A five-decades-long trade embargo between the United States and Cuba has both suppressed and intensified many Americans’ desire to access the island’s exceptional cultural production. The presentation of visual artworks and performances by artists who live in Cuba can be fraught with a mix of eagerness and suspicion, largely based upon audiences’ political allegiances. This is especially true in Miami, where many retain conflicted ties to their homeland and where shows of Cuban artists have occasionally encountered angry protesters.
Therefore, exhibitions marking 50 years since artist Manuel Mendive’s first one-person show in Cuba, where he continues to live, are remarkable not only for the work itself, but because of their staging in the United States — at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum.
Each exhibition was inaugurated by a unique dance procession. Performers’ bodies, garments and sculptural masks were hand-painted by the artist, who is 69. His presence was especially noteworthy in Miami, where the ceremony embodied imagery of moving water and underscored the artist’s wide-ranging modes of expression, his immersion in themes of primal life forces and his social engagement. Students and other costumed volunteers danced to classical music and rang bells; they read poetic texts in English and Spanish, pulled banners and carried pails of water. His gift of a large bronze sculpture, River Waters, was unveiled and the exhibition opened.
As the artist explained to Mar Hollingsworth of the California museum (quoted in the catalog), “Ideally, the audience can participate, and use masks that I have created beforehand. The performance is like a painting that comes to life, and in which the audience participates.”
Things That Cannot Be Seen Any Other Way, at the Frost, is a quietly moving retrospective of an extraordinary artist in his prime. It consists of works drawn from the studio and is enriched by extensive loans from galleries and collectors. The exhibit was curated by Afro-Caribbean scholar Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz, who also wrote the principal essay in the excellent catalog. The show encompasses a diversity of formats: sculpture in fabric; terra cotta; mixed media and bronze (including a large sculpture donated to the museum); masks, tapestries and paintings, including some with torch-cut steel frames. Bringing artworks into the United States from Cuba is still a perilous affair, and customs delays led to suspenseful days for university staff.
Mendive’s student drawings and watercolors, which first greet museum visitors, give little hint of the distinctive work he would soon produce. As Miami collector and gallerist Nercys Cernuda remarked, “You can tell a Mendive from four blocks away!” That is certainly true of the mature pieces from the 1980s forward, in which fluid lines interweave and animate forms that dwell in celestial, oceanic and heavenly domains. His creatures transform into their habitats, and those habitats, in turn, grow mouths and eyes to become “creaturely.”
The Academy of San Alejandro outside Havana, where Mendive studied in the 1950s, has been the training ground for generations of artists, initially immersed in the European academic tradition, but who came to find their own voices. The impressionists’ influence on Domingo Ramos and Leopoldo Romañach, for example, gained distinction in their later adoption of scenes uniquely Cuban. The surrealism, cubism, symbolism, primitivism and fauvism encountered by Carlos Enríquez, Mariano Rodríguez, Mirta Cerra, René Portocarrero and others evolved into distinctive personal styles as well.
Collectors Ramón and Nercys Cernuda loaned numerous pieces of Mendive’s to the Frost exhibition, and they’ve also mounted a large show of his work at Cernuda Arte. An adjacent smaller show at their gallery provides valuable historical context, presenting three centuries of Afro-Cuban artwork. The 19 pieces naturally encompass widely divergent representations of Cuban “blackness,” which evolved in ways that parallel both sociopolitical changes and the personal dynamics of the artists. Wifredo Lam ( Horse Woman and Figure) is probably the most famous Cuban artist to draw inspiration from his African heritage, but this came largely filtered through the surrealist and cubist influences he encountered in Europe.
According to Ramón Cernuda, Mendive’s world “is one of going back to the Yoruba land, that part of West Africa that once had this very important empire and civilization, comparable to the Greek and Roman.”
Core beliefs in this faith tradition were preserved and transmitted by generations of slaves from West Africa and their progeny in Cuba. They affirm an interconnection among energies and materials of the earth, its waters and creatures. A creation myth, moral precepts, a complex cosmology of deities and prayer life are basic components of Yoruba faith, which has yielded such New World branches as Batuque, Candomblé, Palo Monte and Santería —some incorporating elements of Catholicism.
In Mendive’s work, images of plants, animals and natural forces are interwoven. Metamorphosis and shape-shifting abound: Trees are humanoid; people are animal-like, endowed with multiple legs and breasts. According to Nercys Cernuda, “In his world everything's important: life; movement; the continuation of life; the interconnection between beings and death, which is the passing to another form of life.” The world one apprehends in Mumbling, or I Always Rely on Eleguà, for example, is not a “peaceable kingdom”; rather, it reflects a natural realm where plants are eaten by bugs and creatures are born and nourished, reproduce, die and become absorbed back into the earth.
While appropriation of elements of African art and craft is ubiquitous in the art world of the early 20th century, Mendive’s thorough mastery of the Yoruba iconography of symbols and colors enables him to utilize them intuitively and authentically. He’s not a sampler; nor is he a naïve artist, unschooled in art history and currents. Following his academic training, personal study and travel exposed him to global artistic traditions and imagery.
During the 1970s, he created a series of densely populated figurative paintings on paper. Frost Museum Director Carol Damian, in her insightful essay, points out the connection between the application of stippled colors and the markings of scarification, masks, body painting, beadwork and other tribal arts traditions. This suite of paintings beautifully presents the symbols of Yoruba-based religion with the precise patterning, elegance and glowing color of Indian miniatures and byzantine mosaics. The glowing, rhythmic Oshun is a typical example.
Moving forward into his signature style, Mendive bridges the dreamlike with the tangible, as he evokes mythic worlds, using very physical means: stuffed cloth patches stitched onto canvas; roughly hammered metal; glued feathers; burnt and carved wood; paint on human skin. Curator Martínez-Ruiz writes, “Mendive seeks to bring Áse [the animating life force] to his work, experimenting with different forms of visual story-telling and drawing upon Yoruba aesthetic and oral traditions.” The catalog provides a thorough exposition of those complex relationships.
Mendive's mastery of the Benin tradition of bronze casting bears fruit in large and small versions of his hybrid creatures, though these sculptures are more object-oriented and earthbound than his two-dimensional works and his mixed-media sculptures. Surprisingly, for an artist so grounded in the craft of his art, (sewing, carving, bead and metalwork) he has also struck gold with new, sophisticated Jacquard tapestries that integrate the controlled pointillist style of his ’70s work with the more ethereal later paintings, but using digital image processing.
Ironically, the originality of Mendive’s early Yoruba-inspired paintings on burnt and carved wood, such as Ogun, garnered his first solo exhibition during the period when Cuba’s revolutionary government was enforcing an official policy of atheism. Mendive was not persecuted, but neither did he receive the support that artists who toed the party line did. While his work was in demand for international exhibitions, Mendive’s travel opportunities were limited. One exception was his large Padua Civic Museum exhibition in 1990, for which an Italian collector also brought the artist and his retinue to perform. A series of works created for that show, including many vibrant pastels, forms part of the exhibition at Cernuda Arte.
Several other Miami galleries, including Gary Nader and Pan American Art Projects, handle Mendive and loaned pieces to the Frost. Another gallerist, Virginia Miller, who had visited West Africa in the 1970s, was immediately taken with Mendive’s work when she later encountered it. She believes Mendive is still underappreciated. “The authenticity of his art, like that of Wifredo Lam, is beginning to be recognized more and more by collectors.” Museum exhibitions are manna for artists’ careers; it’s heartening when they are well deserved.
Among artists acknowledging Mendive’s influence is José Ángel Vincench. His own initiation into the Yoruba religion is expressed in his nine-year Black Series of self-portraits. Where Mendive’s imagery may represent both inner and outer worlds, Vincench’s, as he explained in an email to Virginia Miller, “are deeply personal, pictorially representing my body, with its amulets, consecrated objects and those intimate and mystical conveyances from the priest for my health and prosperity.”
Mendive and his forebears endured social stigmatization because of their slave ancestry, but his work, in contrast to many other modern Cuban artists, is rarely overtly political or angry. The late critic Giorgio Segato compared him to Marc Chagall and called his work “an act of exceptional creative optimism.”
Mendive’s success in synthesizing moral philosophy, visual iconography and ceremony inspires members of the African diaspora, especially in the Caribbean, but also operates on the world stage. Overcoming entrenched attitudes of dismissal, he reveals the potency and relevance of Yoruba traditions, from which he derives expansive artistic eloquence.
Nercys Cernuda recalls a conversation. “He says, ‘What would we do without our imagination? We would be like incarcerated. Our imagination is what certainly liberates us.’ ”