Beginnings

Ana Mendieta’s interest in exploring other mediums of art making began during her time at the University of Iowa in the Intermedia Program. German-American artist Hans Breder started the program at the university in 1968, hoping to expand students’ work in the arts through interdisciplinary study. The Intermedia Program removed the commodity aspect of art and instead encouraged students to explore art as an experience and environment, considering spectatorship and modes of documentation as part of the work. This concept was handed down from John Cage and the Black Mountain College.

Mendieta was influenced by artists working in this vein, including Nam June Paik, a Fluxus artist who worked with Cage and acted out conceptual performance and music pieces. Of particular influence to Mendieta was his video art and appropriation of technology. Mendieta documented a lot of her own work, creating photographs and films of her performances. In terms of her land art, the eventual reclamation by nature of her mark on the landscape called for a documentation process. Robert Smithson died in 1973, but his ideas on entropy continued on in Mendieta’s land and earth body works. The unpredictable natural world and cycles became the core importance of series like Siluetas.

Outside of the world of art, Mendieta was fascinated with ritual importance in religion. Santería is an Afro-Carribean religion that ties together ideas and traditions from Yoruba and indigenous American belief systems, and Catholicism. A religion born out of exile and slavery, the expressions of Santería come in the forms of ritual and ceremonial practices. Mendieta was never a member of the religion but was a witness to ceremonies as a child growing up in Cuba. Blood is an essential life force with central importance in Santería and Catholicism. The visceral qualities of blood might suggest doom, pain, danger, or release. Her use of blood and blood-like substances in the works of art below were intended to conjure a range of emotions through blood’s distinct scent, viscosity, and color. One challenging mystery of her attraction to blood, is that it is not always clear to the viewer when the blood is real or not.

Rape Scene
Rape Scene, 1973, photograph
Mendieta wanted to bring awareness to sexual violence against women and the problem of male aggression after the rape and murder of a fellow University of Iowa student. In this performance, she staged a fake rape/murder scene in which she wrecked the interior of her apartment and tied her own body acting as subject/object, to a table. Spectators were then invited into the intense, horrific environment to discuss the social constructions surrounding ill-treatment of women.

Mendieta (Death of a Chicken)    Hermann Nitsch 4th action
Left: Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Death of a Chicken), 1972
Right: Hermann Nitsch, 4th Action, 1963. University of Oregon Libraries, Visual Resources Collection
In her performance Untitled (Death of a Chicken), Mendieta held a freshly decapitated chicken by its feet, while its convulsing body splattered blood on her nude body and the white wall behind her. It not only recalls Santería in terms of ritual animal sacrifice, but Viennese Actionism. The raw aesthetic of incorporating the dead chicken into her performance is reminiscent of Hermann Nitsch’s action art.

Mendieta Blood and Feathers 2
Film still from Untitled (Blood and Feathers #2), 1974
After pouring blood all over her body, Mendieta rolled around, coating her body in white chicken feathers. This process demonstrated the use of unconventional materials.

Sweating Blood
Stills from Mendieta’s 35mm short film Sweating Blood, 1973
Sweating Blood appears to show Mendieta expelling blood from the top of her head and letting the liquid run down her face. What conditions she created to literally sweat blood are unclear. Regardless, the process must have been painful and an exercise in endurance.

Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood) 1973 by Ana Mendieta 1948-1985
Untitled (Self Portrait with Blood), 1973
Similar to Sweating Blood, Mendieta did a photo series where blood is again running down her face from the top of her head. In the series of photographs, one of which is exemplified here, she moves her head in different directions, providing new paths for the blood to run down. Her eyes remain fixated on the camera and in turn the viewer, reaching out and bringing to mind again the issues of violence against women.