Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972
In these performative self-portraits taken in the final stages of her master’s degree (in painting, but that’s a different story) at the University of Iowa, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta carefully transfers the facial hair of her bearded, male friend Morty Sklar to her own face, gluing it to her chin/jaws as Sklar cuts it from his. She starts off with a soft, hairless face next to Sklar’s full beard, and ends up with a full beard herself (but sadly no mustache). She would later use the second-to-last photo (the frontal solo portrait) as the basis for a series of silk screens which ended up being her final thesis submission (well, hence painting), but the performance and resulting photos themselves are much more interesting than that.
In the performance, Mendieta actively reverses the act of depilation that is a frequent ritual for so many (invisible) women with facial hair, and instead deliberately grows a beard in a matter of minutes. By doing so, she shows the strong gender-specificity (or exclusivity) of this symbol of identification called facial hair. While Sklar with-beard might be seen as somewhat unkempt by the average viewer (something easily fixed with a little trimming), his beardedness would raise no other questions; most would glance over him or be more inclined to notice some other aspect of his appearance, if any. Mendieta with-beard, however, is virtually incomprehensible to the conventional gaze. Magically, the exact same stuff, on a different face, suddenly has a wildly different meaning. -J