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The African and Catholic rituals, Bedia says, are mixed to such an extent that you must be baptized as a Catholic to be initiated into one of the Afro-Cuban religions. "We don't see it as contradictory," he explains. "Just because you go to church it doesn't mean you can't participate in these rituals as well. There's the Catholic version and the African version, but it all amounts to the same thing."
An elaborate Catholic altar, presided over by a statue of Santa Barbara, dominated the Bedia home in Havana. Bedia remembers it as the highlight of their poorly furnished house. As a child he sometimes went to church with his mother, until she stopped attending because such activities were frowned upon by the revolution. At one point, afraid her devotion would endanger her husband's position as a merchant seaman, she decided to throw away the altar. Bedia still remembers a clandestine trip to the trash container in the middle of the night so no one would see them disposing of the religious articles. "I was so confused. I didn't understand why she was throwing away our prized possession," he recalls. "But she kept the statue of Santa Barbara in a closet and she still has it today. All of our neighbors had those things hidden in the heart of their house."
In spite of his private personality and secret inspirations, Bedia is fast becoming an art-world star. His work has been included in the Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Venice Biennale, and the Sa~o Paulo Bienal, among numerous other international collective exhibitions. He is regularly reviewed in national art magazines, and has been compared to the great Cuban artist of another generation, Wifredo Lam. After the show at the Snitzer Gallery, on view through April 25, an exhibition of more new works opens at the Frumkin/Adams Gallery in New York in May. An expanded version of the Philadelphia museum exhibition, titled Where I Come From, travels to Miami's Center for the Fine Arts in June.
"What is very powerful about the work is that he combines a sense of spirituality with a conceptual language, and that is a rare combination," says Melissa Feldman, a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. "In a sense the work is bilingual; it reaches between Latin and American cultures."
Bedia was one of the artists included in the 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, whose purpose was to challenge the Eurocentric notion of "primitivism" by showing the work of well-known Western artists together with functional and ceremonial objects created by Third World artists. The combination of Bedia's rigorous academic training and his spiritual interests produces art that is sophisticated and simple at the same time. He seems to bridge both worlds while knowingly advocating an expanded definition of art.
"There's a Western academic tradition in Cuba -- they teach a lot of Renaissance, a lot of rococo, a lot of baroque, a lot of impressionism -- but I broke away from that," Bedia explains. "What interested me were cultural and artistic traditions that were not precisely European. So I started investigating African and pre-Columbian culture on my own. And once you start being conscious of your own origin and your own culture, you realize that you're on the periphery. I don't care about the mainstream. If I'm in it now, it's just a coincidence.
"The way I see it is that Western art has gone toward something very formal, very perfect, but with no soul," he continues. "And then you can find a Haitian painter who is painting with a stick. Maybe technically he's horrible, but he's great because there's a spirit you feel that someone else who lives in the mainstream doesn't give you. So the West finds itself with a deficit in this area, and they think that by taking in these people, it's like a transfusion of spirituality. But you can't do that. There are people who have it and people who don't."
While some local collectors have said that the monetary value of Bedia's work is appreciating too fast and could simply be part of the current fad for things Cuban, those who know him best are convinced of the legitimacy of his talent. "Jose is an artist whose work touches the spiritual world, and it touches peoples lives," says Miami collector Rosa de la Cruz, who with her husband, Carlos, CEO of Eagle Brands, owns seven of his works. "He is able to open the doors and look up into the universe."
"He is a genius," Nina Menocal declares. "We will see that proven as long as we are alive."
Bedia's Zen-like composure cracks and a look of frustration appears on his face when he is asked about how his life has changed since he left Cuba. He admits he often uses the spirituality that supplies his paintings as a shield against critical barbs tainted with the poison of exile politics and aimed at his own success.