Despite a tragic death at the age of 36, Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta has left a mark on the history of performance art forever. Trying to overcome the feeling of disconnection caused by experiencing diaspora at an early age, she acted out hundreds of subtle yet powerful interventions within nature that questioned Western gender roles and beauty standards. Learn more about the artist whose works perfectly capture the spirit of the ’70s art world in this ultimate guide to her life and works.
Photographs from Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas series. Via visualmelt.com, blogs.uoregon.edu and artsy.net
A IS FOR CARL ANDRE
Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre and Mendieta had a turbulent relationship that later turned into a marriage. Both of them were heavy drinkers and after a particularly heated fight on 8 September 1985, Andre called 911 to report that his wife had “somehow gone out the window” of their 34th floor New York apartment. The next morning, she was found dead on the roof of the deli below, her body having left an imprint on the surface due to the heavy brunt. Many suspect Carl Andre as being involved in her tragic death, pointing out that Mendieta was optimistic rather than suicidal at the time. It was also common knowledge among her friends that she was afraid of heights. However, the charges against him were dropped due to insufficient evidence.
B IS FOR BLOOD
Blood is a reoccurring symbol in Mendieta’s works. The artist created a series of works concentrated on rape, which served as a response to the brutal rape and murder of nursing student Sara Ann Otten in 1973. This performance saw Mendieta cover herself in blood and recreate the victim’s poses as they were described in newspaper articles. She later commented on the works, describing them as an emotional reaction to the horrible events: ‘I think all my work has been like that – a personal response to a situation… I can’t see being theoretical about an issue like that.’ In her later works, blood also served as a symbol of female fertility and life.
C IS FOR CUBA
When Fidel Castro came into power, Ana and her sister Raquelin Mendieta had to flee their home country Cuba. At the age of 12 and 14, they were brought to Iowa by a Catholic organisation that assisted in the mass exodus of unaccompanied minors from the communist regime. Subsequently, they spent their teens in several institutions and foster homes, being separated from each other most of the time. Ana processed this early uprooting in her nature-related works: “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 – Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints), 1972. Via studyblue.com
D IS FOR DEFORMATION
Mendieta distorted her body and face in many of her early performances and photographs, challenging female beauty standards and the male gaze. Her Facial Cosmetic Variations photographs showed her face distorted by makeup was wigs while a pantyhose was stretched over her head, and for her Untitled (Glass on Body Imprint) series, she pressed a pane of glass against different parts of her body, giving them a bizarre shape.
E IS FOR EARTH BODY
Mendieta is best known for her earth body works. She coined the term for her performative interventions within nature such as her Siluetas and the Tree of Life series. Covered in flowers, blood, mud or chicken feathers, she became one with the nature surrounding her.
F IS FOR FEMINISM
Many of Mendieta’s works challenged society’s expectations towards women, and she openly addressed the obstacles women were facing in the art world. However, her sister states that Mendieta had an ambivalent relationship with the feminist movement because she felt like it was not inclusive enough towards women of colour and didn’t address their specific struggles sufficiently.
G IS FOR GALLERY
In 1978, Mendieta joined America’s first all-female gallery Artists in Residence (A.I.R.). It was run by and for female artists such as Mary Beth Edelson and Nancy Spero and enabled them to curate exhibitions as well as showcase their own works. Three years after joining the gallery, Mendieta curated an exhibition entitled Dialectics of Isolation in which she showcased works of fellow females from developing countries living in the United States.
H IS FOR HOME COUNTRY
Mendieta first returned to Cuba in 1981, at the age of 33, after being awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and the support of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. The time she spent there allowed her to reconnect with her home country’s culture and build connections between North American and Cuban artists.
I IS FOR IOWA
In 1973, Mendieta completed her studies at the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in painting. However, she had grown to be disillusioned with her works, writing that they lacked power and didn’t feel real enough for what she wanted them to convey. She opted for a second master’s degree, this time at the university’s Video and Multimedia Art department. Here, she was introduced to the various forms of experimental would later become the main focus of her work.
Ana Mendieta – Anima Silueta De Cohetes (Firework Piece), 1976. Via tiff.net
J IS FOR JULIA STOSCHEK
If you’re in Berlin at the moment, you have the chance to see Mendieta’s Anima Silueta De Coheres at Julia Stoschek Collection. Her silhouette, constructed out of fireworks, is shown along a large number of multi-media works exploring the human dialogue with and interference within nature.
K IS FOR FRIDA KAHLO
In both Frida Kahlo‘s and Ana Mendieta’s works, we can perceive a certain “shifting between sensuality and violence, as the self bleeds into the environment and vice versa”, art writer Priscilla Frank put it. It is safe to assume that Mendieta was inspired by the Mexican painter, and she even dressed up like her for a costume party hosted in honour of Louise Bourgeois.
L IS FOR LAND ART
The land art movement became wildly popular in the ’70s, with Robert Smithson embedding his giant “Spiral Jetty” into a salt lake in Utah and Walter de Maria installing his “Lightning Fields” in New Mexico. Land Artists used nature itself as a material and often created works that would vanish over the course of time. Although there are parallels between Mendieta’s works and those of Smithson and de Maria, her interventions within nature were a lot more subtle and intimate and can be seen an interaction with what was already there.
M IS FOR MEXICO
Mendieta frequently travelled to Mexico for her work. In Yagul, an archeological site that was once inhabited by the pre-Columbian Zapotec civilisation, she covered herself in white flowers, creating the beautiful Silueta Imagen de Yagul.
Ana Mendieta – On Giving Life, 1975. Via visualmelt.com
N IS FOR NATURE
In an artist’s statement from the ’80s, Mendieta wrote: “My art is grounded on the belief in one universal energy which runs through everything – from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.” Her performances can be seen as an interaction with nature that renders this universal, shared energy palpable.
O IS FOR OCCULT
Mendieta took great interest in religious beliefs and rituals and often incorporated aspects of various religions into her work. Her ritualistic use of blood, for example, is often attributed to the Caribbean’s Santería religion.
P IS FOR PARQUE ESCALERES DE JARUCO
Upon her first return to Cuba, Mendieta created a series of low relief sculptures at Escaleras de Jaruco National Park. Her Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures) were based on Mendieta’s extensive research on the indigenous Taíno people of Cuba and their creation stories. Among others, she created a series of prehistorical-looking rock carvings based on the ten female Taíno deities.
Ana Mendieta – Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972. Via visualmelt.com and fondation-sindikadokolo.com
Q IS FOR QUESTIONING GENDER ROLES
In her Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) performance, Ana transferred the beard hair of one of her fellow students onto her own face, defying conventional beauty standards and questioning gender roles.
R IS FOR ROME
In 1983, Mendieta was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome for sculpture, which included a residency at the Italian capital’s American Academy. She was mesmerised by the city and its rich history, describing it as a cross between Cuba and New York where she felt more accepted than she ever had in the States. During her residency, she worked in a studio for the first time, mainly working on sculptures and drawings.
S IS FOR SILUETAS
Over the course of her short life, Mendieta produced over 200 Siluetas. She left marks of her own silhouette within nature in a wide array of ways, constructing it from clay, building it out of flowers, tracing it out with fire or leaving it behind as a subtle imprint after laying down.
T IS FOR TRAGEDY
Mendieta’s tragic childhood and the mystery surrounding her death attracted a lot of public attention, almost overshadowing her actual works. Her sister regrets this. “Her death has really nothing to do with her work”, she explains. “Her work was about life and power and energy and not about death.”
U IS FOR UNIVERSAL
Raquelin Mendieta explains that her sister never wanted to be reduced to being a “female artist” or a “Latin-American artist” and criticised the stereotypical and generalising notions often associated with these terms. Instead, she strived to be regarded as an artist without prefixes whose works spoke to everyone.
V IS FOR VENUS NEGRA
As a project created for the feminist politics and arts magazine Heresies, Mendieta combined a picture of one of her gunpowder and earth Siluetas with her own translation of the nineteenth-century Cuban legend The Venus Negra, a legend about a Siboney woman who thwarted Spanish colonisers attempting to capture and enslave her. As a Cuban tale of great cultural importance, the legend’s cultural ambiguity goes hand in hand with Mendieta’s works which draw inspiration from multiple cultural and ethnical sources at once.
Guerilla Girls poster drawing attention to the trial against Carl Andre. Via guerillagirls.com
W IS FOR WHERE IS ANA MENDIETA?
For the past three decades, feminist protest groups such as No Wave Performance Task Force, WHEREISANAMENDIETA and the Guerrilla Girls have repeatedly pointed out the underrepresentation of Mendieta’s works in museums and the injustice that was, in their opinion, done to her by the art world’s sweeping the charges against Carl Andre under the rug. “Where is Ana Mendieta?” became the tagline of several protests, the latest of them taking place last year at the opening of Tate Museum’s new wing.
X IS FOR X-RAY
X-Ray, from the mid-’70s, is the only one of Mendieta’s videos that features sound. It shows her mouth talking into an X-Ray machine and is part of a little-known series of videos in which she experimented with visual effects.
Y IS FOR YVES KLEIN
Yves Klein’s multidisciplinary works served as an inspiration to Mendieta. She was introduced to them by contemporary artist Hans Breder, who she was in a relationship with before she met Carl Andre. Breder also introduced her to Marcel Duchamp and the Viennese activists, giving her an entrance into the art world.
Z IS FOR ZODIAC SIGN
Just like Lee Lozano and Pablo Picasso, Ana was a Scorpio. Scorpios often have a dark, sensual air about them and are passionate and caring in their personal life while at the same time pursuing their goals single-mindedly when it comes to business and pleasure. Her friend and fellow artist Ted Victoria described her as “driven in everything she did”, which made her “feisty and combative as well as great and generous company”.