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Ana Mendieta

Cuban-American Performance Artist, Sculptor, Painter, Photographer and Video Artist

Movements and Styles: Feminist Art, Performance Art, Body Art, Land Art

Born: November 18, 1948 - Havana, Cuba

Died: September 8, 1985 - New York City

Ana Mendieta Timeline

Quotes

"By making my image in nature I can deal with the two cultures. My earth-body sculptures are not the final stage of a ritual but a way and a means of asserting my emotional ties with nature and conceptualizing religion and culture."
Ana Mendieta
"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."
Ana Mendieta
"My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source. "
Ana Mendieta
"Art is a material act of culture, but its greatest value is its spiritual role, and that influences society, because it's the greatest contribution to the intellectual and moral development of humanity that can be made."
Ana Mendieta
"I have been carrying out 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 the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source."
Ana Mendieta
"The obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is an objectification of my existence."
Ana Mendieta
"Now I believe in water, air, and earth. They are all deities. They also speak. I am connected with the goddess of the sweet water-...it is raining a lot. Those are the things that are powerful and important. I don't know why people have gotten away from these ideas."
Ana Mendieta

"I decided that for the images to have magic qualities I had to work directly with nature. I had to go to the source of life, to mother earth."

Ana Mendieta Signature

Synopsis

Ana Mendieta's short life was a study in displacement and its effects on a person's soul - both positive and negative. From her early years when she was separated from her Cuban family to become an adopted refugee in America throughout her adolescent years when she felt like an outsider growing up in the Midwest, the young artist felt an ever-present disconnection from the concepts of mother, place, identity, belonging, and home. For 15 of her 37 years, she explored this ache through her work, which was primarily performance, photography, and film-based. She aimed to jostle the nonchalance of people in ways that would provoke them to connect with each other more authentically, to understand that they were essentially one within humanity, and that the earth was the supreme mother to all. She wanted to pierce the veils of perceived difference in many spheres including gender, race, and geography and asked us to perceive our own indifference to more unsettling things within our midst such as prejudice and violence. The ongoing dialogue between her own body and the landscape regarding presence, absence, and the inevitable cycles within nature and life would come to be seen as an eerie foretelling of her tragic end when she fell from the window of an apartment building. However, Mendieta's impact remains, much like the images she made, stained in the psyche, asking us to consider the spiritual, ethereal, and physical connections present in our own thirst for being.

Key Ideas

Mendieta was a key figure in the Body art movement that emerged from the Performance art movement. Her sustained use of the body's simplified and often nude form to depict both presence and its opposite, absence is an essential component to her work whether denoting the human or the ethereal.
Mendieta is recognized as an important contributor to Land art, a movement in which landscape and the work of art are inextricably linked, taking the possibilities of art outside gallery confines. She used the natural environment as a perpetual setting throughout her career, most memorably in her earth-works such as Siluetas, which were created in various natural locations with particular meaning to the artist and adorned with elements indigenous to the areas.
Merging with the earth not only became a mark-making process for Mendieta, but also a metaphorical return to mother and ritualistic homage to a universally generic, feminine earth goddess. In the end, the land was perhaps her greatest collaborator, helping her express the body's place within the world and its relationship to nature.
Mendieta is also oftentimes connected with the Feminist art movement for her work on the fluidity of gender and the manipulation of her own body parts to blur the line between male/female identification. But also, she often embraced her own feminine spirit and feminine mysticism in her work, unapologetically and with copious amounts of joy.
The consistent use of blood and other organic material such as feathers, rocks, flowers, fire, and the earth reflect Mendieta's passion for religious ritual. She was especially inspired by the strain of Cuban Catholicism known as Santeria. Much of her artwork materialized as a sort of rite, orchestrated to articulate the perpetual cycles of life, death, womanhood, rebirth, and renewal.
Because of her early displacement from family and home and the trauma that produced in her early life, Mendieta became a lifelong champion of the marginalized or minoritized whether by racism, sexism, or geography. Much of the passion that went into making her work was stoked by a desire to have everybody recognize those considered "other bodies" and to accept humanity as one throbbing whole rather than a world of disjointed individuals.
Violence remains a mysterious ingredient in Mendieta's legacy. Themes of domestic violence, of turning a blind eye to violence, and forced participation in witnessing violence can all be found as a parallel strain to her more earth, feminine, nature-inspired pieces. Although never really answered, this preoccupation beats below the surface and has raised many questions over the years within fans, critics, and her own personal friends about whether or not Mendieta had personal experience of abuse especially, most poignantly, in regards to the way her life tragically ended.

Most Important Art

Ana Mendieta Famous Art

Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant) (1972)

In 1972, Mendieta recruited a fellow Iowa University student to help her create Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant). Mendieta asked the student to trim his beard so that she could collect the trimmings and then carefully glue them onto her own face - a process that was fully documented. The resulting photographs can be situated in the artist's early stream of body alteration pieces, which also includes a series of images in which she distorted her body parts by smashing them into panes of glass and another series in which she transformed her appearance using makeup and wigs. Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant) is a blatant manipulation that evinces the artist's interest in the fluidity of her body and its gender identification.

The subversive self-portrait distorts notions of beauty while calling gender constructs into question. The applied mustache is unsettlingly convincing, and the piece is lent even more power due to its curiously indeterminate nature. Mendieta unapologetically shows viewers the process of her transformation and is intentional in her effort to upset gender expectations. This piece also highlights Mendieta's curiosity with organic materials such as hair, a material that is both growing and dead, very much our own and yet easily severed from our bodies.
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Ana Mendieta Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Early Period

Ana Mendieta was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba. When she was a mere 12, she was sent to America along with her sister Raquelin as part of the Peter Pan operation, a government-sponsored project for Cuban children to flee Fidel Castro's dictatorship. The project conveyed over 14,000 minors to the United States between 1960 and 1962, operating under the radar out of fear that it would be seen as an anti-Castro political undertaking. The refugee sisters spent some time in Florida before being sent to Iowa, where they lived in foster homes and were enrolled in reform school.

The girls knew little English. They had only each other and their budding interest in art to help them cope with the harshness of their new school environment and the pain of being ripped from their family of origin. In 1966, the girls were reunited with their mother and younger brother. It wasn't until 1979 that their father was able to join them in Iowa, after having spent nearly two decades in a political prison in Cuba.

After graduating from high school Mendieta went on to study French and art at the University of Iowa. Although her early work consisted mostly of paintings, a shift would occur when she enrolled in Hans Breder's innovative and progressive Intermedia Art course. She wrote: "The turning point in 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." Her professor turned her on to the newly burgeoning performance art scene and groups such as the Viennese Actionists. She began to boldly experiment with using her own body and blood as a medium, and began incorporating aspects of live ritual from religions like Santeria into her work. This allowed her to more realistically portray themes of particular interest to her such as gender fluidity, cultural marginalization, and domestic violence. She experimented with body alteration in works where she changed the appearance of or manipulated the perception of her identity as female.

<i>La Ventosa (Ana Mendieta)</i> (1971) by Hans Breder
La Ventosa (Ana Mendieta) (1971) by Hans Breder

During this time Mendieta began a decade-long affair with her teacher who was 13 years her senior. Breder was a huge influence on the young artist in many ways. He drew her attention to the exciting potential in cross-disciplinary art. He utilized her as a muse, most notably in the piece La Ventosa (1971) where Mendieta lay nude on a beach holding a mirror while being overrun by waves. He documented many of her early performance pieces, and introduced her to contemporary artists such as Hans Haacke and Vito Acconci who would inspire her own work.

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Ana Mendieta Biography Continues

In the summer of 1971, Mendieta left Iowa to travel to Mexico for research. She was concerned with the painful remnants of her cultural displacement from Cuba, and would later call the trip a "going back to the source." This would also mark the beginning of Mendieta's commitment to, in her words, carrying out "a dialogue between the landscape and the female body" - a relationship between artist and earth that would come to assuage the pain of her early disconnection from mother and home like a universal womb.

Mature Period

In 1973, the on-campus rape and murder of University of Iowa student Sarah Ann Ottens led to some of Mendieta's most potent work. Shortly after the violent incident occurred, Mendieta created a piece in which her own body was used to provoke reflections within the college community about what had occurred in their midst. She smeared her naked body with cow's blood, tied herself bent over and faced down to a table in her apartment, and then invited unsuspecting students and faculty members to her apartment to "happen upon" the scene. A year later Mendieta completed Body Tracks, another piece reminiscent of a crime scene documented by a one-minute Super-8 recording. In it, we see Mendieta with her back to the camera with her arms outstretched into the shape of a V over her head in front of a blank white wall. Slowly, she proceeds to drag her blood covered hands down the wall to the floor before walking away, leaving two gory lines framing a shape from where the body has disappeared. Her work was becoming heavily reliant on the use of her own performing body as representative of other bodies marginalized by race, violence, and gender. In the summer of the following year, after having returned to Mexico, Mendieta created the first of her seminal series Siluetas - a body of work that would come to comprise over 200 pieces. Each piece consisted of Mendieta either physically laying on the ground and merging with the surrounding elements such as leaves and twigs, or using her body to make an imprint in the ground and then photographing the ensuing outline absent of her form. Mendieta would often accentuate these outlines dramatically with red pigment, stones, or other materials indigenous to the geography where they were made; sometimes she would light them in flames. The series was therapeutic for Mendieta in that it allowed her to reconnect with nature and feel rooted in place to the land.

In 1980 Mendieta returned to Cuba for the first time since she emigrated as a child, and over the next few years was able to return to the island on several occasions working as a tour guide for the Cuban Cultural Circle. During this time, Mendieta's longing for her homeland manifested not only in her artwork, but also crept into her writings:

Pain of Cuba
body I am
my orphanhood I live.


In Cuba when you die
the earth that covers us
speaks


But here,
Covered by the earth whose prisoner I am
I feel death palpitating underneath the earth.


The earth is invigorating
(it gives life) Life becomes
immortal when
it ends.


- Ana Mendieta, 1981

Shortly after receiving her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, Mendieta moved to New York, where she met and befriended many female artists at the forefront of the feminist movement such as Mary Beth Edelson, Nancy Spero, and Carolee Schneemann. With Edelson's support Mendieta joined Artists In Residence Inc., the first gallery in the United States established solely for women. Mendieta also met her future husband, the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, at the gallery. After two years of active involvement in the A.I.R, Mendieta remarked, "American Feminism as it stands is basically a white middle class movement." Her disenfranchisement with the movement also stemmed from its seeming limitations because although much of Mendieta's work was of a feminist vein, it tended to be of a more inclusive and life affirming variety than she was finding within the collective. Some of her most notable early pieces from college like Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant) (1972) had invited male participation into the feminist perspective as an ally. In 1982, when a dispute arose at A.I.R. over a collaborative piece Mendieta had made with Andre and submitted to the gallery, she resigned altogether from the organization.

Raquelin Mendieta (left) and Ana (right) in 1985. The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection
Raquelin Mendieta (left) and Ana (right) in 1985. The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection

A year later, Mendieta moved to Rome as part of the prestigious American Academy residency. While there, Mendieta began to shift away from performance art and started to create sculptures and drawings using natural elements - work for which she was awarded the Rome Prize in 1983. During this period Mendieta and Andre's relationship was on the decline, but in January 1985 they surprised their friends and family with news of a private wedding ceremony in Rome.

Death

A few months later, back in New York, Mendieta died suddenly and tragically by falling 33 floors from the window of the apartment she shared with Andre onto the roof of a deli. The indent her body created upon impact was an awful echo of the artist's fiercely original Siluetas works. In a verdict that divided the art world Andre was acquitted of committing second-degree murder even though neighbors of the couple had heard a woman's screams of "no" and Andre was seen with scratches on his face. Andre was quoted as saying the two had been arguing over the fact that he was becoming more successful than Mendieta, a fact that depressed her enough to commit suicide. Many leapt to defend the sculptor's career from enraged feminist circles, while Mendieta's friends, several of whom had spent time with her shortly before her death, maintained that she was incapable of killing herself. Mendieta's artwork was used in court proceedings to back up the claim that her death had been a suicide, an action Mendieta's loved ones denounced, claiming her "work was about life and power and energy and not about death."


Legacy

For a long time, Mendieta's highly publicized death eclipsed any attention being paid to her intensely important body of work. A recent surge of interest in her jolting performances, however, has turned a focus onto her work as being an important member of the displaced and abused women canon. Mendieta has inspired a book about her death written by Robert Katz, a feminist protest outside of the Dia Art Foundation's retrospective of Carl Andre replete with chicken blood and guts, and many of her own postmortem retrospectives. She has also influenced numerous modern artists, such as Ana Teresa Fernández, Kate Gilmore, Simone Leigh, Gina Osterloh, Antonia Wright, Nancy Spero and Tania Bruguera.

Mendieta's memory inspired several posthumous homages as well. Bruguera, a Cuban artist born in 1968, went as far as appropriating and restaging many objects and performances of Mendieta's, but re-contextualized in a Cuban setting. Her site-specific piece titled Homenaje a Ana Mendieta (1985-1996) symbolically relocated Mendieta into the history of Cuban culture, metaphorically bringing her back home. Nancy Spero, a longtime friend of Mendieta's, also recreated some of the artist's most iconic works, including Body Tracks for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum Biennial and her own performance Homage to Ana Mendieta (1991). Carolee Schneemann's Hand/Heart for Ana Mendieta (1986), was a multi-media piece based on a dream Schneemann had about Mendieta soon after her death in which Mendieta's hands were falling in empty space and forming hearts drenched in blood. In the performance, Schneemann etched heart-shapes into snow with her bare hands using paint, blood, ashes, and syrup.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Ana Mendieta
Interactive chart with Ana Mendieta's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Kara WalkerKara Walker
Hermann NitschHermann Nitsch
Chris BurdenChris Burden
Robert SmithsonRobert Smithson
Vito AcconciVito Acconci

Friends

Carolee SchneemannCarolee Schneemann

Movements

Viennese ActionistsViennese Actionists
FluxusFluxus
Ana Mendieta
Ana Mendieta
Years Worked: 1970 - 1985

Artists

Kate GilmoreKate Gilmore
Simone LeighSimone Leigh
Tania BrugueraTania Bruguera

Friends

Carolee SchneemannCarolee Schneemann
Nancy SperoNancy Spero

Movements

Feminist ArtFeminist Art
Performance ArtPerformance Art
Body ArtBody Art
Land ArtLand Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez

Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez
Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols
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Useful Resources on Ana Mendieta

Videos

Books

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Where Is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Performativity, and Exile (1999)

By Jane Blocker

Ana Mendieta: Earth Body (2004)

By Olga Viso

Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta (2015)

By Howard Oransky

Ana Mendieta: Traces (2014) Recomended resource

By Julia Bryan-Wilson

More Interesting Books about Ana Mendieta
The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Artist, Her Mysterious Death and Cult Resurgence Recomended resource

By Guelda Voien
Observer
November, 30, 2015

The Life of Forgotten Feminist Artist Ana Mendieta, As Told By Her Sister Recomended resource

By Priscilla Frank
Huffington Post
July, 3, 2016

'...Towards A Personal Will To Continue Being 'Other'': Ana Mendieta's Abject Performances

By Leticia Alvarado
A study of Ana's early and lesser-known 1970s performances

Bloody pleasures: Ana Mendieta's violent tableaux $

By Angelique Szymanek
An examination of the violence portrayed in the artist's work

More Interesting Articles about Ana Mendieta
Untitled aka Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2)

Ana Mendieta performs Body Tracks

Raquel Cecilia Mendieta on Ana Mendieta at Galerie Lelong

Raquel talks about Ana's earlier film pieces

Hayward Gallery Exhibition Trailer: Ana Mendieta, Traces Recomended resource

An overview of Ana's work and an excerpt of an interview with the artist

Annual Stanley and Pearl Goodman Lecture on Latin American Art Recomended resource

Raquel Mendieta delivers a lecture at the NSU Art Museum on Ana Mendieta's films

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