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Ana Mendieta Photo

Ana Mendieta

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

Born: November 18, 1948 - Havana, Cuba
Died: September 8, 1985 - New York City
"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."
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Ana Mendieta Signature
"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."
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Ana Mendieta Signature
"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."
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Ana Mendieta Signature
"My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source. "
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Ana Mendieta Signature
"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."
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Ana Mendieta Signature
"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."
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Ana Mendieta Signature
"The obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is an objectification of my existence."
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Ana Mendieta Signature
"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."
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Ana Mendieta Signature

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta Photo

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.



Progression of Art

1972

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

1973

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

1973

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

1973

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

1974

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

1976

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

1976

Untitled

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

1981-85

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


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Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Ana Mendieta Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alicia Lopez
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 05 Jul 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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