Writing by Rebecca Scherer. Illustration by Orla Chambers.
Born into a politically prominent family and raised in Havana, Cuba during the height of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Ana Mendieta grew up inherently political. Her work, reaching critical acclaim in the 1970s, responded to structures of power, violence and oppression with concepts of spirituality and images of nature. In line with the increasingly personal agenda of second-wave feminism and the popularisation of confessional poetry led by the likes of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Mendieta opted for an intimate, often disturbing means of creating her art. In 1973 while attending the University of Iowa, Mendieta was compelled by the rape and murder of a fellow female student to re-create the crime scene as part of a photographic series and invited classmates to observe. From there, performance and provocation became central to Mendieta’s work.
Inspired by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Ana Mendieta - although admitting that much of her work was indeed reactionary to impersonal events - remained her own muse, creating a number of self-portraits and using her body as her subject. Through this, Mendieta became irrevocably tied to the work she produced, while simultaneously representing the universal spirit, body and human in relation to the Earth. The unusual materials she used throughout her career became a distinct characteristic of her work and later earned her recognition as a pioneer in ‘earth-body’ art. In her most famous 1973-1977 collection, ‘Silueta series’, she used naturally occurring resources such as flowers, sticks, mud and blood in conjunction with substances like gunpowder and other destructive materials to outline her silhouette in the ground. The Silueta series highlights how Mendieta’s work relied on juxtaposition and an equilibrium of extremes in order to produce the visceral reactions she desired. Contrasting masculinity with femininity, death with life, beauty with violence, and nature side by side with the man-made, Mendieta’s work calls upon viewers with a curious and uneasy eye.
In the era of ‘MeToo’, and with Sarah Everard’s recent murder sparking further conversations about the safety of women, Ana Mendieta’s art and legacy should haunt us more than ever. Her work is often eclipsed by her suspicious death, which begs the question: why is a woman’s art appreciated predominantly in the shadow of her own tragedy? And ultimately, is this a tactic to reduce and overlook the intricacies and complexities of her work? Unsurprisingly, feminist scholars have disagreed on the importance of Mendieta’s death and the role it plays, if at all, in understanding her artwork. On one hand, it can be argued that Mendieta’s death - which involved her falling from a window at the hands of an enraged husband - draws attention to the very issue of gendered violence that she illustrated in her work. Furthermore, the fact that her husband, a prominent minimalist artist, was controversially acquitted for her murder adds to the need of raising awareness and demanding justice surrounding her death. On the other hand, the romanticising of her death as what some have deemed her ‘final performance’ could in fact be perpetuating a narrative where her death and inevitably her husband eclipse all discourse involving her art.
Regardless, Ana Mendieta’s collections draw exceptional connections from polarities, demanding the viewer to question larger cultural constructs like gender and war. Although her work is undoubtedly personal and intimate, we may understand and feel closer to Mendieta’s art now more than ever as we turn to nature for sanity and peace in these unsettling times.