During an era of rebels and revolutionaries, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) was a singular figure carving her own path, fearlessly speaking truth to power about subjects like campus rape and domestic violence at a time when these conversations were still taboo.
Hailing from a prominent political family in Havana, Mendieta and her older sister Raquelin were sent to America in 1961 after Fidel Castro came to power. At just 12 and 14 years old, the sisters were on their own until their mother and younger brother arrived in the US five years later. Their father, who was jailed for 18 years in the wake of the Bay of Pigs revolt, was finally reunited with his family in 1979.
Through her art, Mendieta transformed fear, pain, and rage into powerful and provocative meditations on gender, identity, assault, death, place, and belonging. Using her body as a vessel of flesh, bone, and blood, she immersed herself in performance art, body art, and land art to create raw, visceral work that channeled the rituals of her native land and questioned society’s treatment of women.
But Mendieta’s groundbreaking career came to a sudden and violent end when she died falling from the 34th floor of her New York apartment at the age of 36. The circumstances of her death are still shrouded in controversy. Her husband, the sculptor Carl Andre, was charged with Mendieta’s murder, but he was ultimately acquitted on the grounds of reasonable doubt.
Because much of Mendieta’s work was ephemeral, her process and the documentation of her art was as significant as the final work itself. It is these photographs and films that remain, reminding the world of her brief but powerful career. During Mendieta’s life, she produced more than 200 works, selections of which are currently on view in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta at Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin.
What was life like for Ana Mendieta and her family in Cuba before she and her sister were sent to America in 1961?
Ana was born into a political family. Her great uncle was President of Cuba for a short time, and her father worked for the Department of State. Summers and holidays were spent on the beach of Varadero at her grandparents’ house surrounded by extended family.
She was indulged because she was very sick as a young girl. This shaped her personality as a daredevil or mischief-maker. One of my favorite stories of Ana is how she continued to tell her mother that she couldn’t do her homework because the page was missing from her book—until one day my grandmother discovered pages from Ana’s school books hiding under her mattress.
What was life like for Ana and Raquelin in the United States when they first arrived?
First, I want to clarify that Ana and her sister did not feel like they were escaping from Cuba. Sending children out of Cuba during a revolution or war was not unusual. Her own father had been sent to Miami during the time of Machado (1925–1933) although he returned soon after. Ana and her sister believed they would also return and thought going to the US was like an adventure. Of course, they were both devastated to be taken away from their family and they had no idea this short separation would turn into a life-long exile.
When Ana and her sister arrived in Miami, they were soon sent to Iowa as part of Operation Peter Pan, which had been organized by the Catholic Church. The girls had been told they would be staying in a boarding school but instead were sent to an orphanage that also housed juvenile delinquents. They had a rough time until Ana was finally placed in a good foster home a few years later.
Could you share some of Ana’s experiences that informed her development as an interdisciplinary artist?
Ana studied painting at the University of Iowa and became interested in the Intermedia Program after participating in Robert Wilson’s workshops. She started to take classes and experiment with different ideas as she searched for a way to bring more “magic,” as she called it, to the work.
Body art was taking off and I think Ana was attracted to it because of the physicality of it. Works like Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) (1972) not only refer to the transfer of power by moving hair from one person to another, they also echo a childhood memory where her grandmother would take her long braids and wrap them around her face like a mustache and pretend to be a made-up character.
When Ana later traveled to Mexico and merged the idea of the body with the land, she finally felt that she had found a way to express this idea of power and magic into the work, and this was realized in the piece, Imagen de Yagul (1973).
What perspectives did Ana bring to the conversation around feminism that had been overlooked, marginalized, or excluded by the American white middle class?
Ana never really considered herself a feminist because she felt it was a movement that only related to white middle-class women. But Ana was a strong character and all of the women in her family were strong women. Her mother worked as a chemistry teacher, which is something women at that time didn’t normally do, and her grandmother was the matriarch of the family.
While Ana was a member of A.I.R. Gallery, she curated an exhibition, Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, to bring an awareness to the other women who weren’t included in the feminist discussions. She did so without trying to add them to the current conversations by instead proposing that they continue to be “other.” The idea is that we shouldn’t lump everyone together under one label, and that we should remember there are different people in this world with different ideas and points of view. Ana disliked labels.
How did Ana address the issue of violence in her work?
The first piece in which Ana used blood is in the film Chicken Movie, Chicken Piece in 1972. She later said she was trying to demystify the idea of the white cock, which is a reference to Santeria.
A year later, there was a rape and murder on campus. Ana was scared that something like this could happen and she created Rape Scene in response. The work was a tableau: a frozen moment in time with Ana as the victim after she had been killed. She had her classmates enter the room to find her tied up. By confronting her fear, she felt empowered to conquer it. She also liked the shock factor.
To take this idea to another level, Ana also created Moffitt Building Piece (1973). She put animal blood on the stoop of a building in Iowa City, and then sat in a car to document people’s reactions as they passed by. She was disappointed that no one called the police and hardly anyone took notice of the blood on the sidewalk.
Later that same year, she created Sweating Blood. Here the blood took on meanings of power and energy—the blood of life—that which fuels and unites all of humanity.
How did the Silueta Series become a means for Ana to use land art and body art as a vehicle to work the trauma of leaving Cuba and reconnect to her essential being?
I think it would be best to let Ana answer herself. In 1977, Ana wrote: “It is perhaps during my childhood in Cuba that I first became fascinated by primitive arts and cultures. It seems as if these cultures are provided with an inner knowledge, a closeness to natural resources. And it is this knowledge which gives reality to the images they have created.
It is this sense of magic, knowledge, and power, found in primitive art, that has influenced my personal attitude toward art-making. For the past five years I have been working out in nature, exploring the relationship between myself the earth, and art, using my body as a reference in the creation of the works, I am able to transcend myself in a voluntary submersion and a total identification with nature. Through my art, I want to express the immediacy of life and the eternity of nature.”
How would you describe Ana’s legacy?
We just opened Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta in Berlin and were amazed to see hundreds of people show up for the opening. There was a line down the street to get in. When you walked through the galleries, there were so many people it was challenging to even see the films but everyone was quiet, engaged, and respectful of one another. Ana’s themes of identity and displacement, nature and rebirth, are not only universal but also timeless. It was a reminder of how relevant Ana’s works are today.
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