Until feminist scholars began documenting the nuanced ways colonial conquest sanctioned sexual violence against non-white indigenous women at a rate higher than that of white western women (1), historians rarely conceptualized how gender and sexual violence were intrinsic to all aspects of Colonialism. The work of Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta provides insight to the complex relationship this, white-passing, ’third world woman’ had with gendered colonialism and institutionalized ‘gendered racism; forms of oppression, namely sexism, endured by ‘women of color’ that dehumanizes them by denying them gender (2). For Mendieta, this came in the form of discrimination based on her Cuban identity and experiences of sexual violence against women. Though the artist’s experience is nuanced, as she came from a family of privilege, and her ethnicity was white-passing, the artist’s experience with colonial sexual domination and discrimination in the United States culminated in her use of the female form to theorize third-wave feminist post-colonial issues pertaining to gendered racism directed at ‘third world women,’ a term used by Mendieta in 1980 to address white global feminism’s avoidance of fights of non-white women at her curated show, ‘Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists in the United States’ at A.I.R. Gallery, New York (3). The use of the term ‘third world women’ is controversial, as Western feminists often misappropriate its use to lump together vastly different places, and women of multicultural ethnicities as singular monolithic subject. I will be using the term as Mendieta self-identified as third world woman, in the context of postcolonial and transnational feminist theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s definition of third world people, outlined geographically as ‘The nation-states of Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-east Asia, China, South Africa, and Oceania constitute the parameters of the non-European third world. In addition, black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples.” (4) Mohanty uses the term ‘third world women’ in exchange with ‘women of color,’ in context of the alliance of common struggle, the same way I apply the term gendered racism. Knowing I run the risk of further homogenizing such terms, potentially increased by my racial positioning as white, I will avoid the use of the term ‘women of color,’ in favor of ‘Third World Women,” as self-defined by Ana Mendieta. Using post-colonial third-wave feminist theory, which stresses the uniqueness of third world women’s condition, I will examine Mendieta’s experiences with sexual violence against women and gendered discrimination in relation to her use of female form as site to bring awareness of gendered colonial issues, concluding with a discussion between the impact of Mendieta’s body of work compared to death in relation to the coloniality of gender embedded within the art institution, informed by gendered colonialism.
Ana was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948 to a wealthy aristocratic family. Her father, Ignacio Mendieta had worked closely with Fidel Castro until the late 1950s, when Cuba became riddled with conflict, and Castro confirmed his communist ideologies. Ignacio parted ways with Castro, and aligned himself with counterrevolutionary activity. As the fate of Cuba grew increasing uncertain and violent, the Mendieta family made the the difficult decision to send Ana, 12, and her sister, Raquel, 15, to the United States through a covert program established to protect Cuban children whose parents were being targeted by Castro’s new regime. Operation Peter Pan airlifted over 14,000 unaccompanied children to the United States, to escape repression during the height of the Cold War (5). Ana and Raquel arrived in the US not long before their father would be confided in Cuban political prison for 18 years.
Without any relatives, the girls were sent to Iowa, there they would live between foster homes and orphanages during the most influential years of their adolescence. The new environment, combined with the racial climate of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, heightened Ana Mendieta’s awareness of, what Cesaire would equate as, colonial ‘thingification,’ as both girls would experience targeted gendered discrimination from their high school classmates. In the form of derogatory ethnic terms and sexualization, Mendieta remembers being told, ‘Go back to Cuba, you whore.” (6), This form of oppression directed towards young third world women, encrusts gendered colonialism in the lived experience of becoming a woman, especially within racist colonial governments, such as the United States, that have long histories of state-sanctioned violence against non-white women with total impunity. Mendieta would soon begin addressing these gendered colonial issues at the University of Iowa, where she received her Masters in Painting, and then enrolled in a more experimental MFA program where 1970s feminism, performance, and earthworks were introduced into her work.
Rape-Murder, (1973) was one of Mendieta’s first performance pieces that she conceptualized to bring attention to sexual violence against women, after nursing student, Sara Ann Otten, was found brutally raped and murdered on the University of Iowa campus. Ana invited other students from her MFA program to her apartment, where she had left her door purposely ajar, viewers could easier pear into the dramatically lit space to see Mendieta bent over her kitchen table. Upon entering the space, her apartment was in disarray, as if it was the location of a violent sexual assault. The dimly lit space, created a closed composition directing the audience to the central core focal point of the performance, Mendieta’s body, which was striped from the waist down, bent over and tied to a table. The lighting highlighted the side ofAna’s body, and legs, as her head, and tied arms disappeared into the surrounding darkness. Strong shadows casted on the wall behind her, and bloodied clothes appeared in the shadows on the floor to her right, the scene displayed a type of tenebrismo, that heightened the emotional tension, and isolated Mendieta’s form. All visible parts of the artist’s body were smeared in animal blood, dripping from her buttock to her calves, and pooling in a puddle at her feet. The addition of blood would become a dominant element of Mendieta’s art practices in which its inclusion offered multiple meanings. In this context, not only did the substance allude to a violent act, but also was in reference to Mendieta’s personal interest in the religious rituals of the Afro-Cuban practice of Santeria. Santeria attributes blood to Goddess Ochun who symbolized female sexuality, power and spiritual life force. Ana believed blood was not negative, but empowering, and aligned herself with Goddess Ochun to present the female subject as in control of her own representation. Though Mendieta is playing the position of victim, she has taken control of the composition by asserting her body as form, a living subject rather than a gendered colonial representation as naked woman’s body as object. Mendieta’s use of her female form in place of the white victim, Sarah Ann Otten, is particularly significant to this work, in constructing a third-wave feminist post-colonial narrative regarding sexual violence against third world women. Sexual violence was a an integral aspect of colonization, Martinican poet, Aime Cesaire wrote ‘between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation , theft, and rape,” going on to say there is “no human contact but relations of domination and submission.’ (7) Much like the domination and sexual violence perpetuated against modern ‘third world women,’ these acts were ignored, and took root within society. Cesaire continues, ‘in order to ease his conscience [the colonizer] gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal.” If colonized man is treated as animal, then the colonized women is treated as object, having no agency in the fight against gendered colonialism. Mendieta therefore used her body through performance to interrupt the relation of domination and submission, to give the dehumanized third world woman an identity that demanded recognition of women as subject. The intimate location of her home, forced the audience’s attention on their own contributions to the oppression of non-white women, causing them to empathize with Ana, creating a space of awareness where sexual violence could be addressed. She would later comment on the events that jolted her early performance, stating the murder of Otten frightened and moved her, “I think all my work has been like that- a personal response to a situation.” (8) Mendieta would continue to respond to situations of violence against women, exacerbated by her increased awareness of her own identity as being ‘non-white,’ and the gendered racism that was growing to inform present day interactions in Ana’s life.
After her sister Raquel divorced from her husband in December of 1973, citing the demise as attributed to domestic violence, Mendieta performed Blood Writing two months later in February of 1974. Filmed with a Super 8 camera in Iowa, Mendieta once again deployed the use of her body, as form, and blood, as subordinate element of performance, to not only bring attention to violence against women, but subvert the gendered colonial identification of third world woman as object, and unleash years of sorrow and pain attributed to her displacement from Cuba in exchange for the gendered colonial discrimination and lack of agency experienced in the US. This performance, I relate to the post-colonial studies of critical theorist, Frantz Fanon who observed the desperate struggle of blackness driven to discover the meaning of their identity that, similarly to that of third world women, has been forcibly deviated by white society. In Blood Writing, 1974, Ana digs her hands into a pan of red liquid and begins making rough gestures on a white wooden barn, reminiscent of her body gestures made iconic by her series, Body Tracks (1974), that she would perform later in the year, in which she stretched her arms above her head and dragged them down a banner pinned to a wall. An integral part of the performance, the motion turned Mendieta’s body into a living paint brush that gave the artist complete control of the composition while restoring her agency as third world woman, paralleling Fanon’s prognosis that ‘war must be waged,’ with justice residing ‘in the hands of those who are willing to get rid of the worm-eaten roots of the structure.’ In this way, Ana’s body became a site of resistance to subvert the gendered colonial structures embedded in society. The use of blood, again attributed to Santeria religious practices, symbolically refilled her identity with the elemental fluid, which carries sacred power and life force, asking the question, what is the real substance of identity? But also in relation to grief over the lose of her homeland, symbolized by the shedding of blood. The saturated red liquid, continued to drip down the barn walls, between each of the artist’s motions, within three minutes the gestures become a sentence, spelling out the phrase, ‘SHE GOT LOVE,’ with the visual weight asymmetrically distributed from the center of the barn wall. (9) The sentence, is in reference to violence against third world women, as ‘SHE’ is denied agency by the verb ‘GOT’, in turn, becoming object of ‘LOVE’, or colonial male aggression. The circumstances of her sister’s divorce in parallel to the performance, addressed marriage as bondage once the relationship loses its reciprocal love, and women are subjected to lack of agency and domestic violence. When Mendieta completes the piece, she appears in the shadows to the right, with her back to the camera. The viewer is left to stare at what remains of her movements, the performative text. The artist successfully produced an economy of means, by eliminating all non essential information to carefully narrow down what the piece is meant to communicate.The insertion her own body as performance element, constructs third world women identity, particularly significant for post colonial feminist art practices as it subverts the maze gaze and female body as object, instead presenting the artist as subject, supporting Fanon’s conclusion that ‘reality requires a total understanding. On the objective level as on the subjective level, a solution has to be applied.” Mendieta’s body in performance offers solution as, a closeness to reality. Viewers more easily relate to the presence of a body as opposed to static image, making the medium suitable for addressing issues that provoke shock and raise awareness. Mendieta’s body of work waged war against the patriarchal ideologies at the center of gendered colonialism, inserting her body as form in performance to restore agency and retrieve the bodies of women from inherited gendered discrimination and violence.
Before concluding, It is important to touch on Ana Mendieta’s excruciatingly ironic death, as popular consciousness has often equated it as a culmination of her performance work. This has produced a toxic effect that misappropriates Ana’s work as a construction of the female experience as victimization, reducing the artist’s rich symbolic performance language into a flat signifier for her murder. Ana Mendieta- ’s body of work deserves to resonate independently of its maker’s tragic end, with separate acknowledgment that circumstances pertaining to her death revealed the coloniality of gender embedded within the art institution, as informed by gendered colonialism, should never be forgotten.
Ana met artist Carl Andre through mutual friends in 1979, dating for many years before marrying in January of 1985. Andre was born and raised American. He grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, attended school at Phillips Academy, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army all before moving to New York City in 1956. Andre would come to make a name for himself in the art world as one of the pioneers of American minimalism sculpture. He worked along side artist Frank Stella, and had his sculpture in the New York Guggenheim by 1970, nearly a decade, (and two wives), before crossing paths with Mendieta. (10) The couple’s acquaintances described their relationship as explosive, with news of their drinking and fighting overshadowing conversations of their work. In autumn of 1985, less than a year after getting married, Ana fell to her death from their 34th floor apartment window after a night of drinking and arguing, Andre was arrested and charged with second degree murder. The trial wouldn’t take place until 1988, leaving years of polarizing opinions from friends and associates that were split over the question of his guilt, as Andre sympathizers pushed a suicidal narrative surrounding Mendieta’s fall. Unsurprisingly many of those who maintained his innocence were prominent white male artists, gallerists, and collectors who favored protecting patriarchy over bringing light to the injustices and erasure of Ana Mendieta, a displaced marginalized woman. This stance is informed by gendered colonialism’s history of systematically concealing and legitimizing violence against non-white women, who resist the relations of domination and submission imposed on the marginalized by the colonizer, or in this instance, the patriarchal art world.
What Mendieta’s murder did, was reveal that the underlying patriarchal inferiority of colonial conquest, was also fundamental to the art institution. Cesaire and Fanon both point to the basis of gendered colonialism as being white man’s taught inferiority complex with Fanon expressing its root stemming from increased economic opportunities and internalized inferiorities of colonial plunder.(11) For the patriarchal art world, the accusations towards Andre, was a ‘crime of humiliation’ (12) on the art institution, and for many, the question of whether or not Andre killed Mendieta was unimportant to the tragedy of the endangerment of Andre’s career, one of his partisans stating, “the poor guy is being victimized by a feminist cabal.” (13) By the time the three week trial of Carl Andre came to a close, it was apparent patriarchal inferiority still ruled the American legal system as well as its art world, as Andre was acquitted. In the absence of a jury, a single judge found there was not enough evidence to convict Andre beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ana’s family members were unswayed by the verdict, actively professing Andre as guilty. Ana’s mother and younger brother had been able to move to America by 1966, and witness the artist’s short lived exploration of her displaced identity, and objectification, while her father Ignacio was released from Cuban political prison in 1977 and was only able to experience the last five years of his daughter’s life. Her sister Raquel was certain Ana was far from suicidal as her career was on an upswing in 1985, also expressing how terrified of heights Ana was, in regards to the manor of her death. Raquel’s daughter, Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, would grow up to become a video artist and filmmaker like her aunt, overseeing the restoration of Ana’s work and responsible for creating a film documentary about her life’s work that aimed at de-linking perceptions of Mendieta’s work from her tragic end.
Mendieta’s death, separate from her body of work, had a wider legacy within feminist art circles who related the reduction of Ana’s memory to coloniality of gender, her death, extrapolated as a symbolic vehicle to question male artist’s veneration. (14) The Guerrilla Girls distributed posters in 1994 that dubbed Carl Andre, ‘the O.J. of the art world,’ and female artist’s spoke out against the patriarchy, like African American artist Howardena Pindell who stated, “if Ana had been an Anglo and if Carl had been black, the art world would have lynched him.” (15) The activist group, WHEREISANAMENDIETA now appear in protest to Andre’s work being shown in art institutions to demonstrate that the coloniality of gender embedded within the art institution, needs continual addressing. As recently as 2016, protestors gathered in front of the retrospective of Carl Andre at the DIA Art Foundation building of Tate Modern, London in protest of the inclusion of 10 of Andre’s works in the museum’s new extension, and the exclusion of Ana Mendieta, in which none of her works are on display despite the Tate owning 5. Some protestors have gone as far as to smear blood and chicken remains on the sidewalks outside, in reference to Ana’s work with blood, symbolizing the violence towards women. Others in the art world believe Mendieta’s legacy is best remembered through her work, rather than the notoriety she received post-mortem. Curator of the exhibition, ‘Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta,’ at the Jeu de plume in Paris has said, "I am not interested in using Mendieta's work as a comeuppance for Carl Andre, or for any other purpose, I am interested in sharing Mendieta's work with others, so they can have the kind of deeply meaningful experiences that I have had with her work.” (16) Mendieta’s performance work unknowingly would parallel the artist’s tragic end, and the documentation of those performances would live on, finding new meaning surrounding the circumstances of her death.
Ana Mendieta’s early works were deeply connected to the inherited gendered discrimination of colonization on the world that surrounded her that exacerbated feelings of alienation and displacement as a third world woman. Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, defines colonialism as a way to civilize barbarism and justify relations of domination and submission. (17) Neither Cortez or Pizzaro would be obliged to admit to plunder, placing blame of continental savagery on paganism but the truth remains, no one colonizes innocently, and its effects have not produced a single human value but universal regression and ‘thingification.’ Through a third-wave feminist post-colonial lens, Mendieta’s body of work subverts this deep history of domination against third world women, especially prevalent in the US, bringing attention to gendered racism. Mendieta’s documented performances combined with her tragic death revealed Gendered Colonialism still lives on through the coloniality of gender with nearly 58% of multiracial women encountering some form of sexual violence in their life time, as perpetrators still count on the systematic and historical silencing and erasure of non-white women, specifically in relation to efforts to name and resist sexual domination. (18) Her legacy addresses gendered racism while her death lit a spark within feminism circles to resist the coloniality of gender. Her story is an important reminder that sexual violence and discrimination of ‘third world women,’ needs continual addressing for those responsible to be held accountable.
8. Ana Mendieta, exhibition catalogue, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona 1996, Pg. 90.
9. Cabañas, Kaira M. "Ana Mendieta: "Pain of Cuba, Body I Am”"
10. Chave, Anna C. 2014. “Grave Matters: Positioning Carl Andre at Career’s End.” Art Journal 73 (4): 5–21, doi:10.1080/00043249.2014.1016342.
11. Fanon, Frantz. “Black Skin, White Masks.” 10-16. London: Pluto Press, 1986. Accessed March 6, 2021.
13. Robert Katz, Naked by the Window p.383. Simon and Schuster, June 28th 1990
14. Moroz, Sarah. 2018. “The Connections and Burdens of Ana Mendieta.” Modern Painters 30 (11): 132–33. http://search.ebscohost.com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cookie,url,uid&db=a9h&AN=132736135&site=ehost-live.
15. Robert Katz, Naked by the Window p.385. Simon and Schuster, June 28th 1990
16. Moroz, Sarah. 2018 “”
17. Cohen, Joshua I. “The Black Art Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents,” 127-148. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2020. Accessed March 6, 2021. 8.
18. Pérez, Laura E. Eros Ideologies: Writings on Art, Spirituality, and the Decolonial. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2019. Accessed April 28, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv11sn1n9.
19. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010. CDC