Manuel Mendive is one of the most outstanding personalities in the entire Cuban artistic milieu. He may be considered the Dean of Afro-Cuban contemporary art, preceded in prominence only by Wifredo Lam, with whom he is not stylistically related. From the beginning, he was one of a kind, an atypical figure, not easily identifiable with any national or international artistic trend, unless –in his initial stages- we go back to the popular plastic expressions associated with the religions of African origin in Cuba, or to Africa itself.
Manuel Mendive[i] is one of the most outstanding personalities in the entire Cuban artistic milieu. He may be considered the Dean of Afro-Cuban contemporary art, preceded in prominence only by Wifredo Lam, with whom he is not stylistically related. From the beginning, he was one of a kind, an atypical figure, not easily identifiable with any national or international artistic trend, unless –in his initial stages- we go back to the popular plastic expressions associated with the religions of African origin in Cuba, or to Africa itself.
Mendive began his artistic career in the early 1960s with a very personal style. According to art critic Gerardo Mosquera –the first to study his work in depth –Mendive’s style “springs all of a sudden”, “effortlessly” and “overnight” began gaining celebrity and travelling the world.[ii] From then on, his work has evolved and thrived steadily. Moreover, as in the beginning, at each stage he found the appropriate language and used whatever artistic expression allowed him to express his ideas and feelings with total freedom. His paintings on wood, canvas or paper, his sculptures or ensembles in iron, brass or other materials, his body painting, but especially his monumental performances, have not only invaded the most important galleries and museums of the world, but the streets, the squares and the cities, creating multitudinous complex shows, similar to popular festivities and religious rituals.
Manuel Mendive’s long and successful artistic life has not, however, been driven only by aesthetic motivations, or linked to the changing demands of the market and the fashionable trends of art, but by deep convictions of human, social, philosophical and religious character, intertwined with the Afro-Cuban traditions he has always been a part of. The religion of the orishas has been at the heart of Mendive’s artistic production, although this is not always evident in his works. While some people believe –even perhaps the artist himself– that the local colour of his religious affiliation may jeopardize his universal message, I do not feel this to be a true risk, especially when we consider the increasingly global character that the religion of the orishas has acquired in recent years in Latin America, the United States and Europe.
Manuel Mendive was the first artist that the religion of the orishas had in Cuba and he has been its most consistent ambassador. It is true that other artists before him used some symbolic elements of the ritual atmosphere, and that they represented some of its deities. However, Mendive’s work disseminated for the first time and in an intense and powerful way, the sacred energy called aché, of the centuries-old religion of Yoruba origin that we call Santería or Regla de Ocha. This aché was transmitted in the ceremonies. More than the personal recreation of an already well-known and accepted iconography and religious symbology, or the pictorial reproduction of some patakines or stories of mythical characteristics, I believe this aché was presented through the special way in which Mendive used colours, especially white, red, blue and yellow, which concentrate the aché which belongs to Obbatalá, Changó, Yemayá and Oshún. He also used a spontaneous, free, creative style to appropriate the mysterious mechanics with which this religion operates, linking this to the countless transformations that happen in nature and in life itself. In such a way, the gigantic alternative universe created by Mendive has become an artistic equivalent to the essential messages of this religion. Whether Mendive paints or carves a head, a fish, a pumpkin or a scene apparently devoid of all religious content, his spirituality, his Afro-Cuban religiosity will always be present. This has been recognized in Africa itself, especially Nigeria, the place of origin of this religious tradition, where the work of Mendive has been most appreciated.
The work of Jay Matamoros has received praise for its beauty, its country-life grace and the sensuality of its colouring, but the critics have always stopped at the easy frontier of the aesthetic, of appearance, obviating or neglecting its reflexive aspects, his philosophy, the depth of his knowledge of the world. As is the case with other older black popular artists that could have accompanied Matamoros in this Afro-Cuban show, specifically Gilberto de la Nuez (1913-1993) and Elpidio Guerra “Mirito” (1923-1995), our critical response echoes the stereotypical and condescending perception with which we observe the humble people, workers and farmers. We find them amusing, open, witty, but of simple minds, or shallow in contrast to, for example, enlightened artists, intellectuals who practice conceptual or post-conceptual art. However, popular Cuban painting is particularly complex and intelligent. The ornamental and picturesque may be an added value, but it is generally a conscientious, reflexive art, at times wise, deeply interested in history, politics and the social, cultural, racial and religious problems of our country and the world. From this perspective, the work of Jay Matamoros has been scantly celebrated or studied for its true but least apparent value, despite the fact that he was granted the National Prize for Painting in 2000. The two works that we will comment on, among thousands made by his hands, clearly demonstrate Matamoros’s interest in reflecting issues related to our history, our traditions, even when sometimes African and Afro-Cuban issues occupy a hidden, veiled place but are undoubtedly present.
Even during his stage of local colour, and historical and social topics, during which he represented life aboard slave ships, the subsequent condition of runaway slaves, or the hazardous life in palenques[iii], topics that characterized part of his work during the 1970s, his religious vision of the world was always present, a vision that has been part of the daily philosophy of Mendive as an initiate, as santero. This is not so much a deliberate purpose as a natural impulse that has nothing to do with the folkloric demand of the foreign market, or proselytizing interests that this religion of Yoruba origin has never employed.
It is bizarre that Manuel Mendive’s work has been shown openly since the 1960s in a society where new expressions of a socialist political ideology and of scientific atheism prevailed. Religious thought of African origin was studied from a scientific perspective by ethnology and folklore, but was repressed and censored in daily life by the country’s rigid system of official thinking. This contradictory situation continued from 1959 to 1991 when the political and constitutional discourse of the Cuban revolution began to be more permissive.4 Manuel Mendive’s art, together with the first shows of the National Folkloric Group and the publications of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore were –in separate but adjacent fields– the few expressions of Afro-Cuban religiosity that were tolerated openly in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was a given that both art and folklore were demystified, or ultimately, that they represented the cultural and artistic values of the poor sectors that the revolution defended. Even when these art and folklore expressions included ideological remnants incompatible with the Cuban revolutionary project, they deserved to be rescued from imminent extinction, which, incidentally, never took place; quite the opposite.
Mendive’s powerful painting was able to provide not only aesthetic joy, but also a feeling of ethnic pride and cultural reaffirmation. The Afro-Cuban black, white and mulatto population could see in Mendive’s paintings what was not allowed in real life, what they had to practice secretly since colonial times. Thus in addition to its huge artistic merits, I believe that Manuel Mendive’s work had sociological or political value, even if the artist himself was not aware of this at that time.