Ana Mendieta was born in Havana in 1948, to a middle class family of prominent Cuban politicians. Her work includes performance, sculpture, painting and video, and she is best known for her earth-body works in which she explores the relationship between the landscape and the female form. 

In 1961, two years after the Cuban authoritarian government was overthrown by Fidel Castro, Mendieta was sent to the United States with her sister, and 14,000 other children as part of Operation Pedro Pan. Aged 12, uprooted and moving regularly between foster homes, this experience greatly shaped the work she produced in later years. By 1966, the sisters were reunited with their mother and brother, but it was not until 1979 that their father was released from a political prison where he had been detained for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. By the time he was reunited with his family, he had been imprisoned for 18 years. These formative years were to have a huge impact on the direction of Medieta’s artistic focus, which deals closely with a sense of belonging.

Mendieta studied at the University of Iowa from 1967- 1977. During her BA, the young artist was not only inspired by the rolling, scenic landscape of the midwest, but also by contemporary and avant garde art. In 1971, Mendieta visited Mexico for the first time, which would later (along with Iowa) become the stage for over one hundred earth-body works from her Silueta Series of 1973, 1974 and 1976. She went on to study her MFA from 1969-1972, before taking the innovative Intermedia Art programme under the tutelage of Hans Breder, who would become her lover and collaborator. Mendieta’s Silueta Series sees the artist using the shape of her own body to create sculptural pieces that respond to the landscape, often using the mediums of blood and dirt. 

In 1973, Mendieta was deeply effected by the brutal rape and murder of fellow student Sarah Ann Offens, whose body was discovered on the same campus on which the artist lived. This incident would influence the direction of Medieta’s subsequent work, most explicitly Rape Piece (1972), in which she covered herself in blood before lying face down in a wooded area on Iowa University’s campus, and inviting peers to witness the scene. In doing so, Mendieta joins artists such as Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneemann in using her body to protest the sexual violence that women have endured for centuries. Commenting on Medieta’s performative works, Alice Bolin (author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession) writes;

 Feminist performance art was an ingenious exploration of the market value of the female body: although women’s bodies are used to sell almost everything, through menial work and violence they are too often taken for cheap. Their work was an exploration of the performance required daily of all Women.

Blood is used throughout Mendieta’s ouvre, as can be seen in Chicken Piece (1972), Untitled (Self Portrait with Blood) 1973, and Sweating Blood (1973). Art Historians have suggested that Medieta’s fascination with blood may be a reference to the Cuban religion of Santeria, again grounding herself and her art in the heritage of a nation from which she had to flee at a young age. Blood is used often in ceremonies of the Santeria (or The Way of the Saints) religion, which has roots in Cuba’s oppressive slave trade. Santeria combines elements of Roman Catholicism with the customs of the Yoruba tribes of modern day Benin and Nigeria. Mendieta’s use of blood may be inspired by these traditions, and using her own body to trace feminine outlines into the earth of Mexico and North America, is perhaps a way in which Mendieta explores her cultural identity. In a 1981 Artist statement, she addresses this theory:

I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my 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.

The majority of large comprehensive exhibitions on Mendieta occurred post-humously. The first major survey of Mendieta’s work was exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, NYC in 1987, ten years after her first solo exhibition, and two years after her sudden death in 1985. In 2004, a major retrospective of her work titled Ana Mendieta: Earth Body: Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985 was held at the Hishorn Museum in Washington DC, and in 2009 Mendieta was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cintas Foundation. Since then further posthumous exhibitions have taken place at the Art Institute Chicago (2011), the De La Cruz Collection, Miami and the Hayward Gallery, London (2013).

In 1985 (at the age of 36) Mendieta died after falling from the 34th floor of the New York City apartment where she lived with her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Though Andre was acquitted of her murder in Feburary 1988, much controversy still surrounds Mendieta’s tragic death. This does not overshadow her impact and continuing relevance as a great female artist of the 20th Century, but it has been a driving factor for many protest groups globally, who not only want further investigation into how and why she died, but visibility for women in a white, male dominated art world. A symposium titled Where is Ana Mendieta? was held at New York University in 2010, commemorating the 25th anniversary of her death. 

©The Heroine Collective 2019 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include Alice Bolin Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Morrow/HarperCollins 2018 // Where Is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Performativity, and Exile by Jane Blocker // Ana Mendieta: Earth Body: Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985 by Olga Viso.

Victoria (Tor) Scott

Written by Victoria (Tor) Scott

Tor is a Collections & Research Assistant at the National Galleries of Scotland. Her interests involve material culture, curiosities, and in particular a focus on superstitious objects and charms found in England and Scotland over the last 600 years.

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