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Bedia has resident-alien status in the United States -- he has not asked for asylum, and has no plans to do so. His wife Leonor's parents are Americans who moved to Cuba when she was a child, and she was able to obtain an American passport while in Mexico. As family members, Bedia and his son qualified for residency, and late last summer they moved to Miami. Most of the other artists came here under the pretense of participating in exhibitions, and then defected. The Cuban government had only required a letter of invitation from an American gallery or museum, says local art dealer Fredric Snitzer, who has written a few such letters himself.
"There are a lot of reasons why we're all here," Bedia explains. "One could be nostalgia A you're away from Cuba and the place that looks most like Cuba is this one. There can be a lot of personal justifications. In my case it was economic reasons more than anything. If you can't develop your work, you can't survive. I didn't think I'd ever live outside of Cuba A but look at me now."
It is a rainy day in February, and Bedia has just returned from the opening of a major exhibition of 22 of his large-scale paintings and drawings and two mixed-media installations at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and a group exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa titled Cartographies. He will prepare seventeen new works over the next three weeks, in time for a show at Snitzer's gallery in Coral Gables, where they will be bought up quickly at prices ranging from $4000 to $40,000.
Leonor Bedia reviews a shopping list with her husband and heads off to the supermarket. In the living room, son Pepito is playing with a soccer ball, precariously close to a row of papier-mache animal masks hanging on a wall. Salvaged from Easter-week celebrations in the Mexican Sierras, they are part of an exceptional collection of tribal art from North and South America, Africa, and Oceania displayed throughout the otherwise sparely furnished house. The white sofas are covered with blankets woven by Dakota Sioux. A full Indian shaman's costume stands at the entrance to the artist's studio, a small room at the back of the house. Flat Mexican drums with bright, graphic goat-skin faces cover one wall.
"I'm obsessive about the things I have in my home," says Bedia. "I don't like to have my own work hanging. I prefer to live with the objects that influence me. The things I have here are very deliberately chosen and placed, because they are the things that inspire me consciously or unconsciously every day. Sometimes a painting arises from something I've been reflecting on for awhile. Other times it's an almost mystical process that comes out of all the things I live with and experience."
Out back in the grassy yard stands a prefabricated aluminum utility shed where Bedia keeps what he sometimes refers to as his "Cuban things." He takes off the padlock and slides open the door, gesturing within. "I think this will help you understand my work better."
A gothic vision is revealed in the shadowy light inside the shed, where a sacred tableau of the ceremonial objects belonging to practitioners of Palo Monte, one of the four Afro-Cuban faiths practiced in Cuba, has been laid out in a corner: a small iron kettle, a clay head with cowrie shells for eyes and mouth, black rooster feathers, iron chains, and a row of large, oxidized knives inscribed with hieroglyphic symbols. The walls are splattered with faint streaks of animal blood. A sisal mat rests on the floor, and to one side of the arrangement hangs the terra-cotta head of a proud American Indian in profile.
Bedia, who is of Spanish descent and was raised a Catholic, says he got involved in Palo Monte through a sort of cultural osmosis. "More or less everyone in Cuba has these emotions, but some people are more into it than others," he says matter-of-factly. "The African tradition mixed together with the Spanish Catholic tradition is a syncretic product A a very specific national product. That was what interested me, that there was something parallel in me, in my culture, that I could learn and I could use." Like followers of Santeria, paleros worship a series of gods representing the different forces of nature, although they do not assume concrete incarnations like the santeros' orishas. Santeria, a Yoruba religion, is sometimes described as dealing with the powers of good, while Palo Monte, from the Congo region, is said to work with those of evil, or black magic. Its practitioners, however, discredit this classification. "It's very personal," emphasizes Bedia. "There are rules you have to follow, but you don't have to shave your head, or wear white, or special jewelry. The Congo laws are less demonstrative, less fancy than Santeria. You don't adhere to a certain moral code or anything like that.
"Everyone interprets it differently," he continues. "In Cuba there are believers and there are practitioners. Just because you go to a santero for help, it doesn't make you one. When you get initiated, that's a different category."