Ana Mendieta - Biography and Legacy
Cuban-American Performance Artist, Sculptor, Painter, Photographer and Video Artist
New York City
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.