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Like many homes in Cuba, the small ranch-style house off Bird Road that artist Jose Bedia bought when he moved to Miami with his family last summer is protected by what is known as the "Indian commission." Its members, an assortment of small ceramic statuettes of braves and squaws depicted in tribal headdress, stand together with Christian religious icons on a curio shelf in Bedia's dining area. They are standard souvenirs, the kind found in roadside shops in the Southwest. Bedia brought them with him from Havana, where these images of American cigar-store Indians, appropriated to represent the spirit of the island's indigenous peoples annihilated during the Spanish conquest, are popular household saints.
"There's a part of the Afro-Cuban tradition that has to do with the Indians," explains the artist, who moves quietly about the house wearing a T-shirt silkscreened with a Native American design, Levi's, and suede Converse sneakers. Tall and blue-eyed, chestnut hair hanging loose to the middle of his back, he points to a bare-breasted female warrior made in the 1940s. "Because in Cuba the Indians disappeared, and no one knew what they looked like, people adopted the image of the American Indian in the mass media for religious purposes. They took the Indians from the Westerns, but they used them in another way. While in the American movies the Indians are the bad guys, in Cuba they've always been the good guys."
An initiated priest of the Afro-Cuban Palo Monte religion and a student of the secret spiritual practices of the Sioux Indian tribe, Bedia is one of a seminal group of Cuban visual artists known as the "Eighties generation," the first to be born and educated under the revolution. Most of them, along with more recent graduates of the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, now reside in Miami, protagonists in the current boom in contemporary Cuban art that has caught on with international curators and collectors. ("Cuban Art is Hot! Hot! Hot!" proclaimed a recent headline in Forbes magazine.) While students at the academy, Bedia and his comrades broke away from the uninspired nationalist realism and staid academic traditions practiced in the Seventies to explore more conceptual forms of art in a variety of media, a search for their roots often taking the place of revolutionary themes as subject matter.
In the manner of the kitsch reproductions of American Indian stereotypes found in Cuban homes, a native spirit is embodied in Bedia's work. Seeking to capture the essence of a universal Cuban identity, he uses a repeated set of pictorial symbols in which visions from the myths and rituals of his Afro-Cuban religion and those of other native cultural mythologies combine with images of twentieth-century technological warfare and contemporary displacement. He often paints with his hands, forming a bestiary of personified animals A bears, oxen, deer, horses, or the figure of a man with insectlike antennae A in earth tones, embarking on airplanes or boats, driving tanklike cars or wielding weapons. Illuminated with patterns of bright stars, they sometimes appear lost in labyrinthine forests or posed in limbo between lands.
Only a single work by the artist is on display in his house, a small painting that hangs above the bunkbeds in his young son's room, competing for attention with a collection of Transformer toys spread on the floor. It shows one of his hybrid human-grasshopper figures standing with his wife and child in his arms, one foot on an island, one on the mainland. "This is a utopian painting. You can't be in two places at once, but that's what I wish I could do," he says. "I think you bring your country with you wherever you go, even if you have nothing. It's like cultural baggage that marks you as someone different. I see the island as a departure point, where you were born, but something you take with you, too."
Bedia already had created a formidable body of work -- and gathered a respectable resume -- when he escaped the economic restraints of Cuba, joining Tomas Sanchez, Arturo Cuenca, and other leading artists in a mass exodus for Mexico and the free market. He moved there in 1991 with the consent of the Cuban government and the invitation of art dealer Nina Menocal, who had opened an exhibition space in Mexico City as a showcase for young Cubans. They displayed their work for the first time in a commercial gallery, and published their first individual catalogues. Menocal says the artists were not required to share profits from the sales of their work at her gallery with Cuban state arts agencies. (Regulations requiring Cuban artists living out of the country to return up to 50 percent of their earnings to the government have been relaxed in recent years, and were waived for artists who could demonstrate that the foreign money would be used to pay for materials and living expenses.)
But that privileged situation was threatened when the Mexican authorities began restricting residence permits, which the Cubans must renew every six months. After more than an estimated 12,000 Cubans entered Mexico in 1992, the government tightened visa requirements and announced that Cuban artists and professionals working in Mexico would be asked to leave unless they justified their presence there. Most of the artists represented by Nina Menocal and other Mexican galleries, about two dozen by then, came to Miami. Bedia, who was spending much of his time studying autochthonous Mexican culture in isolated parts of the country, was among the last to leave. "I liked Mexico better, but we couldn't stay," he recalls with a wistful look. "It was the same thing that happened to everyone who came here. We went to Mexico as a first choice and we thought we would stay, but we couldn't. The Mexican authorities started to put pressure on us and we had to go."