The life of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta was cut tragically short after her untimely death in 1985 at 36. At the time of her death, her husband, fellow artist and sculptor Carl Andre was accused of pushing her out of a window of their 34th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Although Mendieta’s life was far too short, her legacy, her artistry, and her unique ability to push boundaries will live on in her work for eternity.
Long before it became more socially acceptable for women to push the limits of artistic expression and explore questions around feminism, the female body, and nature, Mendieta was pushing boundaries and using her visual work to raise questions and start conversations around complicated topics that haunted her.
The effects of her upbringing and her family’s story influenced so much of her later life and her professional work. She didn’t shy away from all aspects of her soul — both the good and the bad — and how it inspired her career as an artist and her life as a woman. Her work was unexpected and eye-opening, and even today, we can all learn from her badass work and badass ways that were well beyond her years.
A Tumultuous Life that Inspired Artistic Exploration
Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba, on November 18, 1948. She spent her early life in Cuba and then immigrated alone to the U.S. when she was just 12 years old, leaving her parents behind to escape the Castro regime. Her father had joined the anti-Castro counterrevolutionary forces, so Mendieta and her sister were sent to the United States under Operation Pedro Pan. After a few weeks of living in refugee camps, she was sent to an orphanage in Dubuque, Iowa.
That nomadic lifestyle and those early years spent away from her Cuban family had a lasting impact on Mendieta, an impact that inspired not only her sense of self but also her work, where she explored those feelings of displacement and a deep sense of being misunderstood in a Midwest community where she felt like an outsider.
Those deep feelings of disconnection and not belonging became concepts that would be deeply ingrained in Mendieta’s work as well as her life. Because of her upbringing and traumatic experiences as a teenager, much of her work explored the idea of returning home.
“My exploration through my art of the relationship between myself and nature has been a clear result of my having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence,” she said of her work. “It is a way of reclaiming my roots and becoming one with nature.”
It wasn’t until 1966, six years after she left Cuba when Mendieta was reunited with her mother and brother. Her father joined them in the U.S. in 1979 after spending 18 years in a political prison in Cuba for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
In 1966 Mendieta also began studying painting at the University of Iowa. After graduating with a BA in art and then an MA in painting, Mendieta knew she wanted to go deeper into her studies and needed a more powerful medium to express herself, so she enrolled in the university’s progressive MFA Intermedia Program. That experience led to what would ultimately become Mendieta’s signature artistic style — work that explored the female body, the earth, nature, and organic materials such as blood, fire, and feathers through media ranging from photography and videos to performance art and more.
Badass Work That Still Inspires Today
Mendieta’s work always told a story, and her pieces were intended to deliver a message to her audience. As a woman of color who had been uprooted from her homeland and traumatized by her experiences as a young woman, she wasn’t interested in superficial images but rather explored deeper themes of ethnicity, sexuality, morality, and gender. Her art was about questioning her own identity and exploring what it meant to be a woman of color in America.
Shock value was undoubtedly a part of Mendieta’s playbook.
“Nothing that she did ever surprised me,” Mendieta’s sister, Raquelín, told The New York Times in 2016. “She was always very dramatic, even as a child — and liked to push the envelope, to give people a start, to shock them a little bit. It was who she was, and she enjoyed it very much. And she laughed about it sometimes when people got freaked out.”
That desire to shock and fascinate others was present in her work over the years. For example, for her 1973 short film, “Moffitt Building Piece,” Mendieta spilled a puddle of pig’s blood on the street outside her apartment and then recorded how strangers reacted as they walked by the mess.
Some people stared, some people simply walked around the puddle, and eventually, one person cleaned it up. The piece’s ultimate goal, and the footage she collected, served as a glimpse into how people responded to violence and how indifferent people had become.
Another extraordinarily controversial and shocking piece of work, “Rape Scene,” was the direct result of her outrage and anger over a rape incident that had occurred to a nursing student while Mendieta was in college. For this piece, Mendieta staged a fake rape scene, showing the aftermath of rape, in her apartment. She demonstrated the violence of such a brutal attack by covering herself in blood, tying herself to a table, and remaining bent over with blood dripping down her legs as viewers discussed the incident.
Not all of her work was quite so raw, emotional, and violent. Her series of “Siluetas” showed the nude female body (her own body) with strategically placed flowers and plants covering areas of her figure, almost appearing as if the plants were growing out of her skin, and she was a part of the earth. “The making of my ‘Silueta’ in nature keeps the transition between my homeland and my new home,” she once said, as reported by The New York Times. “It is a way of reclaiming my roots and becoming one with nature. Although the culture in which I live is part of me, my roots and cultural identity are a result of my Cuban heritage.”
In the end, Mendieta’s goal was to wake people up and make them think. While her work pushed sexual, political, and ethnic boundaries, it was also designed to remind viewers that they are more alike than they are different and to help people reconnect with the humanity they share. It was all about connection and a sense of belonging — something Mendieta longed for most of her life, but something she never quite obtained.
Back in 2004, New York Times critic Holland Cotter said it best: “if not naturally fearless,” Mendieta “used fear well, transmuting a profound sense of psychological and cultural displacement into an experience of merging with the natural world and its history through art.”
Mendieta was audacious and had a badass approach to truth-telling that forever influenced the way artists communicate with their audience. While her life was cut short and was denied a lifetime of brilliance, her work and her message live on in her masterpieces that will always leave an impression on those who see them.