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Ana Mendieta
“Creek,” 1974. Super 8 Film, Colour, Silent.Courtesy of: Galerie Lelong & Co.

Ana Mendieta was the controversial artist who helped pioneer earth art

The Cuban feminist artist moulded her body into the earth to create some of the world's most well-known land art

Have you ever caught a still moment in nature where it's so eerily calm, it feels as if there’s a spiritual presence lingering? In Iowa and Mexico, that presence could very likely be the haunting legacy of Cuban performance artist, Ana Mendieta, who fervently used landscapes in these cities to pioneer the earth art (also known as land art) movement in 1970s-80s America.

Earth art is any piece of work that is created directly in the landscape, sculpting the artwork into the land itself, or making new structures with natural materials like rocks, twigs, leaves, and so on. It started as a movement in the 1960s after the heavy commercialisation of the art industry saw many young artists fleeing the studio in favour of the liberated land.

By the 1970s, Mendieta had harnessed the movement within her artistic trajectory. Across her 15 year career, she produced over 200 works using the land as her sculptural medium, especially in her most well-known series, Siluetta (1973-80), where she moulded her body into different terrains in Iowa and Mexico to emphasise the inextricable link between mother nature and the human form. And Mendieta’s legacy goes far beyond earth art. Within each Silueta one can find layers upon layers of commentary on equality between humans, the inevitable cycles between life and death, and the assertion of mother earth as an omnipresent female force. Her earthwork sculptures echoed the complexities of art as a reflection of life as both a woman and an ethnic outsider in 1970s-80s America.

Beyond land art, Mendieta synthesised art movements of the decade, including performance art, conceptualism, body art, and installation. Her earliest works used a cross-medium format to address the repressive state of being a woman in the 1970s, using performance and film to address domestic violence and male degradation of the female body.

In the lead up to Earth Day, and in correspondence with Ana Mendieta's most recent retrospective at Gropius Bau in Berlin (until 22 July), here is why you need to know the woman who pioneered earth art. 


Mendieta was born on November 18, 1948, in Havana, Cuba, to an aristocratic family who was influential in Cuban politics. Like many families in 1950s Havana, Mendieta’s family believed that leader Fidel Castro would provide Cuba with a bright future. But when his communist dictatorship began to show, Mendieta’s father joined counterrevolutionary party the Bay Pigs, only to be sentenced to 18 years in jail for his revolt. Opposing Castro created grave danger for the Mendietas. In 1961, at the age of 12, Mendieta and her sister were sent to America to escape the regime. Surrounded by 14,000 other children, Mendieta and her sister migrated alone to Iowa, where they spent the first three weeks in a refugee camp. They were then relocated from foster family to foster family until they were reunited with their mother in 1966. Mendieta’s personal voyage as Cuban refugee seeking a better life in America has heavily influenced her work. Much of which crossed boundaries, literal and metaphorical, to address feelings of displacement and the impact Castro left on many Cuban migrants and also drew influence from the religion of Afro-Cubanism. Beyond her work, Mendieta also worked tirelessly to connect artists from Cuba with creatives from America.


When Mendieta arrived in Iowa in the 1960s, second-wave feminism was beginning to turn the battle away from enfranchisement, and towards wider issues such as sexuality, reproductive rights, violence against women, and domestic issues, such as the body. By the time Mendieta graduated from a Masters of Painting at the University of Iowa in 1972, this new feminism was in full swing. Living as a Cuban woman in 1970s America meant these issues heavily impacted Mendieta’s earliest works, as she focused specifically on violence against women. In 1973, she produced “Untitled (Rape Scene)” after a fellow student, Sarah Ann Ottens, was brutally raped on campus. To show solidarity with Ottens, and to raise awareness about the alarming presence and viciousness of rape, Mendieta tied herself to a table, her pants below her ankles and blood running down her legs, and invited an audience to bear witness to her objectification. The work’s extremity was aimed at raising awareness by confronting the audience so much so, the faceless issue of rape and domestic violence could be met with empathy and action.


Domestic issues of second-wave feminism can also be found in Mendieta’s early body alteration works, which tested the limits of the human body to emphasise the unrealistic expectations society places on women and their appearance. Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) (1972) is a photo series that shows Mendieta smashing her face into a piece of plexiglass so intensely, her body appears as malleable as playdough. In one image, her face is pushed so hard into the glass, her chin blends seamlessly into her lips and tongue, producing a weirdly surreal new facial feature. In another, she nonchalantly uses the glass to push her nose back and make it appear like a pig’s snout. There’s a strong sense of ownership as the artist dictates the radical distortion of her own form, reclaiming the way she is perceived by the male gaze and asserting freedom in her own appearance.

Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant) (1972) is another photo series that sees Mendieta question physical perceptions of gender. In the series, Mendieta sticks a man’s facial hair trimmings to her face so perfectly, she simulates fully a fully grown beard in one image, and a perfectly combed moustache in the other. The images entirely subvert perceptions of female beauty, while unapologetically disrupting social constructions of gender.


In 1973, Mendieta started to produce what would become her most well-known works, Silueta (1973-1980): a photo and video series that would see her becoming one of the pioneers of earth art.

For the artist, merging mother nature with art was an authentic way to express the many aspects of her identity: displacement as a Cuban refugee, oppression as a female, and a female artist. By taking art back to nature, she felt that she could become whole again by returning to a natural world absent of manmade inequalities. Mendieta once wrote that “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. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid... My art comes out of rage and displacement.”

“I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe” – Ana Mendieta


To produce Silueta, Mendieta spent seven years travelling to different terrains across Iowa and Mexico, to bind her body with the four elements of nature: air, earth, fire and water. She used natural elements like mud, flowers, moss, leaves and twigs, to sculpt herself into mother nature. In one photo, the silhouette of Mendieta’s body is set alight, as the burnt orange flames pierce through the black background which is in direct opposition to “Creek” (1974) that sees Mendieta’s flesh float peacefully in a rocky stream of glistening water.

Within Mendieta’s earth-body works, there is so much complexity because the artist herself projected too many layers that she felt needed to be addressed. “I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette),” Mendieta said in a 1981 artist statement about the series. “I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source.”


On September 8, 1985, Mendieta fell to her death from the window of her New York City apartment. At just age 36, the artist died tragically young, cutting her prolific career short. At the time, Mendieta was living with her artist husband of eight months, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was convicted of murdering her. “My wife is an artist, and I’m an artist,” Andre’s chilling 911 call states, “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.” Despite having scratches on his face when the police arrived, and a nearby doorman testifying he could hear a woman screaming ‘no no no’, moments before Mendieta’s body thumped the roof of the deli below, Andres was soon acquitted, due to lack of evidence.


In 1992, 500 protesters gathered outside a small Soho gallery in New York holding signs that asked: “Where is Ana Mendieta?”. Inside the gallery was an exhibition run by the Guggenheim that was exhibition Carl Andres’ work only seven years after Mendieta’s death. The protesters argued that the male-dominated art industry had already forgotten Mendieta’s impact, and they were irate at the inclusion of Andres in the show. Over 24 years later, in 2016, protesters took to the Tate Modern in London to argue the exact same thing – an activism indicative of the art world's stagnancy and it's poor commitment to elevating female artists. Among the protesters was artist Liv Wynter, who then wrote an open letter about why she stormed the Tate in protest against violent men. Wynter was then given a residency at the Tate, only to abandon it because of the consistent inequalities she witnessed in the gallery's failing of women. 

“At the time it seemed that the only way a Latina could gain attention was to die dramatically” – Coco Fuso 


In 2004, the New York Times asked fellow feminist artist Carolee Schneeman to comment on Mendieta’s death. “I see her death as part of some larger denial of the feminine. Like a huge metaphor saying, we don't want this depth of feminine eroticism, nature, absorption, integration to happen. It's too organic. It's too sacral. In a way, her death also has a symbolic trajectory." Schneemann's sentiment was echoed widely in academic art theory, and by other female artists who see her death as a symbol for how female artists can't simply be, and create, without being colonised by their gender, or canonised by something completely unrelated to their work.

Despite the powerful ways in which Mendieta challenged dominant art narratives, her work is most of the time sadly canonised by her death, which turned her into a symbol for unveiling the art world’s dark and elitist sexism. "I don't want it to get in the way of the work," her sister, Raquelin Mendieta, once said. "Her death has really nothing to do with her work. Her work was about life and power and energy and not about death."

Cuban art-theorist Coco Fuso’s study of Mendieta follows the same vein. “I think she’s become a symbol used by many people to address sexism in the art world through personal attacks directed at Carl Andre. Many younger artists exploit the memory of Ana for their own professional advancement. I’m uncomfortable with what has happened since her death. When Ana was alive, she was struggling and poor. She was a marginal figure within the art world and was looked upon by many as a very difficult personality. All of the post-mortem canonisations have nothing to do with how she lived or how she was treated during her life.”

Mendieta pioneered a new art movement, progressed Latinx art, addresses issues of global displacement, so why is legacy sadly suffocated by her death? “At the time it seemed that the only way a Latina could gain attention was to die dramatically,” says Fuso. 

Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta is on at Groupius Gallery, Berlin, until 22 July. You can find out more here