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José Bedia Back Then (1999)

José Bedia Back Then (1999)



Editor’s Note: This article, “José Bedia Explores Links Between Cuban and African Art,” by award-winning art critic Elisa Turner was originally published in the Miami Herald in February, 1999. It highlights both the inspirations for José Bedia’s vision, and his unique imagery.  You can also watch our 2023 video conversation with José Bedia’s in ArtSpeak.



By Elisa Turner


José Bedia loves to tell a story – or is it several stories at once? His plots and protagonists melt and nestle together as he talks about his sinuous imagery of mermaids and deer, oceans and earth. People and animals cross-dress, the way they do in Native American myths and African masks. Stories overlap, like one blue Caribbean wave cresting into another, or like a serpent coiling back on itself.

The remarkable connections can span continents in a single brushstroke or breath. Like the one about the mythical prince at the peak of his manhood who must trade in his royal crown for a leper’s crutch after making an arrogant mistake. Now revered for his healing powers, this fallen figure is known as San Lazarus in Spanish Roman Catholicism, Babaluaye in the Afro-Cuban lore of Santeria, and Obaluaiye in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, homeland of many slaves brought to Cuba in the 19th Century.


Leaning on a ladder splattered with the black paint that’s a constant in his vivid visual narratives, the Cuban-born South Florida artist tilts his head back reflectively. His thick, brown, wavy hair seems to curl even closer to his waist. He is getting ready to tell the tale of San Lazarus, subject of a still-wet silhouette he’s painted on the gallery walls of the Art Museum at Florida International University, site of José Bedia, the fierce and fascinating solo show of his never-exhibited personal collection of paintings, drawings, and sketchbooks.

His eyes widen. The story begins.

“San Lazarus was a prince – a rich, wealthy, handsome man. He had a lot of lovers, a lot of women. So he was asking a favor from Olofi [the Yoruba god], if he can have all the women he wants.”

Bedia goes on. The favor was granted, so long as San Lazarus reserved Thursday as a day of rest from lovemaking, and prayed to God instead. But San Lazarus forgot his promise, and soon became sick with leprosy. Forgiveness was granted again, but his rich grandeur did not return. “He loses his crown, ” Bedia says. “He was homeless, a lone traveler, lying down in the street.”

In Cuba, Bedia says, “they have two San Lazaruses, ” referring also to the Saint Lazarus in traditional holy robes. “But the San Lazarus of the people is the guy with crutches, Babaluaye. He looks so weak, but he is so powerful. If you promise something to him, you have to pay for it. Otherwise you’ll be in trouble.”


Legendary Installation


The Lazarus legend comes to new life in Mi Coballende (Protector of Patron Saint), an installation Bedia created at FIU, dominated by an engulfing, electrifying silhouette. A man’s black torso rises from the floor, tattooed with curvy chalk lines pointing to earth and sky, emblazoned with Afro-Cuban symbols standing for the crossroads between life and death. Vast arms extend around corners, one morphing into a giant dog’s head, another draped with a tattered roll of burlap, emblems of the humbled but now beneficent Lazarus. Outlines of thorny trees sprout from his body; a tiny leggy man seems to race desperately along one gangly arm. As the work tells its story, boundaries between myth and man and forest blur.

It’s a vivid example of the sort of work that’s brought Bedia international acclaim — particularly since he left Cuba for Mexico in 1991, eventually settling in Miami with his wife and son. His art stands out for its elegant and assertive draftsmanship, and the way it’s often laced with deft homages to American Indian drawings on animal hide and to action-figure comic books.

Even more striking, though, is the way Bedia transforms eloquent scenarios expressing Afro-Cuban imagery and spiritual values into his own brand of contemporary art. This comes through in his direct graphic style, which he compares to “a primitive comic.” It also surfaces in his love of symbolically loaded materials – whether it’s the beaded Afro-Cuban ritual staff or even the weighted diving shoes (metaphors for mining primal myths) that are part of his installation here.

“For me, the object is very important, ” Bedia says. “It’s a fetish – to have this thing that connects you with people even though they lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.”


Non-Western View

His is an alchemical process that is gaining more notice amid the art world’s current interest in work removed from the dominant American culture.

“I think Bedia’s art is actually about providing an alternative, even a warning against Western culture, ” says South Florida art historian Roni Feinstein, who wrote the catalog essay for the FIU show.

In Bedia’s primal universe, no one is truly disconnected from the natural world. In the handsomely rhythmic and bilingual Nkunia Brava (Fierce Forest), a wilderness of angular branches is rendered as an elaborate network of limbs and heads, so that plant, animal and person become one vital hybrid.

“In a world where everyone is sending each other e-mail and going shopping on the Internet, his work is a reminder that there’s another world out there with real, physical experience, with spiritual values, ” Feinstein says.

Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson, author of essential books on African and African-American culture and the opening-night lecturer for the Bedia show, gives lavish praise to Bedia’s fluid adaptation of image and idea from non-Western sources — and especially from the extraordinarily rich Kongo culture of West Africa, carried across the Atlantic to emerge in the Afro-Cuban religion of Palo Monte. (Palo Monte, meaning “trees of the sacred forest, ” venerates spirits living outside crowded cities.)

This is not a matter of amateur anthropology — even though the artist himself jokes that if he hadn’t been so seduced by filling up sketchbook after sketchbook with restless drawings, he might well have entered that field.

A friend even once called him a frustrated anthropologist, Bedia says. And certainly, he’s fed his muse with what some might call field studies. These include an apprenticeship in 1985 to a Lakota shaman on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and, more recently, a visit to the Southwestern Yaqui tribe during Easter week, when the Yaqui mount their own “Days of the Deer” festival.

“I learn things from my eyes and ears. This is different from when you learn only from books, ” he says of his travels. Archaeology, another way to recover the past, has also fascinated him, ever since he began finding carved shards of Cuba’s native Taino and Siboney history buried in the island’s soil and sand.

An endlessly inventive artist, Bedia has dedicated his career to alternative ways of digging, and his creative excavations have struck not only past but present truths. Deeply influenced by his direct involvement with American Indian and Palo Monte rituals, his art is in sync with the changing urban landscape.

“Bedia’s right at the forefront of contemporary art and culture. America has become the first universal nation on this planet, ” says Thompson, noting the evermore visible presence of people with Asian, American Indian, African and Hispanic roots. “Particularly in Miami. Miami is teaching the world what it will be like in the 21st Century, and Jose is teaching us how to move into this multiethnic situation. He is at the very least trilingual.”

Bedia’s paintings and drawings are nearly always inscribed with sayings in Spanish or the Kongo language, so that their observations and admonitions mingle with scenes of people and animals negotiating crossings of earth, sea, and sky. Their migrations tell not only the story of exiles and immigrants, but of moral choices that define life’s journeys through a universe fraught with intricate connections.

“Who knows more, Isabel or Isabelita, who knows more?” is a typical, translated inscription. “It’s a sermon about paying attention to our elders, ” says Thompson, “instead of just shoving them into a condo for old people.”


The Other ‘Mambo’

This query is called a mambo, a Kongo expression meaning “most important matters.” These mambos are not the foot-tapping dances of 1930s Cuba but moral guides for living. Often, they remind us that time is running out for everyone. Even for the rich and handsome.

The cautionary tale of the once-handsome Lazarus, steeped as it is in Afro-Cuban lore carried so long ago to the Caribbean, is really not so different — as Bedia will tell you with a burst of wry laughter — from the catastrophe that beset a famous fallen charmer of Irish extraction, the terribly two-faced Dorian Gray.

The “Cuban Dorian Gray, ” which Bedia’s syncretic mind has suddenly dubbed “Babaluaye,” is just one example of his love of layered narratives. Another is the story about a 10-year-old Cuban kid who recklessly clambered up a fence, only to fall and chip his two front teeth so that, forever after, they formed an odd little space, shaped like a triangle. “He was spoiled, ” Bedia confesses.

When the kid grew up and found himself doing a six-month compulsory military stint in Angola for Cuba in 1985, imagine his surprise to see tribesmen in southern Angola pointing at him. “They made a joke with me about my teeth, ” he said. “Mostly the men speak Portuguese, but my Portuguese was so bad, we were just talking with each other by gestures and laughing.”

It turned out that the soldier’s smile bore an uncanny likeness to those of various tribesmen in Angola. In the southern part of the country, men customarily cut their teeth to form a similar triangular pattern, as a way of paying homage to the cattle that are the focus of their nomadic life. In the north, men of another tribe cut their teeth so that they form a triangular opening, making it easier to chew a sugar cane-like fruit during ritual ceremonies.

The 10-year old kid was Bedia, of course. His tale of the chipped teeth resonates as an especially striking coincidence, for Bedia’s work is marked by his passionate fascination with the art and culture of West Africa, and by his profound awareness of how that intricate system of imagery and values has wound its way into the Afro-Cuban religions of Santeria and Palo Monte.

Frustrated with the academic approach offered by his art training in Havana, Bedia was grateful when one teacher introduced him to the links between Cuban and African art. His later initiation into Palo Monte, he recalls, “was a conscious idea to recover my culture. When you are connected with [this tradition], many things develop for you. You can read reality in nontraditional ways. They teach you many things about the forces of nature in the river, the mountain, the sea, the ocean, the wind.”

Not only does Bedia collect cross-cultural stories, he collects objects, too. His Miami home is filled with dozens of African as well as American Indian artifacts, from painted drums used by the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico to carved shell objects of Taino and Siboney origin, which the artist found as a teenager along beaches and hills in Cuba.

“When you live inside this environment, you must learn something, ” Bedia said. “For at some moment, the symbol must open up to you. That is my technique. I try to find knowledge from many different places.”

Perhaps the place that’s given him the most knowledge is the sacred shrines of Palo Monte, which he began visiting in Havana at age 16 with his mother. Less than 10 years later, in 1983, Bedia was initiated into the priesthood of Palo Monte. A night of song and dance unfolded in a room painted brilliant blue with blazing stars, evoking the world’s wheeling cycles between night and day, life and death.

Thompson, who was initiated with Bedia at his side a few years later, recalls the circular and cross-shaped Kongo designs, drawn in white chalk on the floor. Called “cosmograms, ” they represent the intersecting forces of life and death, God and man. “That’s where you stand and swear to be a better person, ” Thompson says.



The cosmograms, also sliced with a knife into an initiate’s skin as signs of spiritual strength, appear on figures in countless paintings and drawings by Bedia. At FIU, they score the shoulders of a lone, lean, silhouetted figure in the painting De Vuelta al Barrio (Return to the Neighborhood). Carrying a suitcase in each hand, he seems nearly trapped in a chasm of bleak apartment buildings, their windows resembling ominous eyes — yet this figure’s restless, taut posture suggests a defiant and mobile vitality very much at odds with the barren cityscape.

More Kongo circles, spun into a concentric maze, appear in another painting at FIU, Isla Sola (Lone Island). The circles revolve inside the silhouette of a large, disembodied head, which appears to be watching a swimmer fleeing a moonlit shipwreck. It’s a dream-like scene, with the man’s head seemingly laced together by a network of tree branches, so that he also resembles a forested island.

Both paintings pull us into a vortex of unsettling migration and cyclical motion, themes that South Florida poet Adrian Castro — a Bedia admirer — considers both consummately Caribbean and truly universal. Born and raised in Miami by parents from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Castro shares Bedia’s deep sensitivity to the rich themes of Afro-Caribbean culture. Not only has Castro translated into English the Spanish works, laced with African expressions, by 1930s Puerto Rican poet Luis Pales Mato, but the Miami poet is a Babalawo Ifa priest of Santeria.


Immigrant Life




Asked to read from his new book of poems at this exhibit on March 17, Castro also wrote the poem Para la installation de José Bedia for a 1996 Miami Light Project performance at the Rubell Family Collection soon after Bedia created a room-sized installation, Naufragios (Shipwrecks), for the collection. Inspired by the deathly “rafter season” of 1994, Naufragios also comments on the pervasive presence of immigrants in world history, a fertile topic for the poet as well.

“Migration is really the story of humanity, of moving from one place to another, ” Castro says. “No one is from one single place.”

That sense of movement is sounded like a steady drumbeat through so much of Bedia’s art because, he says, “I am involved in the same thing. This is the drama of my people, and not only of the Cuban people but of so many around the whole world.

“From the moment I left Cuba, I started to study this feeling. I feel like this tiny little guy who’s carrying his luggage with him wherever he goes. You always have to carry a little part of your country with you.”


José Bedia:  A Growing Reputation

Born in Havana in 1959, José Bedia studied art at Escuela de Arte de San Alejandro and at the Instituto Superior de Arte. He is the best known among the group of ” ’80’s generation” Cuban artists, whose work represented a significant break with tradition.



In the late 1980s, Bedia began to chart a place on the art world map when his work appeared in biennials in Havana and Sao Paulo and in the 1989 Magiciens de la Terre, a prominent show at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In 1993, he was the youngest of five Cuban-born artists tapped for the landmark Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His art is in the permanent collections of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Miami Art Museum (now Perez Art Museum Miami), the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art and in museums in Mexico, Germany, and Finland.

For the past two years, Bedia has been developing designs for the Opera and Symphony Hall lobbies of Miami’s new Performing Arts Center, projects commissioned by Miami-Dade Art in Public Places.

This June, his work will go on exhibit at P.S. 1 in Queens, N.Y., a mammoth venue for contemporary art that recently announced a merger with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His piece will be part of the traveling group show, Animal. Anima. Animus , which also includes installations by Marina Abramovic and Dennis Oppenheim and was organized by the Pori Art Museum in Finland.

” José Bedia will measure up as very important, ” says Amy Cappellazzo, director of the Rubell Family Collection, though she admits that, despite Bedia’s growing reputation, visitors to the collection aren’t always familiar with his distinctive style and materials. “A lot of Europeans see the work by Jeff Koons here and they nod approvingly, but when they see José they fall off the map. It has a whole different set of African and Caribbean references that don’t even register on their scale.”

Bedia’s accomplishments register for Matta, the legendary Latin American master and 1940s Surrealist. After a meeting was arranged between the two artists at Matta’s request, the elder Latin American attended a brunch at Bedia’s home in January 1998. The dozen guests included Bedia’s dealer, Fredric Snitzer. “Matta was very charming, holding court, ” says Snitzer, “and he loved Jose’s collection [of African and Native American art]. He kept saying, ‘Ooh, can you get me one of those?’ But it was clear that he recognized something in Bedia as very special.”