Art is all about people overcoming the fragile impermanence of life by leaving their visual and creative imprint on the world. Ana Mendieta demonstrates this idea better than perhaps any artist I’ve ever learned about.
Active from the 1960’s onward, Mendieta’s work was predominantly autobiographical, dealing with both the female form and her Cuban identity in America. She shunned traditional mediums and used disregarded and uncommon materials, such as dirt, mud, and her own body. While at university, she began making pieces that dealt with women’s issues, especially with physical violence perpetrated against women.
Some of her most famous pieces are included in her Silueta collection, which saw a loose female silhouette among different environments. These pieces allowed people to confront female issues without focusing on her own body. Whether she be almost covered in wildflowers or situated between craggy rocks, she repeatedly connects herself to her environment. She was able to represent her identity by connecting herself, both physically and emotionally, to nature, and challenged other artistic notions of possession, abandonment, and separation. She embraced the idea that all of her “earth-body” works were ephemeral, a performance soon to be rendered invisible. All of the works that she documented possess an eerie quality, almost ghost-like. But this was intentional– she was obsessed, like all artists are, with haunting quality of transience.
In 1985, Mendieta was more successful than ever before. She was living in New York City, the capital of the art world, surrounded by the greatest artistic minds of her time. On September 8th, Mendieta died in a fall from the 34th-floor apartment she shared with her husband, well-known minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. She had found out about his infidelities and was planning to file for divorce. Her neighbors had heard her cry “No, no, no,” before she fell. Andre was charged with her murder, but due to shoddy police work and no other witnesses, he was acquitted. Andre lives in the same apartment to this day, with his second wife, who makes art about windows.
Like so many other great artists, Mendieta’s work took on a profoundly sinister quality after her tragic death. She was a victim of the treatment which she had focused so much of her life deconstructing and resisting.
I can’t exactly put my finger on why I am so moved by Mendieta’s work. Perhaps it is because I can relate to her struggle of defining her personal identity with regards to her heritage. Maybe it’s because, as a girl, I literally see myself in so many of her works. Even more broadly, every person, regardless of gender or nationality, can relate to the magically spiritual quality of reconnecting with the earth. You don’t need a PhD in art history to feel the power of her work. Her documentation of her work may initially look meaningless and unremarkable, but I’d encourage anyone to look longer. Observe the mark of a person that was there and isn’t anymore. Picture yourself as the figure; hear the babbling brook, the wind rustling through the long grass. Ask why she felt connected to the earth here of all places, and if you’d feel the same way if you were with her.
Wikipedia will tell you that Ana Mendieta was a Cuban-American performance artist who studied at the University of Iowa and died weeks before her 37th birthday. This is all true. But Mendieta was also a woman who turned her trauma into art that everyone can relate to, a task not easy to complete. Her art, in my eyes, is only made more powerful when you learn about the context in which it was made. Despite her young age, she was able to create work that conveys her own message in a unique way. Her career was cut tragically short, but the work she made during her short lifetime is some of the most emotionally-charged, compelling art I have ever had the privilege to see.
Graphic: Evie Cullen