In subsequent years, Bedia has been an inveterate traveler throughout the Americas and Africa, and a dedicated student of indigenous cultures and traditions.
Much of the MAM exhibition’s appeal does, in fact, come from its exploration of the sources of Bedia’s images in indigenous cultures and religions of the Caribbean, Mexico, South America and Africa. It includes not only Bedia’s paintings and drawings, but also examples of the ethnographic objects he collects and uses as references.
Bedia says the objects he collects are “like open books, a personal library. Everyday they teach me something. For me, it’s important to be surrounded by these things.”
The exhibition opens, and closes, on a high note. The first section of Transcultural Pilgrim looks at Bedia’s roots in Afro-Cuban traditions, specifically Palo Monte, which has its origins among the Kongo peoples of West Africa. Bedia studied Palo Monte from an early age and is an initiate and practitioner of this tradition, which venerates spirits of ancestors and natural powers.
One icon of Palo Monte that has become a recurrent theme in Bedia’s work is the nganga or cauldron. It is a central focus of two powerful works in the exhibition’s opening section. In Mama quiere menga, menga de su nkombo (Mama Wants Blood, Blood of His Bulls), a self-portrait of Bedia’s initiation into Palo Monte, the cauldron is the focal point of the painting. It is empty, indicating what is yet to come.
In Abre Nkuto muchacho Nuevo (Listen Up, Kid), an installation that Bedia originally did in Cuba in 1989 and recreated for MAM last year, the nganga is poised on an Erector-set bridge between the outlines of two heads — one larger and presumably older and wiser-- drawn on perpendicular walls. This time, however, the vessel is full of sacred materials. Bedia describes it as “my idea of how to represent oral tradition. The knowledge passes from one generation to the next.”
Bedia painted Listen Up, Kid, as he does many of his works, with his bare hands. The paint splatter is visible on the gallery’s baseboards. “ I don’t want to lose any connection between me and the surface of what I’m painting,” he says. “I try to work straight with my hands, which have a certain energy that transmits directly.”
That hands-on approach and his assimilation of tribal iconography result in a merger of a shamanic power with modern abstraction. Together, they give Bedia’s work a look that has been described “as raw as wet graffiti and as ancient as cave paintings.”
The exhibition’s concluding section deals with Africa, drawing upon Bedia’s experience in Angola and later visits to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. These works close the circle of his spiritual journey from the Afro-Cuban traditions he grew up with to their African origins.
In between, the exhibition explores Bedia’s long-time relationship with Native American Plains Indians and with the cultures of Western Mexico. The artist became fascinated with Plains Indian ledger drawings as a young man in Cuba; he says they are “one of my principal influences.” He has been a frequent visitor to American Indian communities over a 25-year period, and is a member of the Native American Church. Similarly, he has visited Western Mexican communities for an equally long time, observing their traditional rituals. A selection of Bedia’s collection of ledger drawings is included in the exhibition along with Mexican masks.
A small section on his experiences in Pucallpa, in the Amazon region of Peru, is the one flat note of the exhibition. His paintings done after experimenting with a hallucinogen abandon the grand scale and monochromatic palette that are usually distinctive of Bedia’s work.
Concurrent with the MAM exhibition, the Fredric Snitzer Gallery is showing new works by Bedia that explore the victimization of women in the Dominican Republic. The paintings in Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) were done in response to a remark by a colleague that, unlike Cuba or Haiti, the Dominican Republic was not a compelling or provocative subject.
Bedia spent hours wandering Santo Domingo, observing the nightlife on Dominican streets. While there, he cast himself in the role of an urban anthropologist whose fieldwork documents the stark contrast between beggars, prostitutes, immigrants and delinquents and the affluent lifestyles in Caribbean countries.
Whether visually commenting on Dominican streetwalkers or indigenous religions throughout the world, Bedia forges a deeply emphathetic understanding with his subjects and forcibly communicates it to viewers of his art. As his Miami gallerist, Fred Snitzer says, “Bedia is unique in contemporary art in the way he takes parts of cultures and finds communalities.’’