Ana Mendieta: The Body and The Earth

Ana Mendieta: The Body and The Earth by Ana Brdar

The Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta is one of the most important names of feminist art, as well as a pioneer of utilizing the body and natural elements in order to explore wider ideas of exile and alienation.

Mendieta was born in Cuba on November 18th 1949, into a politically engaged family. Her great uncle was the president of Cuba, while her father was a member of the counterrevolutionary forces that fought against the newly-established rule of Fidel Castro. Due to growing political turmoil in the wake of Cuban Revolution, Mendieta was forced to separate from her family and seek refuge in the United States, where she arrived with her sister in 1960. The two girls were first placed in a refugee camp, then later adopted into a family from Iowa. This is where Mendieta went on to attend high school, after which she studied painting at the University of Iowa. She earned a BA in arts 1969 and an MA in 1972. Even though the Mendieta family was eventually reunited in the ‘70s, the years spent in the Midwest would leave an unmistakable mark on her artwork, which often dealt with feelings of displacement, isolation and marginalization. Ana Mendieta continued her education in the MFA Intermedia Program, where she developed a growing interest in utilizing the body, as well as earthen materials in her work. From early on, Mendieta employed varied mediums to create her work, including film, performance art and photography. As part of her MFA program, Mendieta traveled to Mexico, where she began exploring indigenous religions of the area, whose traces could be found at the country’s pre-Columbian sites. This is where she created her Silueta Series, a multi-media work that dealt with geography, body, art and the nature of their relationship. In both Mexico and Iowa, Mendieta fashioned female forms using various tools and materials, including soil, flowers, sand, moss and fire, which she then documented in form of photographs or films. This series, which was created over a span of five years, proved to be one of Mendieta’s most compelling works. Through the usage of organic elements and body-related imagery, Mendieta sought to dissect varying layers of her identity, as a woman, but also an an immigrant who was separated from her family and exiled from her home. She also alluded to the fact that her artistic work was an attempt to return to primeval state, when the connection between humans and nature was more direct and intense.

Ana MendietaIt did not take long for the wider art world to take notice of Mendieta’s groundbreaking work and, as of mid-70s, she began exhibiting in museums and galleries around the globe. She also relocated to New York, where she met Carl Andre, a minimalist artist who would become her husband.

The years that followed were marked by the growing recognition of Mendieta’s artistic output; in this period, she earned the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, as well as the Rome Prize in Europe. At one point, she also returned to Cuba, where she participated in exhibitions organized by the local government.

In 1985, Mendieta died after falling from the 34th floor of a Greenwich Village building in New York. Her death was shrouded in controversy due to speculation that it was Andre, her husband, who was responsible for the accident. Three years later, he was tried and acquitted of her murder.

Despite the fact that the period in which Mendieta was active was relatively short, her work made a lasting imprint on the generations to come. And in recent years, when conversations on the relationship between artists’ identity and their work are at the forefront of art discourse, Mendieta’s legacy is only becoming increasingly relevant.