This is a colour photograph showing a close up view of a young woman’s face dripping with blood. It is one of a group of images that document an action in which the artist posed for the camera with blood trickling down her face and neck into the neckline of her white cotton top. In this photograph her head is tilted backwards so that the camera looks into her bloodied nostrils. Her half-open eyes stare directly at the viewer. Blood covers her forehead and has dribbled down her nose, into her parted lips and down the sides of her face, clotting in her long black hair. Mendieta recorded her performances and actions using 35mm slides. Tate’s image is a unique print from a 35mm slide printed by the artist during her lifetime; a suite of six further images from this action was posthumously printed in 1997 in an edition of ten (reproduced Fisher, pp.54–6).
Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood) relates to several experimental series of photographs of the artist’s face produced the previous year. A suite of nine 35mm colour slides entitled Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations) (eight reproduced Viso 2004, p.145) show Mendieta’s face deformed by make-up, wigs and torn pantyhose stretched over her head. Another group of these with the same title in a suite of four show her face partially concealed by her soaped up hair (reproduced Fisher, pp.25–7). In a further series, Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) (reproduced Fisher, pp.6–7), she presses her face against a pane of glass, transforming her youthful beauty into the appearance of a decayed corpse. A silent Super-8 film created in the same year as Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood) provides a moving version of a similar theme: Sweating Blood 1973 (reproduced Viso 2004, p.150) shows Mendieta holding a pose of impassive calm as blood appears to ooze from her neatly parted hairline and trickles down her inexpressive face.
When Mendieta created these works she was a student on the innovative and influential Intermedia Art course created by Hans Breder (born 1935) at the University of Iowa. Having completed a painting MA at the University (1969–72), she re-enrolled for a second MA under Breder’s tuition in autumn 1972. In an undated statement, Mendieta wrote: ‘the turning point in art was in 1972, when I realized that my paintings were not real enough for what I want the image to convey and by real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic’ (quoted in Ana Mendieta, p.90). One of her first performances, executed that year, combined the Afro-Caribbean rituals of her native Cuba, known as Santería, with the ritualised blood-letting and naked performance of the Viennese Actionists, whom Breder had introduced to his students through a book. For Untitled (Death of a Chicken)1972 (reproduced Viso 2004, p.153), Mendieta stood in front of a white wall and held a freshly decapitated chicken by the feet in front of her naked body, its blood spattering her flesh and the wall behind her to create an effect that recalled the messy painterly expressionism of the Actionists. Blood is central to rituals of the Catholic Church, the religion in which Mendieta was raised, through the metaphor of wine, and continues to be used by the Actionist Herman Nitsch (born 1938) in performative festivals he terms Orgies – Mysteries Theatre, involving the sacrifice of sheep and cattle, which he developed in the 1960s. In his first action – 1st Action 1962 (reproduced Amelia Jones (ed.) The Artist’s Body, London 1999, p.92) – he himself was squirted with blood by his fellow actionist Otto Mühl (born 1925), after being tied to rings in the wall. For Nitsch, such actions provide the possibility for a form of spiritual redemption through the powerful visceral and emotional experience of the contact with blood and later, the slaughter and disembowelling of animals. In 1980, Mendieta commented that she ‘started immediately using blood, I guess, because I think it’s a very powerful magic thing. I don’t see it as a negative force’ (quoted in Fisher, p.86).
In such performances as her presentation of the scene of a rape – Untitled (Rape Scene) 1973 (L02834) – Mendieta’s use of blood carries a strongly political message in the form of a call to awareness of violence against women. Other instances of her use of blood are, like the Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood), more ambiguous. In this image, the artist’s bleeding face recalls the iconography of Christianity, in which martyrdom has been celebrated since the crucifixion of Christ. In a photograph taken by Breder in the same year, Mutilated Body on Landscape (reproduced Fisher, p.86), Mendieta appears as a sacrificial victim, lying under a white shroud liberally covered with blood and with a large animal heart on her chest. For Mendieta, death invokes life, just as, in Christian mythology, Christ was reborn after dying, as a quote taken from The Labyrinth of Solitude (New York 1961) by the Mexican author Octavio Paz (1914–98) in the artist’s unpublished notes confirms: ‘Our cult of death is also a cult of life in the same way that love is a hunger for life and a longing for death. Our fondness for self-destruction derives not from our masochistic tendencies but also from a certain variety of religious emotion.’ (Quoted in Fisher, p.87.) In Mendieta’s iconography, blood is a symbol of rebirth and renewal, as in the image Untitled (Silueta Series, Mexico) 1974 (L02836), where the animal blood filling the form of her silhouette on the earth celebrates her connection to the earth and, by extension, the wider universe.
Peter Fisher (ed.), Patrick Dondelinger and Laura Routlet, Ana Mendieta: Body Tracks, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Luzern 2002, pp.54–6, 92 and 141.
Olga M Viso, Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972–1985, exhibition catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 2004, reproduced p.151.
Olga Viso, Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta, Munich, Berlin, London and New York 2008.