating a “mind map.” Start with the title, Mother of God, written in a circle in the middle of a white board or large piece of paper. Brainstorm associations with this title, recording them in circles connected to the title like spokes to a hub. Share out class associations with this title. Then, see if students can interpret the various components of the piece, creating mind maps for the following sections: the white circular form, the collage elements/maps, and the rectangular area at the base of the canvas. Complete the exercise by sharing interpretations, or creating a “wordle” (a visual assemblage of words on wordle.net) using all of the words in the mind map.


Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God
Background Information
American artist Robert Rauschenberg was a prominent figure who laid the groundwork for the Pop Art movement of the mid-twentieth century. In his work, Rauschenberg was known for using materials that he collected from everyday life, giving the work a more personal and autobiographical significance. During the 1950s, his work combined sculpture and painting, incorporating everyday objects and paint to become what are known as “combines.” Rauschenberg was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, and much of his early work from the late 1940s and early 1950s—with titles such as Eden and Trinity—has been interpreted religiously. Rauschenberg described these works as “a natural response to the current pressures of the faithless and a promoter of institutional optimism.”