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.
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.
Important Art by Ana Mendieta
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.
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.
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.