The Haunting Mystery Around Ana Mendieta’s Death and the Art She Left Behind

The Haunting Mystery Around Ana Mendieta’s Death and the Art She Left Behind

Ana Mendieta, only 36-years-old when she died falling out of a window from her 34th floor apartment in New York, was a unique voice in performance who left behind a short but incendiary career, as well as the haunting mystery of her death. She was one of the first artists of her generation to combine land art and body art.

Born in Havana in 1948, she moved to the United States at age 12 after her family fell out of favor with the Castro regime, her father jailed for treason. She was sent with her sister to Iowa to live with foster families and attend school.

After meeting the prominent sculptor Carl Andre through mutual artist friends, she married him in 1985. Eight months later, the couple was heard arguing in their apartment, and Mendieta fell 34 floors to her death. Andre was charged with second degree murder, but was eventually acquitted. He testified that he was not in the room when she fell. Without additional witnesses, her death will remain a mystery.

Her most cited set of performances is the “Silueta series,” which she started in 1973 and continued for seven years. Some siluetas made use of Mendieta’s own naked body. She created traces of her silhouette from gunpowder and blood. She constructed female body forms from natural materials like tree branches and leaves. Many of the pieces contained performance, film, photography and ephemeral earth sculpture elements. In their variance, they are difficult to categorize.

However, there are elements and concerns that repeat throughout Mendieta’s “Silueta series” and other performances. A interest in the female body, as presented in her own physicality, can be seen in 1972’s “Glass on Body,” for which she pressed different parts of her face and body against a glass, distorting her flesh. The same preoccupation can be seen in 1976’s “Anima,” a performance in which Mendieta built and burned down a bamboo armature with a female body shape.

In trips she made as an artist to Cuba and southern Mexico, she created work that showed her desire to reconnect with her cultural and religious roots, giving way to a spiritual context for reading her art.

Drawing on a tree leaf (untitled, 1982-1984), digging up an outline of her body on the beach (Silueta series, 1976) or performing a quasi religious ritual in which a naked Mendieta breathed life onto a skeleton (untitled performance, 1972) all speak to the ephemerality of life in general, but of hers in particular. Her legacy, nonetheless, remains.

by Patricio Maya