Repost: Ana Mendieta: death of an artist foretold in blood

October 1, 2013 · Print This Article

The following article about Ana Mendieta has been circulating quite a bit lately, and as such I thought I’d repost it here. Bear in mind, I’ve copied an excerpt beginning a third of the way through the original. The original begins with a long description of her devastating death out of a 34th floor window in Manhattan. As her tragic end  seems so often to eclipse her narrative, I was especially excited to read more about her life (which is where this excerpt begins): 

A detail from from Untitled (Blood and Feathers), 1974, by Ana Mendieta. Photograph: The estate of Ana Mendieta, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York

A detail from from Untitled (Blood and Feathers), 1974, by Ana Mendieta. Photograph: The estate of Ana Mendieta, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York

by 

published on The Observer, 

Until recently, the question asked by those feminist protesters might have been amended to “Who is Ana Mendieta?”, so unknown was her art outside the rarefied world of feminist art criticism. But, as the recent big show of her work at the Whitney Museum in New York and theimminent retrospective at the Hayward gallery in London attests, Mendieta is undergoing a reappraisal as a pioneering artist whose work, as the Hayward’s artistic director, Ralph Rugoff, notes “ranged nomadically across practices associated with body art, land art, performance, sculpture, photography and film”.

Cuban-born and American-raised, Mendieta described her work as “earth-body” art. From 1971, when she had her first solo show while an MA student at the University of Iowa, until her death, she created a diverse collection of work that included silhouettes of her body created in mud, earth, rocks, wild flowers and leaves, performance pieces that evoked the folk and occult traditions of her native Cuba as well as her beloved Mexico and subversive self-portraits that played with notions of beauty, belonging and gender. In her performance pieces, where she sometimes used blood “as a very, powerful magical thing”, she evoked the power of female sexuality as well as the horror of male sexual violence. In her photographic self-portraits, she pressed her face against glass to distort her features or pictured herself dripping in blood or disguised as a man with glued-on facial hair.

Mendieta’s art, like her spirit, was fuelled by a restlessness rooted in her exile from Cuba. Friends described her variously as “sparky”, “provocative”, “tempestuous”, “outspoken” and “fiercely ambitious.” After her death, many saw, in her often dark and ritualistic art, a foreshadowing of her fate – she once staged a performance in which visitors came upon her prone under a blood-splattered white sheet. Others claimed her as the freest of female free spirits in a male-dominated art world. The curator and scholar Irit Rogoff, her as “essentialised through an association of wild appetites and with unbounded female sexuality.” It is only now that the power of her art is finally taking precedence over the stereotypes that were thrust upon her and the darkly dramatic manner of her death.

Mendieta was born in November 1948, the second of three children to Ignacio and Raquel Mendieta, a well-off, upper-middle-class couple. Her father, a supporter of Fidel Castro, was made an assistant in the post-revolutionary ministry of state in 1959 but, disillusioned with the anti-Catholicism of the new Cuba, later became involved in organising counter-revolutionary activities. As did his two daughters, Ana and Raquelin, aged 12 and 14. Fearing for their safety, he arranged for their passage to America, in 1961 through Operation Pedro Pan, a scheme organised by a priest in Miami that allowed around 14,000 children to leave the country and enter the US under the guardianship of the Catholic church. “For Ana, it was an adventurous thing,” her sister Raquelin later remembered, “When we arrived in Miami, she kissed the ground.”

Her euphoria was short-lived. After a time in which they were given over to the care of an Iowa reform school, where beatings and confinement were common punishments for the slightest misdemeanour, the sisters were separated and spent several years being shunted from one foster home to another. Ana felt abandoned by her family and isolated from her homeland. She did not see her mother and brother again until 1966, or her father, who was jailed for disloyalty to Castro, until 1979. He died soon after arriving in America.

“You have to understand she came to America with nothing,” says Victoria. “That sense of exile was something she carried with her as well as a fierce independence of spirit. She would talk about it sometimes when she’d had a few drinks. I mean, coming from the heat and fire of Cuba to puritan Iowa would leave its mark on anyone and she had that survivor’s spirit.

“She was driven in everything she did and that made her feisty and combative as well as great and generous company.”

Mendieta began making art at the University of Iowa, where she had a decade-long affair with the artist and academic Hans Breder, perhaps her most important formative influence. It was Breder who drew her attention to the notion of cross-disciplinary practice, citing the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein and the Viennese actionists as creative touchstones as well as organising visits by contemporary avant garde artists such as Hans Haacke and Vito Acconci. read more

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