Born in Havana, Cuba, Ana Mendieta came to the United States as a refugee in 1961 at the age of twelve, just before the outbreak of the Cuban Revolution in order to escape Fidel Castro’s regime. Ana and her sister Raquelin Mendieta were sent to the United States by their parents. Through Operation Peter Pan, a collaborative program ran by the U.S. Government and the Catholic Charities, Mendieta and her sister were moved through several institutions and foster homes in Iowa.
As a child, having to endure such trauma of separating from her family and homeland was devastating and over time had a big impact on the perceptions and ideas that Mendieta had about life, spirituality, and the connections between the body and the natural world. Although much of Mendieta’s earlier life is unclear, she was known to have attended the University of Iowa where she earned a BA, an MA in Painting and an MFA in Intermedia. Through the course of her performance artist, sculptor, painter and video artist career, she created work in Cuba, Mexico, Italy, and the United States.
Mendieta’s work was in its essence autobiographical and focused on themes including feminism, violence, life, death, place and belonging. Mendieta often focused on a spiritual and physical connection with the Earth, most particularly in her Silueta Series (1973–1980). The series involved Mendieta creating female silhouettes in nature – in mud, sand and grass – with natural materials ranging from leaves and twigs to blood, and making body prints or painting her outline or silhouette onto a wall. She was known for saying “through my earth/body sculptures I become one with the earth… I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body…”(Electronic Arts Intermix).
Mendieta’s statement is similar to Joanna Frueh’s statement in her article The Body through Women’s Eyes”, in which she states “idealizations of the female body reflect and enforce cultural desires about a women’s beauty and sexuality, her social place and power” (Frueh 1). In both statements, Mendieta and Frueh address the purpose behind the inspiration and the impact many feminist artist seek to transpire onto the world.
Much of Mendieta’s work expresses the pain and ruptures of cultural displacement, and resonates with visceral metaphors of death, rebirth, and spiritual transformation. She was also known for using her own body as a portal to convey her intimate thoughts about life and nature, which is seen through most of her artwork. She envisioned the female body as a primal source of life and sexuality, as a symbol of the ancient paleolithic goddesses. In the modern world we are living in today, much of our art is “mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, commodified, auctioned at Sotheby’s, [etc.]…”;
Mendieta’s work and similar pieces to hers is important in preserving those connections between life, justice, freedom, and the human body (Rich 4). The pieces in her Silueta Series were transient, created and then photographed just before or during their destruction. The materials used were highly symbolic. In one work from the “Silueta” series, she outlined her figure with gunpowder, creating a shape reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings. By setting it alight, she incorporates the ritualistic use of fire as a source of exorcism and purification. Mendieta also used flowers as mediums in her series, quoting the folk traditions of Mexico. Her primary material was the earth itself. In her “Tree of Life” series, she covered her naked body with mud and posed against and enormous tree. Ridding herself of her color and form, she is visually united with the tree, arms raised in supplication. In 1983 Mendieta was awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. While in residence in Rome, Italy, Mendieta began creating art “objects,” including drawings and sculptures.
Tragically, Ana Mendieta died on September 8, 1985, at the age of thirty-six, in New York from a fall from her 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village, where she lived with her husband of eight months, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. It has been speculated that at the time of her death, Mendieta and her husband were having an argument; however, this speculation was never properly supported with sufficient evidence. If in fact this was true, it has been suggested that either out of anger Andre pushed her out the window of their 34th floor apartment or Mendieta committed suicide by jumping out the window herself. Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder. During the trial, Andre’s lawyer described Mendieta’s death as a possible accident or suicide. Andre was ultimately acquitted by a judge. The cause of her death may never be known.
Read in depth text about her work here