Ana Mendieta (18 November 1948 – 8 September 1985) was a Cuban American performance artist, sculptor, painter and video artist who is best known for her "earth-body" art work.
Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba to a family prominent in the country's politics and society. At age 12, in order to escape Fidel Castro's regime, Ana and her 14-year-old sister Raquelin were sent to the United States by their parents. Through Operation Peter Pan, a collaborative program run by the U.S. Government and the Catholic Charities, Mendieta and her sister spent their first weeks in refugee camps before moving to several institutions and foster homes in Iowa. In 1966, Mendieta was reunited with her mother and younger brother; her father joined them in 1979, having spent 18 years in a Cuban political prison for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Mendieta attended the University of Iowa where she earned a BA, an MA in Painting and an MFA in Intermedia under the instruction of acclaimed artist Hans Breder. Through the course of her career, she created work in Cuba, Mexico, Italy, and the United States.
Mendieta's work was generally autobiographical and focused on themes including feminism, violence, life, death, place and belonging. Mendieta often focused on a spiritual and physical connection with the Earth, most particularly in her "Silueta Series" (1973–1980). The series involved Mendieta creating female silhouettes in nature - in mud, sand and grass - with natural materials ranging from leaves and twigs to blood, and making body prints or painting her outline or silhouette onto a wall.
In 1983 Mendieta was awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. While in residence in Rome, Mendieta began creating art "objects," including drawings and sculptures. She continued to use natural elements in her work.
Ana Mendieta died on September 8, 1985 in New York from a fall from her 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village's 300 Mercer Street, where she lived with her husband of eight months,minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Just prior to her death, neighbors heard the couple arguing violently. There were no eyewitnesses. Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder. During the three-year trial, Andre's lawyer described Mendieta's death as a possible accident or suicide.
Examples of her work:
Silueta Series (1973-1980)
When she began her "Silueta Series" in the 1970s, Mendieta was one of many artists experimenting with the emerging genres of land art, body art, and performance art. Mendieta was possibly the first to combine these genres in what she called "earth-body" sculptures (Jacob 1999, p. 3). She often used her naked body to explore and connect with the Earth, as seen in her pieceImagen de Yagul, from the series Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977. Mendieta’s first use of blood to make art dates from 1972, when she performed Untitled (Death of a Chicken), for which she stood naked in front of a white wall holding a freshly decapitated chicken by its feet as its blood spattered her naked body. Appalled by the brutal rape and murder of nursing student Sara Ann Otten at the University of Iowa, Mendieta smeared herself with blood and had herself tied to a table in 1973, inviting an audience in to bear witness. In a slide series, People Looking at Blood Moffitt (1973), she pours blood and rags on a sidewalk and photographs a seemingly endless stream of people walking by without stopping, until the man next door (the storefront window bears the name H. F. Moffitt) comes out to clean it up.
Mendieta also created the female silhouette using nature as both her canvas and her medium. She used her body to create silhouettes in grass; she created silhouettes in sand and dirt; she created silhouettes of fire and filmed them burning. Untitled (Ochún) (1981), named for the Santería goddess of waters, once pointed southward from the shore at Key Biscayne, Florida. Ñañigo Burial (1976), with a title taken from the popular name for an Afro-Cuban religious brotherhood, is a floor installation of black candles dripping wax in the outline of the artist's body. Through these works, which cross the boundaries of performance, film and photography, Mendieta explored her relationship with place as well as a larger relationship with mother Earth or the "Great Goddess" figure (Blocker 1999, p. 47-48).
Mary Jane Jacob suggests in her book Ana Mendieta: The "Silueta" Series (1973-1980) that much of Mendieta's work was influenced by her interest in the religion Santería, as well as a connection to Cuba (Jacob 1991, p. 4). Jacob attributes Mendieta's "ritualistic use of blood" (Jacob 1991, p. 10) and the use of gunpowder, earth and rock to Santería's ritualistic traditions (Jacob 1991, p. 17).
Jacob also points out the significance of the mother figure, referring to the Mayan deity Ix Chel, the mother of the Gods (Jacob 1991, p. 14). Many have interpreted Mendieta's recurring use of this mother figure, and her own female silhouette, as feminist art. However, because Mendieta's work explores many ideas including life, death, identity and place all at once, it cannot be categorized as part of one idea or movement.
Photo Etchings of the Rupestrian Sculptures (1981)
As documented in the book Ana Mendieta: A Book of Works, edited by Bonnie Clearwater, before her death, Mendieta was working on a series of photo-etchings of cave sculptures she had created at Escaleras de Jaruco, Jaruco State Park in Havana, Cuba (Clearwater 1993, p. 11). Her sculptures were entitled Rupestrian Sculptures (1981) - the title refers to living among rocks - and the book of photographic etchings that Mendieta was creating to preserve these sculptures is a testament to the intertextuality of Mendieta's work. Clearwater explains how the photographs of Mendieta's sculptures were often as important as the piece they were documenting because the nature of Mendieta's work was so impermanent. Mendieta spent as much time and thought on the creation of the photographs as she did on the sculptures themselves (Clearwater 1993, p. 11).
Mendieta returned to Havana, Cuba, the place of her birth for this project, but she was still exploring her sense of displacement and loss, according to Clearwater (Clearwater 1993, p. 18). The Rupestrian Sculptures that Mendieta created were also influenced by the Tainan people, "native inhabitants of the pre-hispanic Antilles," which Mendieta became fascinated by and studied (Clearwater 1993, p. 12).
Mendieta had completed five photo-etchings of the Rupestrian Sculptures before she died in 1985. The book Ana Mendieta: A Book of Works, published in 1993, contains both photographs of the sculptures as well as Mendieta's notes on the project (Clearwater 1993, p. 20).