Identity and Belonging in the Work of Ana Mendieta
min Read3 August 2023
Ana Mendieta was a Cuban-American performance artist. She was an unapologetic feminist who asked profound questions about identity and belonging. She died tragically in 1985 aged just 36, but her work continues to influence artists to this day.
Melding art forms in audacious and provocative ways, Mendieta combined performance art, sculpture, painting, photography, and video. She is probably best known for her “earth-body” artworks. This was not the masculine “land art” of Robert Smithson or Richard Long who yearned to make their mark on the landscape—instead, Mendieta wanted to meld with the landscape, to immerse herself in the earth.
Ecology and Feminism
This diminutive, passionate woman drew inspiration from Caribbean, pre-Columbian and Afro-Cuban spirituality, fusing these ideas with feminist and ecological concerns. Like the earliest cave artists, she used natural materials to explore profound questions about the nature of life itself.
Nothing that she did ever surprised me. She was always very dramatic, even as a child — and liked to push the envelope, to give people a start, to shock them a little bit. It was who she was, and she enjoyed it very much. And she laughed about it sometimes when people got freaked out.
Interview with New York Times, 2016.
Sex and Gender
Long before our current discussions about binary notions of sex and gender, Mendieta was expertly skewering traditional concepts of gender and beauty. Her provocative work explored sexual, ethnic, moral, religious, and political boundaries. She was a true pioneer whose work has such resonance today.
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
“A Selection of Statements and Notes by Ana Mendieta”, Sulfur magazine, vol. 22, 1988.
Considered one of the most influential Cuban-American artists of the modern era, Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948. The child of an influential political family, her father was imprisoned by Fidel Castro’s regime. In 1961, aged 12, she was smuggled out of Cuba (with her sister Raquelin) by Operation Peter Pan. This secret program was run by the Church, with the aid of the US State Department. In total 14,000 children were removed from Cuba and placed in children’s homes and with foster carers in the USA.
Artist in Exile
It was clear from even her earliest works that as an immigrant, Mendieta felt a strong sense of disconnect and trauma. Exile and displacement brought on an obsessive desire to connect to the landscape, yearning for a sense of wholeness. She is a classic example of how artists often use their inner struggles to inform their work. As a student at the University of Iowa, she was already mixing elements of performance, body art, and land art and capturing it through photography or Super-8 film.
I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body. 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
ANA MENDIETA: ‘PAIN OF CUBA / BODY I AM’, Tate Modern, London, UK.
Violence Towards Women
A harrowing example of her early work is Rape Scene from 1973. Outraged by the brutal sexual assault and murder of nursing student Sara Ann Otten on the University campus, Mendieta produced a violent, confrontational installation. In her room, she created a crime scene, where she was tied to a table, with blood dripping down her legs and pooling at her feet. She invited people to visit and talk about the crime and her work, almost as a way of processing the trauma.
Her body was the subject and object of the work. She used it to emphasise the societal conditions by which the female body is colonised as the object of male desire and ravaged under masculine aggression
“Ana Mendieta: Pain of Cuba, Body I Am” from Woman’s Art Journal 20 (1): pp 12–17, 1999.
In 1978, Ana Mendieta joined the Artists In Residence (AIR) Gallery in New York, which was the first gallery established for women in the United States. She became friends with artists like Nancy Spero, Mary Beth Edelson, and Carolee Schneemann. However, she always had that nagging doubt about whether white middle-class feminism offered a truly safe space for women of color; something American feminism still struggles with.
Fiercely intelligent, but also willing to allow emotion to permeate her work, Mendieta challenged the male-dominated, patriarchal art world. She reclaimed the word “emotional”, often used disparagingly to describe hysterical women. She placed it firmly back in its true sense of power and sensual vitality. Direct and powerful, her work was feminine and feminist, personal and political. And yet the brilliant work of this maverick artist was never fully recognized in her lifetime.
This radical artist incorporated unusual natural materials like dirt, water, and fire in her work. She reclaimed blood as a natural material and used it as a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Mendieta worked on her Silueta series through the 1970s and 1980s. Using mud, sand, grass, feathers, and twigs, she created female silhouettes and body shapes out in the landscape. This pursuit of the true self, exploring the magic of creation and our place within it was incredibly powerful and unsettling.
Through my earth/body sculptures, I become one with the earth…I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body. This obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is really the reactivation of primeval beliefs…it is a manifestation of my thirst for being
E. Carmen Ramos, our america exhibition (2014) at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA.
Ambitious to reach a wider audience, Mendieta moved to New York in 1978, where she met minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. A surprising union, as the two had very different personalities and artistic styles. In 1983 she spent time in Italy, where she discovered studio-based sculpture, and for two years she lived between Italy and New York. Her work was evolving and she was excited for the future. The couple (known to be a on-again, off-again relationship) married in 1985 after an explosive split, but tragedy loomed.
In the early hours of an autumn day in 1985, Ana Mendieta died after falling 34 floors from her flat in Greenwich, New York. Her husband Carl Andre was accused of pushing Mendieta out of the window, but he was acquitted of her murder. The male-dominated art establishment rallied to his aid to protect his good name. During the investigation, the police stated there was no evidence that Mendieta’s death was a murder, despite residents and passersby claiming they had heard a violent argument and a noise of struggle with Mendieta pleading “No, no, no.”
Andre had scratches all over his face and arms and his emergency call, his statements on the day, and his later interviews contradicted each other. The acquittal remains controversial – it caused an uproar among feminists in the art world. To this day, protesters can be found at exhibitions featuring Carl Andre, wearing t-shirts or handing out postcards with an image of Mendieta and the text ¿Dónde está Ana Mendieta? (Where is Ana Mendieta?).
One Of The Greats
Before her death, Mendieta was working back in her homeland of Cuba on a series of photo-etchings of cave sculptures. She was eager to begin exploring her birthplace after almost two decades in exile. She was excited to explore the cultural identity that she had been forced to leave behind. It seems certain that Ana Mendieta would have been one of the greats of modern art. Her concerns with gender, ecology, nature, and spirit were astonishingly prescient. It is impossible to quantify the loss of such an incredible woman. All we can do is grieve, celebrate, and remember.
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