That tai-chi touch.
"Praise the spirits and the stars that there are others among us who allow us visions that we may converse with one another."
To say that art is food for the soul may sound hokey. But shouldn't art move the mind, change the world, or at least create sensations never imagined and take us where we've never been before? While his emigre status is often cited as the portent of his work, Jose Bedia's origins as a mature artist in the Cuba of the 1980s have flowered ever since in ways too complex to break down by his immigrant status. While he has been living in Miami since 1993, and participating in the international art world, Bedia's work takes on nothing less than the world beyond mankind. Here, the spiritual world meets the mundane world and the unexpected happens--the magic of not knowing is revealed.
Long a fixture in the international museum and gallery scene--a retrospective of Bedia's work, accompanied by a major catalogue, toured several museums in Spain last year--his most recent New York solo exhibition, There, Around the Corner was shown at Ramis Barquet this summer.
While the new paintings are formally sparse, deliberate in their tone and direct in their subject matter, Bedia's work reflects a complex view of the world that is closely linked to his religious tradition of Palo Monte and the continuous spirit of the shaman (or, teacher) in his work. Born out of Afro-Cuban ritual, Palo Monte--one of the four Afro-Cuban faiths practiced in Cuba--marries Spanish Catholicism and the African tradition. Where many see the doomed merger of disparate cultures, Bedia sees a syncretic product. As in Santeria, derived from the West African Yoruba religion, Palo Monte is built around a series of gods representing the different forces of nature. But, Palo Monte, from the Congo region, is less concretely defined then the Yoruban system of orishas. "It's very personal, the laws are less demonstrative. You don't adhere to a certain moral code. Everyone interprets it differently."
Bedia's work is likewise formed from the merger and juxtaposition of cultural forms and codes. Facile oppositions like high and low, folk and fine art, academic and intuitive or immigrant and native are given short shrift in Bedia's art and especially in his life. The immense collection of toys, indigenous artifacts, and curios that fill his Miami home have just as much influence on him as the modernist artworks he has studied and been told to revere. "I'm obsessive about the things I have in my home," says Bedia. "They are deliberately chosen and placed, because they are the things that inspire me consciously or unconsciously every day," he said in a 1994 interview. "For me it's not a collection. It's like an open library. I learn from these objects in front of me, slowly, day by day. All kinds of things: maps, weapons and baskets. African, American Indian, South American."
The acceptance of varied sources, cultures and ideas has always been the mainstay of Bedia's art. Trained at Havana's famed ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte), Bedia studied the history of western painting and recognized early on the strength of his own upbringing in the Cuban community. Speaking of the dissatisfaction that accompanied his institutional training, he explains, "I try to deal with issues in my self first, and I try to capture the spirit of time."
Like his hero, the Afro-Cuban modern artist Wifredo Lam--with whom he shared his work at bedside when Lam was recovering in Cuba after a stroke--Bedia pursues the African influence in painting from within. Born in Havana in 1959--the year of the Cuban Revolution--as a teenager, his mother took him on visits to a noted Havana priest of Palo Monte. His eventual induction into the religion many years ago placed Bedia squarely at the point of something special in his work, in a way closer to the essence that Lam explored so well and in depth forty years earlier. Before his induction, Bedia reasons, "my art was essentially photographic anthropology. But after entrance into Palo I began to make drawings with a deliberately down-to-earth line."
After graduating from the ISA, Bedia was one of a celebrated generation of Cuban artists including Ana Mendieta and nine others who were a part of the exhibition Volumen I in 1981, which was seen by more than 8,000 people during a two-week run in Havana. Soon thereafter international prestige followed. Luis Camnitzer, the artist and critic remembers that "Volumen I became the starting point for a series of group shows ... and it began a process with increasingly radical ruptures with Cuban art traditions. It fueled the break with an epic past, opened the way for self-referential issues about art that were absent during the 1970s, and dealt with the international art scene without a guilt complex. This new generation changed the perception of art in Cuba and the perception of Cuba in the international arena." The aftereffects are still being felt in the work of young Cuban artists today who continue to push barriers and garner critical attention around the world. Alberto Casado recently showed his paintings on tinfoil to rave reviews at Art in General in New York; Carlos Garaicoa recently had work presented at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and Los Carpinteros, a trio of artists who met at ISA in the early 90s, filled the prestigious p.s. I Contemporary Art Space a few years ago.
Though Mendieta's parents sent her out of the country shortly after the revolution, Bedia and others flourished as artists in Cuba during the 1980s. Often spoken of as a period of cultural myth or the "renaissance" before the Special Period, the 1980s in Cuba marked Cuban artists front and center introduction to the international art world. Artists were encouraged to travel and show their work in the name of the country. Bedia traveled to Europe in 1982 and to the United States in 1985 for exhibitions, and was the guest of the artist Jimmie Durham in South Dakota, where Bedia practiced with Native artists and was later heavily influenced by their cultural traditions. That year also saw a tour of duty in Angola while in the army, which also led to a turning point in his identification with his homeland. In the horror of war, fighting the communist fight, he soon felt his personal relationship to the government give way to his relationship with himself. After returning to Cuba, he taught at the ISA and exhibited regularly around the world. By 1989, he was included in the seminal exhibition in Paris, Magiciens de la Terre, a show that aimed to portray artists from the "margins"--read, Africa, the Caribbean and Southern Hemisphere--with their Western European peers.
Yet, even as an international sensation, the political situation in Cuba became one of nothing but hardship for Bedia. Emigrating to Mexico, in 1991, was like a delayed reaction to his time in Angola, he later said. While Angola placed him on the continent of his religion, he was disturbed by the experience of war. Bedia left for Miami in 1993, where his international star has only risen. On the phone recently in Miami, he apologizes for his English while freely admitting that living there hasn't really forced him to polish his English, which is more than understandable. He says, "Miami was an easy transition for me. You're away from Cuba and the place that looks most like Cuba is this one. It was the best substitution for Cuba that I could find. The same people, the same language."
Happily settled in Miami since then, Bedia continues to work his magic in the international art world and as one of the most popular artists in Miami. For Luis Gispert, an accomplished young Cuban-American artist, he was a beacon of hope growing up in Miami. "Guys like Bedia gave us first generation kids hope to get out of Miami and be artists," Gispert said recently. "I mean growing up in Miami there weren't many practicing artists to look up to and relate to on a one to one basis. It's very different to be young, sitting in your hometown reading ArtForum and dreaming, and actually knowing a guy like Bedia who was actually making it happen." And, keeps making it happen.
The new show, featuring paintings and wall drawings of submarines, trains and nuclear power stations, Bedia addresses the new wars, science and technology to question the contemporary landscape. Declarative phrases, such as "faster is not better"; "that's not the end of it"; and "the life could have been more simple"--pronounce the narratives of the paintings in a light unobtrusive white or black script within the overall dark gray surface of each painting. The spare colors and hard-edged forms highlight Bedia's use of the graphic and the singular quality of his line as a draftsman. A turret-filled ship moves rapidly through "troubled" waters and the bullet-head train seeks more speed against the admonitions of Bedia's horned twisters--the spirits who have come to admonish the world. "The twisters are the presence of the spirits ... they are laughing at mankind. They remind us that we have little control, no matter how sophisticated we are, they are the real rulers," he says. In our society of ever increasing fear, Bedia freely admits, "People are worried about what is outside their home. So they try to control nature and reality outside with fake things. Everything made is artificial, to keep nature in control. There is no more jungle. We have total control of everything, but we don't really. Take ecology. We talk about it and people are concerned. The Indians have known from the beginning that if we hurt Mother Earth, we are doomed. People only look for comfort, but it's no longer possible to guarantee comfort for everybody. The idea is to make the comparison between nature and the machine," he said. These "little devils" symbolize the spirit world of Palo Monte and the religions of Bedia's homeland, which rises constantly as a specter in all of his work. Mixing the political reality of his homeland with Afro-Cuban religion's rhythms, elements and practices, and all of his worldly experience, Bedia's work possesses his spirit, the spirit of a universal teacher.