The Life Of Forgotten Feminist Artist Ana Mendieta, As Told By Her Sister

Raquelin Mendieta remembers her sister and the indelible mark she left on art.
The Estate of Ana Mendieta Colleciton, LLC Courtesy Galeire Lelong, New York

Ana Mendieta was interested in blood. In part, her fascination with the stuff stemmed from the violence against women she witnessed in her lifetime, beginning when a student was raped and murdered on her college campus. But the obsession also stemmed from her knowledge of rituals practiced in the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, in which chicken's blood is offered as sacrifice. And, of course, the fact that the viscous fluid pulses through all of our veins, threading us together.

When women write, their words are often assumed to be confessional. When Ana made images, she was interpreted through a similar lens. When the radical, dynamic and irrepressible artist died under tragic and mysterious circumstances at 36 years old, her haunting work was read like an omen. But to view her work in light of her death is to miss its essence. "Her death has really nothing to do with her work," Ana's sister Raquelin Mendieta told The Guardian. "Her work was about life and power and energy and not about death."

Ana was a Cuban-born multidisciplinary artist whose work floated weightlessly between performance, sculpture, earth art, photography and film. Born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, she fled to the United States with her sister at a young age, eventually settling in the Midwest. Ana's work is uncanny in its ability to feel at once radically progressive and ancient, vibrating with a feminine power that stretches back to the earliest human rites.

In one of her most well known pieces, "Imagen de Yagul," Ana documented her unclothed body in a pre-Hispanic tomb at the Mesoamerican site of Yagul, covered in a spray of white flowers. The foliage consumed her silhouette, obscuring her body and rendering her an otherworldly hybrid. In her 1974 piece, "Body Tracks," Ana created a wall drawing on camera, drenching her forearms in blood and slowly dragging them down a white wall. The resulting imprint resembles the marks left by a corpse that's been dragged off screen.

Lesser known are Ana's experimental films -- on view now in "Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films" at Galerie Lelong in New York -- despite the fact that she made over 100 throughout her lifetime. Like her more recognized performances and photographs, Ana's films are characterized by a haunting combination of presence and absence, manifested in scratches on the emulsion of celluloid film or filmed reactions to blood poured onto an unassuming sidewalk.

Butterfly, 1975 Still from super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, color, silent

The exhibition at Galerie Lelong came into being thanks, in part, to the tireless work of Ana's older sister Raquelin. Since Ana's death, Raquelin has taken it upon herself to ensure her sister's name and legacy live on. While Ana's works are so often framed in the context of her death, Raquelin describes her sister in life, not only as one of the most influential feminist makers and overlooked artists of our time, but as a perky, fearless, confrontational young woman who let nothing and no one get in her way.

Their story begins when Ana and Raquelin were sent by their father to the United States in 1961 to flee Castro's regime. The sisters were two of 14,000 children to immigrate to America unaccompanied by adults. Ana was 12, Raquelin had just turned 15. On the plane that brought them to Florida, all passengers were under 18 years old.

"I didn’t want to leave," Raquelin explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I was very upset. I remember in the airport crying the whole time." Ana, however, was more excited. "She had this image in her mind from all the teenage movies that were in fashion. The parties, the teenagers going around in convertible sports cars, going to the beach and having fun."

The plan was to send the children away for six months or so until political tensions in Cuba died down. The Mendieta girls and their parents expected the family to reunite in Cuba within the year; however, they did not. Through a collaborative program run by the U.S. government and Catholic charities, the sisters stayed in a refugee camp before relocating to Iowa, where they passed through various foster homes and institutions. During their first two years in the United States, the sisters moved eight times. With every move, they let go of the friendships they'd forget, knowing they would not be back. For the most part, the sisters had only each other.

The Mendieta parents had signed a power of attorney declaring that the sisters not be separated. They told Raquelin to look after her younger sister, which is what she'd always done.

In our interview, Raquelin described her sister as forward, sociable, energetic and active. "She was a prankster, joking around a lot, playing tricks on people. She wouldn’t sit still for a second ... I, on the other hand, especially when I was around people I didn’t know very well, was very shy and timid. It was hard for me to deal with new people." When they moved to Iowa, however, Ana took it harder, at least on the outside. "I had to be the spokesperson for us," Raquelin said. "Once we got here she was very upset and crying all the time. I had to hold it in to be a role model for her."

School was, according to Raquelin, "not a good place." Back home, the Mendieta sisters lived sheltered, middle class lives and attended an all-girls private Catholic school. In Iowa, they were put in a reform school, where most of the other students had been sent by the court to avoid a state institution. Cursing, fighting, and violence were rampant.

The sisters didn't speak much English. They'd studied it in school, but their vocabulary was limited. "We could say 'this is a boy, this is a girl, this is a pencil,'" Raquelin said. "To have a conversation was very difficult, to understand someone speaking was even worse."

Both sisters found solace in art. Ana became interested when she was a junior in high school; Raquelin, at this point, had graduated from high school and was studying art in college herself. Teachers told Ana she didn't have any talent, but she wasn't dissuaded. "I don't care! I like it!" Raquelin recalled her saying.

Ana began college as a French major and art minor but soon switched them around. She worked mostly in drawing and some sculpture. After two years, she transferred to the University of Iowa, where she earned a bachelor's and master's in painting and an M.F.A. in intermedia. Just before graduation, Ana became particularly interested in performance art, "happenings," as Raquelin referred to them with amusement.

Blood and Feathers, 1974

During college, much of Ana's work focused on blood and violence toward women, resulting from a rape and murder of a university student on her campus. "People were scared," Raquelin said. "We didn’t know who this person was, if he was around the corner, if we could be next. It was a small university town where hardly stuff like this ever happens." In her apartment, Ana tied herself to a table for two hours and remained motionless, her naked body smeared with cow's blood. She invited students and faculty to drop by the apartment, thereby becoming witnesses to a "murder."

At the same time, Ana explored other matters, matters less of this earth. In 1973 and 1974, her art revolved around the idea of a single thread connecting everything. In her words: "My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy."

"She was interested in spiritual things, religious things, primitive rituals, from Mesoamerica, the Mayas and the Aztecs, Afro-Cuban traditions. What connected her with nature and basic humanity. Things that are true for almost all cultures," Raquelin explained. "She wasn’t afraid of using any kind of medium -- drawing, painting, sculpture, gunpowder, film. She didn’t feel any limitations to what she could do."

Beginning in 1973, Ana began a sculptural performance series called "Siluetas," in which she hid her naked body in surrounding natural landscapes -- sand, earth, snow, trees, grass, ice, and rocks -- blurring the boundaries between woman and Mother Nature. In another iconic series, known as "earth-body" sculptures, Ana stuck and spread blood, feathers, flowers and dirt across her flesh in varied combinations.

"My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid," Ana said. "Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world."

In the sites and materials she selected, Ana was always very particular to incorporate the spaces and places she held close to her. Because of her uprooting at a young age, she grappled with feelings of belonging, impermanence and place. For her initial silhouette, Ana went to an ancient Zapotec grave. "She would collect earth from certain places she held dear -- Cuba, The Nile. She called it a charge. An object would have a charge, it would have the vibration of that place," Raquelin added.

"She wanted to leave her mark on everything," curator Howard Oransky explained, "and she used her body to merge with the history of a place. The land and earth became a metaphor for family and love and culture. You can sense a yearning for what she lost as a child, and that is powerful."

Body Tracks, 1974

In college, both Ana and Raquelin studied art, but there was never a sense of competition between them. "We were exchanging ideas a lot but our work was very different," Raquelin said. "We had the kind of relationship where I felt like I was watching over her, and she was looking up to me ... There was never really a competition."

Besides, they had to watch each other's backs. Even in art school, Raquelin remembers the discrimination they faced as women. Raquelin, who married before her senior year, had a drawing teacher tell her to "go home and wash your dishes." Professors paid nearly all their attention to their male students. Ana, however, was able to tune out the debasement.

"She felt she was free to speak her mind," Raquelin said. Ana managed to ignore the whispers of Cuban tradition, the voice advising you to respect your professors. She felt equal to them and thus able to contradict them. "She was not afraid of telling people what she thought of them. She fought for herself and what she believed in. She didn’t feel constricted by the expectations they had of what a woman should do."

After graduate school, Ana moved to New York and her work gained more and more recognition. In 1978, she joined Artists In Residence, Inc. (A.I.R. Gallery), the first gallery dedicated specifically to women artists in the U.S. At the gallery, Ana met the man who would become her husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. He was serving on a panel titled "How has women's art practices affected male artist social attitudes?"

Before long the name Ana Mendieta meant something. "I was not surprised," Raquelin said. "Her work was very powerful to me, very special. I could see she had that spark. She was never afraid of anything. Nothing Ana ever did surprised me."

For those who knew her, Ana's mainstream success was only a matter of time. "I never had any doubts about it that it would happen," Raquelin said. "Her career was cut short by her death. She had all this encouragement; the art world was saying to her: you are accepted. Your work means something. It's important."

X-ray, c. 1975 Still from 16mm film transferred to digital media, black and white, silent

Sadly, Ana died on September 8, 1985, after the artist fell from the window of her 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Her husband was in the apartment with her just before. Neighbors heard fighting. A doorman heard a woman screaming "No, no, no, no," before hearing the artist's body thud onto the roof of the deli 33 floors down. Andre had scratches on his nose and forearm.

Andre was tried and acquitted for Ana's murder, found not guilty on grounds of reasonable doubt. The defense argued Ana's death was suicide, and utilized her haunting artwork to back up the claim. Ana's circle believed she was incapable of killing herself when her work was finally receiving the recognition she'd sought. Also, she was scared of heights.

Ana's death split the art world in half, with many prominent artists leaping to shelter Andre from the so-called "feminist cabal." While they deemed Ana's death a tragedy, many felt the incident wasn't worth putting a damper on "Andre's brilliant career." From this dark perspective, the loss of a Hispanic woman's life was not worth tarnishing a white male artist's name.

On the other side, artists like Carolee Schneemann and activist group the Guerrilla Girls were horrified both by the event and the subsequent handling of it. "We were all stunned by her violent death," the Guerrilla Girls told The Observer. "We witnessed how the art world closed around Andre to shield him." Outside of Andre's Dia:Beacon retrospective in 2014, protestors donning sheer track suits reading "I Wish Ana Mendieta Was Still Alive," trickling chicken blood along the pavement.

"When she was taken from us it was very traumatic," Raquelin said. "She was my best friend and my sister." their mother couldn't deal with the pain, and asked Raquelin to take charge of gathering all Ana's work and belongings -- from Iowa, New York, Rome, and wherever else. "I had to read all the letters and notebooks and sketchbooks. It was a very healing experience. It continues to be. I feel like I’m still in touch with her. I still have her in my life. Her physical form is gone but her essence is still here, it’s still with me."

Ana Mendieta Sweating Blood, 1973 Still from super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, color, silent

Raquelin knew there was nothing more important to her sister than her work. "I felt like if her work was not looked after and promoted, she could not rest in peace." She joined forces with a group of Ana's friends to form the Ana Mendieta Committee, devoted to finding a venue to host a solo show of Ana's work. This wish came true in 1987, when Ana received a solo retrospective at the New Museum in New York.

After the exhibition, the committee disbanded, and Raquelin took it upon herself to send out the bios and market the work, the banal tasks the artist normally would have done. Raquelin formed a partnership with Galerie Lelong, which now represents Ana's work. "Going there, helping install, seeing that everything is set the way she would like it to be. That has been my life’s work since she passed away."

More recently, due to health issues, Raquelin has had less time to devote to Ana's oeuvre. Her daughter and Ana's niece, filmmaker Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, played a large role in preparing Galerie Lelong's ongoing exhibition "Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films," which features 15 film works from the artist, nine of which had never before been seen.

After asking Raquelin if it feels strange to watch Ana rise to such legendary heights today, she replied: "I don’t feel there is too much of a difference between now and then," she said. "I think it would have happened eventually whether she was alive or dead."

Over the years, Raquelin has carried on Ana's artistic legacy, a legacy that fittingly balances presence and absence, love and healing, life, death and rebirth. "I have continued my relationship with my sister through the work," Raquelin said. "My purpose was to let her know that it was okay, that I was taking care of her still. Through that, she was taking care of me."

"Ana Mendieta: Experimental and Interactive Films" runs until March 26, 2016 at Galerie Lelong in New York.

Raquelin (left) and Ana Mendieta (right) in 1985.
Raquelin (left) and Ana Mendieta (right) in 1985.
The Estate of Ana Mendieta Colleciton, LLC Courtesy Galeire Lelong, New York
Imágen de Yágul, 1973
Ana Medieta
El Laberinto de Venus, 1982
Tree of Life, 1976
Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972
Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints), 1972
Itiba Cahubaba (Esculturas Rupestres), 1981
Untitled, 1982, design on leaf
Untitled, 1973

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