Inspiring Thursday: Ana Mendieta

During her short life, Ana Mendieta created art that portrayed many different themes of life, focusing on incorporating natural elements in her pieces, which she felt brought her closer to nature. At the same time, her work was bold and challenged restrictive ideas of normative categories like gender and race.

Born the 18th of November in 1948, Ana Mendieta spent the first 12 years of her life with her family in Cuba. Her mother, Raquel, was a chemistry teacher and her father, Ignacio, was engaged in anti-Castro politics. Therefore, when Ana was only 12 years old and her sister was 14, they were both sent to the US through the Pedro Pan programme – an under the radar programme run by the church and funded by the state, which smuggled more than 14,000 Cuban children out of the country and away from Fidel Castro’s dictatorship. The sisters arrived in Florida, where they spent some time in a refugee camp before they were sent to Iowa, where they were put in different group and foster homes. The sisters didn’t speak much English and being away from home and their family left them with a feeling of loss. This experience of being disconnected is clearly reflected in much of Mendieta’s art. She was reunited with her mother and younger brother after 5 years, but waited 18 years to see her father, who had spent time in a Cuban political prison.

In 2016, Mendieta’s sister, Raquelín, told The New York Times that Ana “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.”

At the University of Iowa, she pursued her passion for painting and it was during this time that she started exploring performance art. As a student under German artist Hans Breder, she felt inspired by his working methods of using different artistic channels such as video and performance art, and she made it into her own by mixing it with body and land art.

In 1973, while Mendieta was still in college, a nursing student named Sarah Ann Ottens was raped and murdered on campus; Mendieta’s outrage over this incident resulted in the confrontational performance art piece “Rape Scene”. To set it up, she tore her apartment apart and invited unsuspecting students and faculty members to the “crime scene”, and they were met with the sight of Mendieta’s naked body tied, bent over a table, and smeared with cow’s blood. She remained in this position while the audience engaged in a discussion of the event. In other pieces such as her video “Sweating Blood”, she would also use her own body to address issues like violence against women.

Some of her most well-known work is the series “Siluetas” of about 200 pieces, which she created throughout the 70ies and early 80ies. As a refugee, Mendieta would continue to feel a disconnection from the concepts of mother, place, identity, belonging, and home; she would process this feeling through her art,

“By making my image in nature I can deal with the two cultures. My earth-body sculptures are not the final stage of a ritual but a way and a means of asserting my emotional ties with nature and conceptualizing religion and culture.”

In the late 70ies, she moved to New York where she joined a community of fellow artists and found her husband, the sculptor Carl Andre, whom she married despite a turbulent relationship pattern. When she fell from their 34th-floor apartment on the 8th of September, 1985, and died at age 36, he was charged with her murder due to the mysterious circumstances and a witness saying that he had heard cries of struggle from the apartment. Nevertheless, Andre was released because of lack of evidence, but, to this day, protestors still turn up at his shows to draw attention to Mendieta’s death.

By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern