How Ana Mendieta Became the Focus of a Feminist Movement
When protesters marched on the opening of Tate Modern’s new Switch House extension this past June, written across their banner was a question first asked three decades ago: “Where Is Ana Mendieta?”
The marchers, also known as the activist group WHEREISANAMENDIETA, are the latest in a long line of protestors who believe Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta was killed by her husband, the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre—a crime for which he was acquitted in 1988. They had arrived at Tate to voice dissent over the inclusion of Andre’s fire-brick sculpture Equivalent VIII (1966) in the new Switch House install, and the absence of works by Mendieta, of which Tate owns five.
For those convinced of Andre’s guilt, this was the latest episode in an ongoing injustice, in which art’s biggest institutions are complicit in lionizing a violent man and failing to adequately represent the work of women of color. Asked for comment, a Tate press officer I communicated with over email noted that Andre is “one of the leading Minimalist sculptors of his generation,” and a man vindicated in the eyes of the law.
During the early hours of September 8, 1985, Mendieta fell to her death from the 34th floor window of the Greenwich Village apartment she and Andre shared. Police arriving at the scene found scratches on Andre’s arms and nose. A nearby doorman testified to hearing a woman repeatedly pleading “No!” before the fall. In a call to 911, Andre told the operator that the couple had argued, following which “she went out the window.” Andre was cleared of second-degree murder, but misgivings concerning his acquittal have refused to go away, sparking three decades of public protest.
Mendieta arrived in the U.S. as a child refugee in 1961. By the 1980s, she had begun to establish herself as a feminist body artist in a predominantly white, male-dominated industry—an industry in which Andre, 13 years her senior, was already a celebrated figure. During Andre’s arrest and court case, key art world figures rallied to his defense. Frank Stella paid some $50,000 towards his bail, and a guest at Mendieta’s memorial service spoke of “a whisper campaign,” aimed at writing her off as a “loony Cuban.” (The influential gallerist Paula Cooper kept his sculpture Zinc-Zinc Plain, 1969, on show for the trial’s duration.)
In response, those suspicious that the establishment had closed ranks around one of its own began taking to the streets. An anonymous poster campaign went up during the trial. “Ana Mendieta. Suicide? Accident? Murder?” read the message, followed by the District Attorney’s number.
“Where is Ana Mendieta?” was first chanted in 1992, outside the opening of the Guggenheim’s new building in SoHo, New York, a venue that is now closed. The museum had provoked outrage by holding an all-white inaugural exhibition, which included the work of five men but only one woman. That one of those men was Andre, and that Mendieta’s work was absent, only compounded the anger. A 500-strong crowd, mobilized by the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) and feminist art activists the Guerrilla Girls, arrived wearing t-shirts bearing Mendieta’s face. Protesters who made it inside scattered her photograph over Andre’s sculptures.
When O.J. Simpson was controversially acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown in 1995, the Guerrilla Girls took aim again. This time, Andre’s exoneration was linked to an epidemic of domestic violence. “What do these men have in common?” read a poster showing photographs of Andre and Simpson side by side. “Every 15 seconds, another woman is assaulted by her husband or boyfriend.”
In recent years, a new generation of artists have rallied to Mendieta’s cause, with interest spreading across the Atlantic. When New York’s Dia Art Foundation hosted the retrospective “Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010” in 2014, the feminist arts group No Wave Performance Task Force held a “cry-in” at the space, before dumping a bag of chicken guts on Dia’s doorstep. In 2016, the retrospective traveled to Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, where it was met by WHEREISANAMENDIETA protesters. They arrived with their hands covered in red paint—a homage to Body Tracks (Rastros Corporales) (1974–1982), a series of performances in which Mendieta dragged her blood-covered arms down paper and canvas.
Mendieta’s willingness to respond to misogynist violence in her own work has encouraged others to take a stand. While studying at University of Iowa, she made Rape Scene (1973), following the rape and murder of fellow student Sarah Ann Ottens. Visitors invited to Mendieta’s apartment arrived to find the artist stripped, bound, and covered in blood.
Liv Wynter, the London-based performance artist instrumental in founding WHEREISANAMENDIETA, has spoken publicly of her own experience of domestic abuse. When Wynter learned Tate was planning to exhibit Equivalent VIII, she posted a message on Facebook venting her anger, asking if anyone else felt the same. A few meetings later, and 200 people were marching over Millennium Bridge, accompanied by anti-domestic violence organization Sisters Uncut. Due to the wealth of interest, Wynter is now building an archive of the group’s activities.
While some of Mendieta’s contemporaries—including the artist and curator Coco Fusco—have expressed concern that her death should not overshadow her legacy, the tragic events of that September morning in 1985 continue to strike a chord. To coincide with the Switch House protest, WHEREISANAMENDIETA produced a zine of writing inspired by Mendieta. A poem by Ella Justine Frost sums up the mood, in which so many young artists, after learning her story, are ready to pledge allegiance to an artist who died in suspicious circumstances, on another continent, in another century. “Strange how glad I am to mourn someone who I didn’t know existed a year ago.”