Few Cuban artists have developed a body of work as coherent and original as that of José Bedia. Although he isone of the most outstanding examples in the history of art in Cuba and Latin America, and he has also received international acknowledgement, his true importance has not yet been fully recognized. In his paintings, drawings and installations, José Bedia has not only used a hive of cultural references from Cuba, but also from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, focussing on those that western civilization, with its technological vanity and false idea of progress, has considered underdeveloped, backward or pre-modern.
Few Cuban artists have developed a body of work as coherent and original as that of José Bedia. Although he isone of the most outstanding examples in the history of art in Cuba and Latin America, and he has also received international acknowledgement, his true importance has not yet been fully recognized. In his paintings, drawings and installations, José Bedia has not only used a hive of cultural references from Cuba, but also from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, focussing on those that western civilization, with its technological vanity and false idea of progress, has considered underdeveloped, backward or pre-modern. According to Bedia, his work is an attempt to rescue, through the discursive strategies of contemporary art, the dispersed fragments of that old wisdom which, to a greater or lesser extent, all those societies have in common, and which are of great importance to complete the deficits of our unbalanced contemporaneity[i] .
Bedia's creative method, seemingly spontaneous, intuitive and at times naive, is not only the product of previous rigorous study, but of the assimilation of formal, material, aesthetic, symbolic and historical elements from those cultures that have inspired him and that he reflects either in a simple drawing or painting or in one of his monumental installations. The often simple and schematic appearance of his works and the generally austere and synthetic character of his discourse follows the principle of doing more with less, concealing a conceptual and philosophical depth and an abundance of uncommon information, the result not so much of bookish study as of his contact and direct identification with the systems of knowledge of those cultural groups that some call native, aboriginal or traditional.
The first figurative anthropomorphic representations of the powerful and invisible mpungos of the Afro-Cuban religion of Palo Monte, as well as fragments of its myths, graphic symbols, philosophy and the atmospheres and objects characteristic of its rituals appear in José Bedia’s art by the mid-1980s. Something similar had happened in the 1960s and ‘70s with Manuel Mendive and the orishas of Santería or Regla de Ocha, with Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal in the 1980s regarding the many unknown aspects of the Regla de Ifá, and with Belkis Ayón in the 1990s and the myths, characters and ritual events typical of the Abakuá Secret Society.
This sequence of events is important in the history of Cuban art, because in these four decades – characterized by an atheist or scientific materialist thought, which was preceded by the preponderance of Catholicism as the official religion – the four best preserved religious traditions of African origin practiced on our islandbegan to be represented within our traditionally western visual arts. In three cases (Mendive, Olazabal and Bedia), the artists themselves are initiates and even priests of these religions. All have a high degree of artistic excellence that has allowed their works to circulate not only nationally, but internationally, and to disseminate – amongst the learned, cultured art of the elite – much of the ethical, aesthetic, philosophical, spiritual and religious content typical of these traditions. This seems more important than the process of modernizing the languages and styles in which all the artistic vanguards in Cuba have been involved since the 1920s. This is important for Cuban art as well as for the development of the spirituality of our people. It is an arrival point, or at least a step in the direction towards our Afro-Cuban cultural identity.
These religious groups have never requested the presence of these representatives, and they probably do not understand their relevance fully, since – with some exceptions – most believers belong to popular sectors that do not frequent galleries and museums. But since art is a system that has been able to monopolize greater social and cultural prestige than these religious beliefs of African origin, the works of these artists have fulfilled another less visible function: that of exerting influence and gradual pressure on the prejudiced habits of thought of the society in order to achieve acceptance and lend prestige which was lost or snatched from them, both in Cuba and the rest of the world. Or at least, of moderating the unfair intolerance that still weighs on them. Ethnographic studies – that should likewise be considered unrequited representations or translations – have played a similar role, and have served as additional sources of study for the traditional religious groups themselves.
José Bedia's artistic decision to represent Palo Monte – a religion with few icons and a poor visual tradition, considered primitive, with malicious practices, dedicated to witchcraft – was a true novelty within our cultural milieu. It was also daring to make public some ritual aspects belonging to a group that has always kept much of its knowledge secret. For the first time, many elements of this tradition began to make their appearance, until then known only by believers or a few specialists. Previous allusions in our visualarts to this religion of Bakongo origin, characteristic of the lower Zaire, Cabinda, Congo Brazzaville and Angola [ii]; known under the generic denomination of conga or Bantú tradition in Cuba, had been very scarce, and were limited to the use of some of their signatures or graphic symbols, generally with ornamental purposes. Added to his personal knowledge of Palo Monte (Bedia was consecrated as tata nkisi malongo or priest of this religion in 1983), was an obsessive interest in historical and ethnographic studies that soon turned his work into one of the most complex and best informed within the artistic vanguard of the 1980s.
The small group that made up this vanguard, which some called the new Cuban renaissance, was divided into at least two sectors with somewhat different interests. One was more inclined to update their artistic language and style in line with the most advanced international art, while the other, led by Juan Francisco Elso, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey and José Bedia, saw in the original, aboriginal or indigenous cultures of América, Africa and Afro-Cuba, the main incentive for creating of a new aesthetic and a new form of non-western modernity. Bedia also followed an existential program that he had planned from the beginning of his career:
“I recognize myself as incapable of giving a general definition of art beyond what I intend particularly with my work, which is essentially geared at highlighting the continuity of the past in the present. It is an attempt at communication and communion between the material and spiritual universe of “modern” and “primitive” man. The resulting works are only objective testimonials that allow people to share my experience.”
“The process - a transcultural one, just to give it a name - which takes place at the moment in the midst of many autochthonous cultures is the one that I try to develop in myself, but in reverse. I am a man with a western training that by means of a voluntary and premeditated personal system, is seeking to approach those cultures and also experience their equally transcultural influences. We are both like this, halfway between modernity and primitivism, between the civilized and the wild, between the western and the non-western, only in opposed directions and situations. My work stems from this recognition and from this boundary line that tends to break down.” [iii]
Palo Monte has not been the only topic that has interested José Bedia[iv], but rather it is part of a wide range of interests that have included the Native Americans, the ancient Mayas and Aztecs, and the indigenous and contemporary popular cultures of Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala and the Peruvian Amazonia where, for example, Bedia has joined in ayahuasca sessions – a plant that produces hallucinogenic effects – with shamans of the Shipibo-conibo and Ashaninca ethnic groups[v]. This has turned him not only into a true scholar in such topics, but also (when possible) into an artist who partakes in their ceremonies and ways of thinking, and also into a collector and expert in their cultural objects. But, in spite of everything, the religion of Palo Monte has always been a central reference in his work which has surfaced in almost all its stages, many times mixed with ingredients from other traditions and also as a tool to make political comments or social criticism. His first trip to Africa in 1985 during the Angolan war (in which he participated as a member of an artistic brigade of the "internationalist Cuban mission”) put him in direct contact with the original culture of this religious practice and increased his identification with the African ingredients of our nationality. Unfortunately, from that experience in Angola, I can remember only one work which in all probability does not exist today: Toy for an Angolan Boy.
José Bedia has constantly added other cultural references to the previous list as a result of his numerous trips around the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, Haiti), and recently around Africa (Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia) that have allowed him to integrate in his work and his cultural life knowledge from that continent that never arrived in Cuba for historical reasons. These links through art are a new way of enriching the Cuban and Caribbean culture, radically different from the colonial and slave connotations of our heritage. Our disconnection from Africa is disappearing little by little and we are finding new ways of recovery and renovation.
[i] José Bedia. Oral history. Interview by Juan Martínez, Miami, Florida, USA, February 13, 1998, Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
[ii] Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the spirit: African and Afro-American art and philosophy. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1984, p.14
[iii] José Bedia. Folleto Promocional Ministerio de Cultura, Havana, Cuba, without editorial data.
[iv] On José Bedia there is an extensive bibliography in exhibition catalogues and other publications, but the most documented book on his life and works is currently José Bedia. Obra 1978-2006, Galería Ramis Barquet, Turner Editores, Madrid, Spain, 2007, with contributions by Orlando Hernández, Kevin Power, Cuauhtémoc Medina and Omar Pascual Castillo.
[v] We have used the term shaman because it is the most comprehensible, but in the case of the shipibo-conibo tradition, they are called unaya, and in the case of the ashaninca, shiripiari. Both work with the ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis Caapi), also known as Datura, Yajé, etc, on which there is an extensive bibliography.