Art, at its most simple level, is about fragile and impermanent humans leaving their visual mark on the world. Symbols like the handprints and painted animals in the depths of Lascaux or the Bandelier caves, act as evidence of once existing. Everything else is seemingly secondary, a way to make this fact disappear behind ideas of concept and metaphor. Sure, those reasons sound good and even carry truth. But being an artist is about scorching your name into the earth and hoping that it stays for a little bit of forever. This is translated in no better way than in the life and work of Ana Mendieta.
Born in 1948, during the Batista-ruled Havana, Mendieta lived there with her family until 1961, when she and her sister were exiled on behalf of their parents’ direct opposition to the regime. With the assistance of Operation Peter Pan, a controversy-ridden U.S. government and Catholic Church sponsored initiative that involved moving 14,000 Cuban children to the States, she and her sister were moved to Iowa and placed in foster care. Mendieta lived in a foster program until she was accepted by the University of Iowa and became a student of their fine arts program. It was there that she excelled and began making the work that she would later become so well known for.
Mendieta’s work was predominantly autobiographical, dealing with her own body and her Cuban-American identity. She shunned traditional materials and concentrated on using disregarded and uncommon materials, such as dirt, mud, and her own body. While in school, she began making pieces that dealt with women’s issues, specifically with violence perpetrated against women’s bodies. Her most well known work, Untitled (Rape Scene), occurred after a woman had been brutally raped and murdered on her college campus and little legal action had been taken. In the piece, she invited people to certain spots around the campus, most famously her apartment, where they would arrive to find her tied up, naked, bloodied and made to look as if she had been severely assaulted. Charles Merewether, a curator, later called it one of the most intense pieces that talked about the female condition, saying, “Naming rape, that is, not only breaking the code of silence surrounding it, but its anonymity and generality.”
Her body-centered art began to shift directions once again, and instead of using her own body, she began to co-opt what she considered her Silueta, a rough, female-looking body that was free from the speculation of physical identity in every way, with the exception of the materials she was using. Her physical imprint became her identity and of her connection to the things she felt defined her as a person.
“It was during my childhood in Cuba that I first became fascinated by primitive art 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. This sense of magic, knowledge, and power found in primitive art has influenced my personal attitude toward art making. I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me, using the earth as my canvas and my soul as my tools.”
It became a way to confront issues on women’s bodies, as well as her own body, but without the worry of the “male gaze” she might be subjected to if she were to use her body. When she constructed these identities, they became representations of her personhood – evidence that the self is always connected back to the body, whatever that body is. By constructing a variety of bodies made from mud, ash, wood, and fire, Mendieta challenged the idea of her own body being construed as “the other” and challenged other typical artistic notions of ownership, socio-ethnic positioning, and identity.
“I’ve been carrying on 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 during my adolescence.”
Mendieta, like many women artists of the late ’70s, never became the fully known “gallery artist,” a goal that is a typical signifier of success. Many of her performances were never done again, and most of her work dealt with temporary mediums, often only captured by photography. Much like the paintings on cave walls or objects made from similar materials, her work stressed the idea that she had, in fact, been here, even if the solid evidence seemed to fade away.
In 1985, Mendieta married the well-known minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Eight months after they had been married, Mendieta died in a fall from the 34th-floor apartment she shared with Andre. Mendieta, who was in the process of filing for divorce, was last heard saying “No, no, no,” before her body hit the top of a deli that the couple lived above. She was 35. In a case that was clouded with rumors of abuse, shoddy police evidence, and no other witnesses to her death, Andre was tried for her murder and eventually acquitted on all counts. The court had offered up the explanation that she had fallen or killed herself, and Andre has never publicly spoken on the matter. He lives in the same apartment to this day, with his second wife, who makes work about windows. Many women artists felt it a deep slap, from the insular and white, male-dominated hold on the art world at the time, to the evidence of a similarly dominated legal system, one that often ignores those who need legal protection the most.
She leaves behind a large and sometimes convoluted legacy – part of it is that the art world loves a dead artist; part of it is that she was a leader and inspiration to women artists. She exposed awful truths about the art world in her work and after her life was cut short. She challenged racial and gender contexts by using the most simple materials possible – the ones that the earth provided and her own body. Dirt, mud, leaves – they were all part of how she identified her physical form – her skin, her body, and her self. The phrase, “From dust you are created and dust you shall return,” places itself heavy on the history she leaves behind. Like the impermanence of her materials, her life, while cut unjustly short, left behind work that challenges the ideas of what could be art and who could be part of the art world.