Cuban artist José Bedia’s stark silhouettes and totemic figures are Miami icons — at the Arsht Center, on Design District murals, in Key Biscayne traffic circles. Among the few places where his Afro-Cuban-inspired images have not been regularly seen are in the city’s public museums.
That gap has now been filled with the opening of Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work by José Bedia at the Miami Art Museum. The exhibition was organized by Los Angeles’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History and will be on display throughout the summer. Although Bedia’s work is represented in Miami public and private collections, his last solo museum exhibitions locally were back in the 1990s. MAM’s predecessor, the Center for the Fine Arts, hosted a 1994 exhibition that was also organized by a non-Miami museum, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
During the intervening years, Bedia — who is now 53 — has remained one of area’s most celebrated artists, with work widely recognized both nationally and internationally.
The current exhibition’s curator, Judith Bettelheim, recalls being “stunned and excited” in 1989 when she first saw Bedia’s work “that so skillfully merged references to his Cuban religion with complex experimental installations and powerful enigmatic paintings.” In 1995 and 1997, Bettelheim spent extended periods of time in Miami, working with Bedia on an almost daily basis. “We discussed his life an his involvement with Cuban religions,” she says, “but he was always eager to her about my own field work in Cuba.”
So why so long between showings, and why now?
MAM’s chief curator Tobias Ostrander, who arrived only nine months ago, can’t speak to the hiatus. About this current show, he said, one of the keys is the long-standing relationship between Bedia and the show’s curator. Bettelheim’s scholarly expertise in the arts of Africa and the African Diaspora with an emphasis on Afro-Caribbean culture adds a deeper understanding of the artist’s relationship to the several Afro-Cuban and Native American spiritual communities to which Bedia belongs.
The resulting show may not be organized by MAM, but achieves an important goal for the local audience, offering “a unique perspective on the committed anthropological and spiritual research the artist has committed himself to over this long period,” Ostrander said.
This comprehensive survey of Bedia’s work presents visual and intellectual pleasures that are worth the wait.
His biography reflects the artistic pilgrimage encapsulated in this exhibition. Born in Cuba in 1959, just weeks after Castro took power, Bedia studied at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte. He was a leading member of what has been dubbed the 80s generation, a group of Cuban artists who broke with Social realism traditions.
For Bedia, that rupture involved Afro-Cuban religious traditions and indigenous art around the world. Bedia began collecting and studying ethnographic art as an student in Cuba. “Besides the training I received in the Western tradition,” he says, “I trained myself by looking at tribal art.”
In 1985, Bedia was deployed with the Cuban army to Angola. It was an experience that allowed him to explore the African origins of his artistic subjects, but one that also hastened his decision to leave Cuba. In 1991, he emigrated to Mexico, and two years later he settled in Miami.