Once-upon-a-time there was a young girl from Cuba, who emmigrated to the United States. She studied art at college under a great teacher, moved to New York, married a well respected artist, died and became a success. The idea that artists have to die before they become successful was mainly popularised by Vincent Van Gough, who sold only one painting before his death, to his brother Theo an art dealer. However, it does not have to be the case. Ana Mendieta star was begining to rise before she died.
Much of Ana’s work, which ranged from scuplpture to film, to performance art centered on the body, especially the female body. Her work uncovering people’s attitude to crime and how it effects us would be extreamly popular today. She was inspired by the rape and murder of a fellow student on campus when she was studying at Iowa University. The female body, it’s silohette, the violence that can be done to it and how it relates to nature thrums through her work. It is work that fifty years on is still relevent, energetic and focuses on core themes of women’s exploration of themselves and art.
Is it a coincidence that Ana’s death in someway feels like an extention of her art? On the 8th September 1985 she feel from her 34th floor apartment which she shared with her husband of eight months, Carl Andre. She hit the roof of a deli below and died. The contraversy around her death arrives because of the age old questions, did she jump or was she pushed? Andre when phoning emergency services said that Ana had jumped because they were having an argument about who was more “exposed” to the public. This does feel like an unusual reason to attempt suicide. His story about the lead up to Ana’s death then changes, he immediately followed her into the bedroom she jumped from. He was in another room when she jumped and only noticed later. This however is not all that does not add up. Ana was notoriously afraid of heights, so friends claim it is unlikley she would climb out onto a balcony so high up. Earlier that evening she had been having a phone conversation in the bedroom with Andre in the adjoining living room, with a friend about how she was gathering evidence of his cheating and was planning a divorce. A neighbour heard her scream “no”. The next day Andre had scratches on his face.
Her death, and people’s reaction to it split the New York art world. Andre was an already established artist when he and Ana married. He is a sculpture and a pioneer of the minimalist movement. His work answered the question, What is sculptures relationship to the floor? As much as I enjoy art, it has to be admited that this was an important questions only within the artworld, and no one outside of the art world was losing any sleep over it, let alone building a whole career. When comparing Andre’s work to Ana’s online, which isn’t always the best way to experience art that is meant to be seen in three dimensions, there is a coldness about it, bloodless, a flatness and rigidity. When comparing it to Ana’s work which is juicy and life affirming, unashamedly embracing a range of emotions. Looking at the difference in their tone, style and message it it is easy to see why a match between these two personalities was probably always going to be rocky. Andre was tried in 1988, and elected to have a judge only trial with no jury, and was acquitted of all charges.
The split the death of Ana caused in the art world came at a time when feminisim was begining to emerge as a creative movement. Of course women had always been creating art in various forms, but often their art had been over looked, or the way in which they created art, especially if it involved textiles was dismissed. For the newly emerging movement of young women who were begining to find a voice Ana’s death was a shock. If someone who had been so outspoken and pioneering could succumb to domestic violence, and their husband could, in their minds “get away with it,” then they felt that no one was safe, and they intensified their voices when it came to Andre continuing to exhibit, often staging protests outside of exhibitions.
On the other side there were Andre’s supporters. Those who did not believe that he had killed his wife, and saw his acquittal as an exohneration, as opposed to a symptom of structural problems in dealing with domestic violence and the murder of women by intimate partners. They soon started to put around the idea that there was a “feminis kabal,” out to get Andre. This is a well worn trope of patriarchy, that women are somehow banding together to bring down innocent men. It is an offshot of the now much more popular witch hunt.
The term witch hunt refers back to historical moral panics that can be found in many societies. Where women were persecuted for a supposed black magic practice, or consorting with the devil. As a term to mean political persecution it was coined by George Orwell, and used widely when in America when Senetor Jo McCarthy became obsessive about rooting out communists and those with a socialist bent from positions of power or influence in American society. A period of political upheavil and parinoia which was captured in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucable. Which coming delightfully full-circle was set in Salem, Masechusess during a moral panic centered around witchcraft, which is a thinly veiled way to settle old scores and emnities in the puritan colony.
It has been said it before, but it bears repeating that a witch hunt is not the same as women making a complaint about a man’s behaviour and asking that he be called to account and change. In recent years the term has changed meaning and has become less a way of identifying persecution, and more a patriarchal dog whistle. It also serves to admonish women from supporting each other, or backing each other up, knowing that when women unite they become more powerfull. Infact any time any group of opressed people unite, they become much more powerful, and even more so if groups of differently oppressed people unite. It’s why those in power, who have much to lose, do not like it when people organise. If anyone does not want you to organise then it is worth questioning their motives. The fabled witch hunt, or as it was called in New York art world “feminist kabal,” is a tacit admonishment from apologists for sexisim, sexual violence and domestic murder towards women for organising, meant to shame them into isolation and keeping quiet.
Although even in groups it can still be difficult for women to get the accountability and change they desire if the man is powerful or protected enough. In keeping women who have dealt with poor, problematic or criminal behaviour from a man apart it becomes easier to blame the victim. It was to do with what she was wearing, she had a drink, she said she liked sex, which while these have never been part of consent, have been the go-to for people who are confused by it. (I’ve added the Consent and Tea video below for anyone who needs a refresher). Given however, that most people who abuse others are extreamly careful to only do so when there are no witnesses, it is often only by demonstraiting a pattern of behaviour that those who have been abused can find any recourse.
The so called “Feminist kabal” of the New York arts scene wished to keep Ana’s memory, and her work alive, rather than her becoming a footnote to Carl Andre’s biography. Similar happened in the UK when poet Sylvia Plath died. Although to be clear there is no suspicion that her husband, Ted Hughes a former Poet Laureate, was the instigator of her death, some do blame his infeidelity for Plaths periolously fragile mental state. Fans of Plaths work reacted angrily when Hughes edited it, or as in some cases burnt it, and her grave in Heptonstall was defaced repeatedly because it carried her married name Hughes.
Ana’s work is having something of a resurgence, however to listen to the host of Death of an Artist, Helen Molesworth, herself a curator and figuer in the art world, it is still difficult to access art world sucess as a woman, or a person or colour. As others have previously done in podcast such as Thunderbay, Molesworth uses the popularity of the true crime format to spread the conversation about diversity further. It may appear strange to outsiders who are used to seeing artist and creative people as the rebels, the renegades who like to cock-a-snook at the estblishment. So often it is those who pay the piper who get to call the tune, and the pay masters are still in thrall to the values of other centuries.
In reserecting Ana, and using a new format to spread her story outisde of a world that is closed off to so many of us Molesworth essentially is able to give her work a different life, and give those who still struggle for acceptance because of their identity, rather than a lack of talent, a figuer to coalesce around. Ana’s death took the possibility of any new work and her maturation as a vital voice in the art world away not just from the art world but from the public itself. It is so often difficult to find the means, or words to express ourselves, but artwork, dance, music are all ways where we can find a kinship, a recognition with others that have experienced the same thing and maybe, also find it difficult to articulate. Ana was articulating for all women, and the fact that was cut short is a tragedy. So it feels like this podcast which has so much potential to catalyse a new generation of Mendieta fans who can feel a connection with what it is Medieta is still saying to us, more than anything is a fitting memoral to women who never wanted to do anything quietly.