Cuban-American Performance Artist, Sculptor, Painter, Photographer and Video Artist
New York City
Summary of Ana Mendieta
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.
- 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.
Progression of Art
Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant)
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.
Color photograph - Galerie Lelong and Alison Jacques Gallery
Untitled (Rape Scene)
A few years into her studies at the University of Iowa, while Mendieta was enrolled in Hans Breder's Intermedia Art course, a fellow student named Sara Ann Ottens was brutally raped and killed. In response to the incident, and as a vehicle to express the horror of male sexual violence, Mendieta staged a poignant and shocking performance.
She invited students and professors to stop by her apartment at a given time. As soon as the unsuspecting visitors walked through her door, they encountered Mendieta's bloody, naked form tied to the living room table. Mendieta had carefully recreated the scene of Ottens' murder as was reported by the police. Years later, Mendieta recalled that her audience "all sat down, and started talking about it" while she "stayed in position about an hour." The interaction between artist and attendees became a cathartic way for the community to dialogue and process the horror that had happened in its midst - an example of performance art's ability to compel participation within the viewer as part of the overall experience.
The existing documentation of this piece is a harsh one: a jolting photograph showcasing the disheveled apartment, a battered wooden table and the artist's body, bent at a right angle and covered in blood dripping down her bare legs. With this piece Mendieta started to realize the power of her own body as both subject and object in her artwork, a revelation that allowed her to evocatively denounce sexual abuse and violence.
Color photograph - The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection
Untitled (People Looking at Blood, Moffitt)
Later that same year, Mendieta worked with blood as her primary material once again. In Untitled (People Looking at Blood, Moffit), she spread animal blood and viscera on the sidewalk outside her house, so that it looked to passersby as if the blood were leaking out from under her closed doorway. Incognito and across the street, the artist then surreptitiously captured people as they walked by the macabre pool of gore, most of whom spared it no more than a passing glance. The resulting images are a series of slides and a Super-8 film that document these strangers' detachment to violence.
Much of Mendieta's career has been obscured by her death, and this piece in particular is tempting to read through the lens of her terrible demise. The mysterious circumstances of Mendieta's death pose the possibility that she was victim of domestic abuse that might've gone as unaddressed as the stream of blood in this image. It is not enough, however, to consider this piece as a mere omen of what was to come for Mendieta. People Looking at Blood, Moffitt was an innovative and incendiary film that revealed our readiness to ignore everyday signs of violence - a common thread in Mendieta's oeuvre in which she persistently tried to get people to see "other bodies" as their own. Her empathy toward the disenfranchised, minority, orphaned, abused, violated, and simply different was something she strived to convey through works such as this.
Super-8mm film - The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection
Untitled (Image from Yagul)
Mendieta's work on her Silueta series (Spanish for "silhouette") in the 1970s established her among the ranks of artists exploring the emerging genres of Land art, Body art, and Performance art. Her "earth-body" series put her at the forefront of this experimentation with pieces that were some of the first within the art world to blur the boundaries between performance, film, and photography. Mendieta unraveled her relationship to the Earth and to her femininity by creating imprints of her naked body on the land in places she held especially dear, such as Cuba, Mexico, and Iowa. She would then remove herself and denote the resulting outline, or silhouette, with specific colors or materials that would evoke these places of personal identification.
In one of her best-known pieces, entitled Imagen de Yagul, the artist uncommonly remains in the resulting photograph lying in a Zapotec tomb, her nude body covered with white flowers. The foliage that obscures Mendieta's face and seems to grow from her body turns her unclothed form into both a lifeless corpse and a place of great fecundity. Mendieta's use of the abstracted feminine form that has become fused with the landscape may also denote her finally finding home in the more universal Mother Earth and an acceptance of the cycles of life and death. It also eloquently speaks to her concerns surrounding belonging and rootedness, and an underlying reliance on her female mysticism.
Color photograph - The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection
Untitled (Blood and Feathers #2)
Untitled (Blood and Feathers #2) is a three and a half minute Super-8 film accompanied by 35mm slides documenting a performance undertaken by the artist while she was a graduate student. It shows Mendieta standing naked in front of a flowing creek, looking directly at the camera while pouring blood out of a flask and down the front of her body. She then reaches behind her, pours the remaining blood down her back, and casts the empty container aside. The artist then falls into a heap of white feathers and slowly rolls around as they adhere to her bloodied form. The film ends with Mendieta standing slowly, her arms bent to resemble wings - a position she holds for the final moments of the film.
This environment of the piece - the flowing creek in an unpopulated spot of nature - and its use of elemental materials - the blood, the feathers, the naked female body - are reminiscent of religious rituals. Blood is central to Catholic rites, the religion in which Mendieta was raised, and the sacrifice of animals is a vital part of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion the artist would draw on for inspiration repeatedly.
Blood and Feathers hints at a self-flagellating type of renewal often practiced by devotees in faiths where bloodletting equals cleansing or purification. It also presents the idea that as one life becomes sacrificed, another more pure one may emerge. The consistency of this sort of physical transformation in Mendieta's work from female to bird, or female back to raw form, shows an impetus within the artist to transcend the physical limitations of the body toward a more spiritual existence.
Super-8mm film - The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection
Untitled (Siluetas Series)
Mendieta once said about her artwork: "I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me." This sentiment is most pointedly expressed through her Siluetas series. In this particular piece, the artist created an outline of her body on the beach at La Ventosa, Mexico and filled the imprint with red tempera. As the tide rose and the ocean waves washed over it, the shape gradually eroded away and the color dissipated into the sea until finally, nothing remained.
The powerful work washed away all evidence of the artist's presence. In doing so, it evoked the cycles of life, of birth and death, and of coming from and returning to the womb/earth - or simply, that unexplained spiritual place of vast mystery paid homage to in ritual such as this performance.
35mm color slide - The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection
In this photo, we see a stone niche high in the walls of a Mexican monastery complex called Cuilapan de Guerrero that frames a chilling, ghost-like white figure smeared with what at first glance we intuit as blood. Upon closer look, we find the form is the artist wrapped in a white sheet, the front of her body creating a red stain on the fabric. The figure could be a robed Madonna, but the red, skeletal imprint unsettles these associations and reveals Mendieta's interest in indigenous religious practices such as human sacrifice. Mendieta was highly critical of the historical imposition of Catholicism upon indigenous peoples. This piece signifies her criticism by subverting this convent's history of evangelization through positioning her ritualistic piece within the hallowed vaulted alcove meant to display Catholic religious figures. The piece also evinces Mendieta's interest in the roots of Cuban Santeria - a time during which black slaves masked their "Santero" divinities under Catholic names so that they could worship without the fear of punishment at the hand of slave owners.
35 mm color slide - The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection
Guabancex, Goddess of Wind
By 1978 Mendieta's Siluetas and films had given way to a body of work consisting of forms carved into rock, made from sand, or etched into clay. She created a series of these works while in Cuba in 1981, and collectively entitled the pieces Esculturas Rupestres (rock sculptures). She chose naturally formed grottos in a national park outside of Havana where pre-Hispanic peoples once lived as the setting for these abstract, spiritual figures. Each was representative of, and named after, a goddess from the Taino or Ciboney cultures such as Iyare the Mother, Maroya the Moon, and Guanaroca the First Woman.
According to the scholar Maria del Mar Lopez-Cabrales, these works "show a strong consciousness of gender," and are in "union with the rest of the women on the earth and the Taino feminine deities." Mendieta emphasized the figures' genitals in an overt reference to the fertility and sexuality of the goddesses and attempted to fuse her artwork with its surroundings much like in her prior Siluetas, so that the figures would feel like natural extensions of their environments.
Mendieta meant for these pieces to be discovered by park-goers, but most of the etchings have disappeared and only photographic evidence of them remains.
Gelatin silver print - Raquelin Mendieta Family Trust Collection
Biography of Ana Mendieta
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.
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.
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.
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
Covered by the earth whose prisoner I am
I feel death palpitating underneath the earth.
The earth is invigorating
(it gives life) Life becomes
- 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.
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.
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."
The Legacy of Ana Mendieta
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.