Ana Mendiete was a Cuban-American Performance Artist, Sculptor, Painter, Photographer and Video Artist. She was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba and died in 1985, while married to sculptor Carl Andre in the last year of her life.
At the age of 12, after her father joined anti-Castro counter-revolutionary forces, Mendieta was sent to the United States with her sister under Operation Pedro Pan, a Catholic operation working with the US to take children out of Cuba when Castro assumed power. They spent their first weeks in refugee camps before being sent to an orphanage in Iowa. It was in highschool that Mendieta became interested in art, and when she went to college in 1966 at the University of Iowa, she studied painting. Mendieta received a BA in art in 1969 and an MA in painting in 1972, both from the University of Iowa. There she studied with the artist Hans Breder in the progressive Intermedia Department Breder founded. The two became lovers and collaborators, with Mendieta modeling for a number of Breder’s photographs in the early 70s, and Breder documenting many of her early performances.
Mendieta was soon at the forefront of performance artists who used organic materials as a medium for art. In fact, she invented the art form “earth body,” in which she makes traces in the earth using materials such as blood, gun powder, and water. Blood specifically was a very important source of material for the artist’s early work as she depicted violence against women. According to her sister, she would buy cattle blood by the gallon from a nearby slaughterhouse. She first used blood in 1973 for a performance work called Untitled (Rape Scene) — a direct response to a rape and murder of a female student that occurred on her college campus. In it, Mendieta bent over a table, tied up and bloodied, surrounded by shattered crockery and other crime-scene detritus. Viewers “sat down, and started talking about it,” the artist later recalled. “I didn’t move. I stayed in that position for about an hour. It really jolted them.” In another piece, Untitled (People Looking at Blood, Moffitt), Mendieta captures on film the reactions of people passing her apartment, from which blood is trickling and where she has left a pile of animal gore. She was particularly interested in the non-response of the people who took in the scene, and was angered that no one called the police.
In the 1973 film Sweating Blood, the camera is trained close up on Mendieta. Blood very slowly begins to pour down the artist’s face, starting at the crown of her head. Like many women artists at the time, Mendieta used her body as a site for her work. She famously glued hair to her chin in Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) and transformed herself by wearing wigs and manipulating her facial features by wearing a tight nude stocking over her face in Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations). Later, blood would be used as a source of power and life.
It is important to note that during her life, the she did not want to be labeled as a Cuban or feminist artist or a woman artist—she simply wanted to be an artist. Seeking a more powerful means of image making, however, she developed an affinity with the work of Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson, and Carolee Schneeman, as well as the work of the Viennese Actionists and the Fluxus group. She quickly developed a prolific practice in which her body, the earth, and other organic materials such as blood, fire, feathers, and wood served as the subject of photographs, slides, films, and videos, as well as performances, prints, and artist’s books.
Although most of her work is rooted in objections to the fine art field’s exclusion of women, as well as ethnically diverse artists, it is also governed by the painful experience of exile and being separated from her parents as a child. In 1980, she made her first trip back to Cuba where she found inspiration in the country’s Afro-Cuban traditions and continued to make trips there for three more years.
“Rooted in nature and in the body, Mendieta’s art was inflected by personal identity and femininity, and distinguished by the singular hybrid form she created. Her earth-body works, or Silueta Series (silhouette series) — sculptural interventions in the landscape that inserted her naked figure (or its outline or contours) in a natural setting — fused aspects of Conceptual, process, performance, body, feminist, and land art. While contributing significantly to these varied dialogues, her work does not fit neatly within any of the accepted terms used to describe artistic activity in the decade of the 1970s.” – thewhitney.org
Embracing the aims of feminism, Mendieta quietly subverted the monumental gestures of male land artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer by working at a human scale in the landscape. Critical of the exclusion of artists of diverse races and ethnicities from the art world and early feminism, she vehemently asserted her own trans-cultural identity. Borrowing freely from a variety of cultural traditions throughout the world, she frequently appropriated symbols and aspects of the ritual practices of ancient and indigenous cultures of the Americas, Africa, and Europe in her art. While abnegating all forms of boundaries, Mendieta’s cipher — the naked female form that performs in the studio, merges with the landscape, is etched on a leaf, or is burned into the soil or a tree trunk — remained at the center of her production.
Mendieta’s work was generally autobiographical and focused on themes including feminism, violence, life, death, place and belonging. Her works are generally associated with the four basic elements of nature: earth, wind, fire, and water. “I decided that for the images to have magic qualities I had to work directly with nature. I had to go to the source of life, to mother earth.” During her lifetime, Mendieta produced over 200 works of art using earth as a sculptural medium. The Silueta Series (1973–1980) 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.
The young artist’s life was tragically cut short on September 8th, 1985 after falling from her 34th floor Greenwich Village apartment where she lived with sculptor Carl Andre.