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.
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.’’