Ana Mendieta: Blood and Silhouettes
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Artist in Focus – May
Written by Adt
Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba on the 18th of november 1948. She was born into a political family. Her great-grandfather Carlos Mendieta was the president of Cuba in 1934. Her father was a lawyer and would later become a correspondent for the CIA. Her mother was a doctor of physics and chemistry.
She spent a happy childhood in Cuba.
After the Cuban revolution on september 11, 1961, she was sent to Florida in the United States along with her sister Raquela. She was 12. Eventually, Florida was deemed to be to close to Cuba and hence, dangerous, and the girls found their way to Iowa. Here, she had the typical experience of an american teenager in the 1960s. She returned to Cuba more than once and was reunited with her family. However, she did not see her father while he served a 20 year sentence as a political prisoner.
Ana with her sister
In 1971, Ana was a painting major at the University of Iowa. She continued to study for her MFA at the same university and took longer to graduate than she needed. This was in order to have access to the equipment she needed for her work – mainly a Super 8 Camera, film and a dark room. To support herself, she worked as a waitress. She also worked at an elementary school where she taught art to students.
She spent a year as an artist-in-residence in New York, where she had her first solo show and met her future husband Carl Andre. Here, she also met pop and fluxus artists like Andy Warhol and Carolee Schneemann, who are sure to have influenced her work.
Between 1971 and 1981, Ana made 104 films. She has been described as “intense” and “dramatic” by her niece and goddaughter, Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, who now studies her life and work.
Ana was raised Catholic and was also exposed to Santerian blood rituals. This is important to know in order to understand her work. She used the classical natural elements – fire, water, air and earth – as symbols in her performances, and each has a specific spiritual significance common to pagan traditions. She used the new video technology of her time to understand the ancient and primitive ideas of man’s relationship with nature.
She also used blood in her performances to explore violence and the female perspective. (the blood was not her own, she used animal blood that she got at slaughterhouses).
On finding out that a student at her university had been raped, she staged the aftermath of the rape in her apartment. She was naked, covered in blood and tied to a table. She attempted to present the female perspective to the world at a time when feminists were considered narcissists and dismissed easily within and outside the art world.
She was curious about society, she wanted to understand how society react to violence. She poured a bucket of blood out onto the streets and offered it to the people without explanation. She found apathy in her audience as people ignored the blood or walked around it. Eventually, someone cleaned it up. This performance was documented in a film titled ‘Moffitt building piece’, a response to the murder of a student.
In her film ‘sweating blood’, November 1973, you see blood drip down her face slowly as her eyes remain closed, allowing the red colour to be the focus. The film is about 2 minutes long and the frame remains unchanged. The image she presents is powerful and surreal. Blood, like fire, stands for purification. It seems like the blood is oozing out, like the lava pours out of a volcano, as a symbol of the fire inside her.
‘transformation, birth and rebirth, through blood fire and earth’
Her most well-known piece using blood is called ‘body tracks’ which she filmed in march 1974, a film approximately 1 minute long. She recorded herself marking the wall in blood with a gesture of her hand. The gesture is one continuous action and the viewer is left to consider the ephemeral trace of the artist’s hands that have been left behind.
“everytime a film is played, in that minute, it is alive”
Ana considered herself to be an artist, not a filmmaker or photographer. She thought of her works in nature as magic.
In 1973, Ana visited an Aztec Tomb in Mexico. The tomb was covered in weeds and the growth reminded her of time. She lay in the tomb and covered her bare body with flowers, as if they were growing out of her. She wanted to be ‘covered by time and history’. She wanted to be a part of the natural scene, be one with it. She placed her body, and in turn the human, between symbols of life and death. She evokes a feeling of separation from the land of her birth, the idea of man’s separation from nature and an attempt to reconnect.
This was the first ‘silueta’ she created by juxtaposing her body in the space. The piece now exists as a photograph. She would go on to make many more silhouettes in nature. The silhouette was standard – the figure faces the viewer with her arms raised upwards.
In an untitled film made in the summer of 1974 in Mexico, Ana recorded herself at the beach. In the film she lays bare-bodied on the sand and lets the waves wash over her and take her where they will. Small plants find their way onto her body and remain there. This was a surrender to the ocean and to the earth. There is an acceptance of the power nature holds and complete trust. The ocean stands for calm but powerful depth, gradual movement. It also stands for time.
Another piece with water, my favourite, was recorded in July 1974, ‘creek’. This film does away with story structure – there is no beginning, middle and end, but rather one continuous action that seems to go on forever. Ana lays face down in a creek and lets the water flow around her body like time. In this piece, she succeeds in becoming one with the natural space as she seems to be an effortless part of the landscape – the stillness of the figure juxtaposed with movement in the water.
In 1975, Ana made two performances using fire. In ‘alma silueta en fuego no.2’ a white silhouette is visible on the floor. It is made using a white substance, which is subsequently set on fire. The film documents its burning. Alma is the word for soul in spanish. Her ‘soul’ is the silhouette outlining the form of her body, and it burns. Fire stands for passion, good or bad, and power.
In ‘energy charge’ the there is no actual fire. This film is only 57 seconds long. When it starts, it pictures a tree. An electrical charge surges through and brings forth shapes in red light. There is a silhouette on the surface of a tree, vertical. It stays lit throughout. The symbolism is still ancient, but the technology is new. Electricity and fire stand for the same.
The next year, in Oxaco, Mexico, she created another silhouette, this time out of fireworks. The fireworks made up the outline of the figure, and a ‘heart’ in the center. She lit up the fireworks and they burn out, the last light to burn out is the heart.
In her fire pieces, Ana was trying to express a spiritual truth about herself – to express the fire in her heart and soul, the passion to create and inspire.
Even today, a carving in stone is the surest way to pass on information as it is the only thing that survives time.
In 1980, Ana returned to Cuba and visited the caves of Jaruco. These are believed to be the birthplace of humanity. She carved her silhouettes into the walls of the caves, leaving her mark through time. In doing so, she recreated the actions of the earliest human artist, the cave painters, almost fourteen thousand years after their time. To make these marks was akin to putting herself in their shoes, to return to a primal state of mind and understand the human impulse to leave a mark.
On the 8th of september, 1985, Carl Andre argued with his wife Ana Mendieta. She somehow went out the window of their 34th floor apartment and did not survive. There were no eyewitnesses.
In 1988, Andre was acquitted.
Andre’s official statement to the 911 operator was unusual.
“My wife is an artist, and I’m an artist, and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was. And she went to the bedroom, and I went after her, and she went out the window.”
Ana Mendieta’s death and the unfairness of the delivery of justice caused an uproar amongst the women of the art world and brought forth important questions for feminist debate – are women artists dismissed in a male dominated art world? How important is the female gaze? Are the crimes of men ignored and washed away by a systemized institution?
Linda Stupart, a contemporary artist working post-internet, created a piece inspired by Ana. Entitled “a spell to bind male artists from murdering you”, the text details instructions for a ritual, while directly accusing Andre of Ana’s murder. The spell is available on her website.
In 1987, the first retrospective was organized to honour her work.
In 2016, Andre’s work was added to the permanent collection at the Tate Museum in London. Outside, protestors demanded –
“Where is Ana Mendieta?”
Traviesa, Campo. “Ana Mendieta – Selected Performance Works.” Vimeo, Museo Tamayo, Apr. 2017, vimeo.com/212831502.
Ina. “Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Chicken Piece Shot #2), 1972 (Extrait).” Elles@Centrepompidou, 1 Jan. 2016, fresques.ina.fr/elles-centrepompidou/fiche-media/ArtFem00045/ana-mendieta-untitled-chi cken-piece-shot-2-1972-extrait.html.
“Ana Mendieta.” AWARE Women Artists / Femmes Artistes, awarewomenartists.com/en/artiste/ana-mendieta/.
Paume, Jeu de. “Ana Mendieta Au Jeu De Paume-Concorde, Paris.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Oct. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A1AzWYBQzA.
Lauderdale, NSU Art Museum Fort. “Raquel Cecilia Mendieta: The Films of Ana Mendieta.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 Mar. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9h_a6FmmGY&t=16s.
sphoenix. “WHERE IS ANA MENDIETA.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 June 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J894WTlODOY&t=44s.
O’Hagan, Sean. “Ana Mendieta: Death of an Artist Foretold in Blood.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Sept. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/sep/22/ana-mendieta-artist-work-foretold-death.
“Overlooked No More: Ana Mendieta, a Cuban Artist Who Pushed Boundaries.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/19/obituaries/ana-mendieta-overlooked.html.
Smith, Isabella, et al. “Protesters Demand ‘Where Is Ana Mendieta?” in Tate Modern Expansion.” Hyperallergic, 15 June 2016, hyperallergic.com/305163/protesters-demand-where-is-ana-mendieta-in-tate-modern-expans ion/.
Sneed, Gillian. “The Case of Ana Mendieta.” Art in America, 12 Oct. 2010, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/ana-mendieta/.
“Ana Mendieta’s ‘Experimental and Interactive Films.’” Art Agenda, http://www.art-agenda.com/features/238495/ana-mendieta-s-experimental-and-interactive-films.
“Linda Stupart.” Spells, lindastupart.net/Spells.php. Ana Mendieta, The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. All photographs found on the internet, do not belong to us.