Why Protesters Are Still Talking About the Death of Ana Mendieta
Activists take to the streets to protest the erasure of the Cuban-American artist and other marginalised groups.
Photo courtesy of Coral Garvey
A white sheet with a blood red imprint of a body flutters on the overgrown hedges of Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, while the wailing reverberations of a bellowing cello and the heart-wrenching sounds of crying, layered on top of one another, drift from several portable speakers. In front of it all stands a group of protesters, holding red-painted hands in solidarity, looking outward to the sky. The sheet is carried in a funeral procession, a symbolic action in the name of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American artist who died in 1985, allegedly at the hands of her ex-husband, Carl Andre. The sculptor was acquitted of her murder, despite a doorman’s testimony that he heard a woman shouting “No” several times before hearing the thud of her body against the delicatessen 34 floors below. Behind the protesters, the grand museum, a former train station, contains a wholesale celebration of Andre’s art: a retrospective of his work from 1958-2010. Protests have been staged at Andre’s openings since the 90s, and the Hamburger Bahnhof is just one of the many art institutions that continues to create platforms for Andre, despite his reputation for domestic violence. Mendieta’s work—vital, feminist explorations of the body and its connection with earth—is much less exhibited.
Today’s protest, to coincide with the final day of the Andre retrospective in Berlin, is organized by a satellite group and supported by the London-based groups WHEREISANAMENDIETA and Sisters Uncut. Most recently, WHEREISANAMENDIETA organized an action at the opening of the new Tate Modern building, which included Andre, but none of the Mendieta work that they have in their collection.
The style of the protest foregrounds the themes and materials of Mendieta’s art: the sheet with the body print alludes to her series Silueta, while the paprika sprinkled on the ground in front of the arc of hand-holding protesters echoes its color. Participants today are often people who have been touched by Mendieta’s work and her all-too-common story of a woman’s life cut short by a violent man. “I know that it is very common to erase women's stories and experiences, and in this situation art institutions' decisions to not only erase the history of this woman's story but also to glorify the abuser is vile,” says Jessica Taylor. Nine Yamamoto-Masson, who also reads a moving poem towards the end of the action, points out the tragedy of the scarcity of Mendieta’s work: “I feel robbed of not being able to see more of her work, because she was murdered so young. And I really wish she was still around, I wish she was still alive. I wish she had a big retrospective.”
As protesters hand out information leaflets with details of Mendieta’s life and work, guests to the Hamburger Bahnhof stand around the circle of dissenters, gazing at the signs beside them “Stop Glorifying Violent Men,” “Carl Andre hat Ana Mendieta ermordet,” [Carl Andre murdered Ana Mendieta] and “Where is Ana Mendieta?” The latter is perhaps the most significant message, coined at the first-ever protest at Andre’s work in the 90s. The point of this action is less to compare the work of Andre and Mendieta, and more to simply ask questions: Why are art institutions, which are seen as canonical, narrative-producing hubs, continuing to place work by established men on a pedestal (literally), while art by women, people of color, and trans and non-binary people is given less consideration? Why are men’s perspectives, overwhelmingly, the ones who make it into the establishment? How can curators ignore uncomfortable truths about well-known artists, like Andre, just because they’re considered inconvenient? Whose stories are told and whose are ignored? Whose work is deemed significant? WHEREISANAMENDIETA, and groups like it, won’t stop asking.
WHEREISANAMENDIETA is based in London and was initiated as an archiving project, which is carried out by women, trans people, people of color, and nonbinary people.