Bedia

As one of the most acclaimed Cuban artists of his generation, Jose Bedia is already in the spotlight. But the illumination he's looking for is something slightly different.

In particular he has been wounded by long-time exiles, Cuban artists who arrived in Miami before him but who have not fared as well in this capitalist society. Bedia is hesitant to discuss the problem, but once he starts, he rushes on, his measured speech cascading into an emotional torrent. "Success has not changed my work, but it has changed other things. They say [sarcastically], 'You've betrayed Cuba, you've gone to live in imperialism A you've come to Miami.' But it's a question of territory. Why can imperialism affect me and not them? And they're lived here for fifteen years. What antidote do they take that imperialism doesn't touch them and it touches me? I'm still the same person, but they say, 'You're not the Caribbean warrior any more, in the trenches waiting for the enemy.' I don't have an enemy. That's for the politicians. I live in another way. I work with my traditions, the African and Latin American traditions. I have my work, my religion, my family. They say, 'You're not the same.' I'm not the same because now I have possibilities. And my possibilities might compete with yours."

The works of other artists, particularly those a few years younger than Bedia, address the Cuban situation with obvious political imagery. Both in and out of Cuba, he has adhered to his more personal symbolism, which has led some younger Cuban artists to accuse him of being too "international." "To do a work about things that are very topical and very national doesn't make sense once you're away from Cuba," counters Bedia. "That's why I prefer a more general language -- not because Fidel this, because tourism that, because dollars this. That worked in Cuba, but nobody cares about that here. If you deal with very specific subjects, you have a very specific sphere of reference. I want to deal with universal themes. Not even the most reactionary person is going to buy a painting of Fidel with shit coming out of his mouth.

"I'm still a Cuban artist, but my work can be for someone who isn't Cuban but who has a lot of money to buy it," he says with a shrug. "That affects me on one hand and it satisfies me on the other. We are all immersed in these contradictions."

"Miami tastes like Cuba, it smells like Cuba, but it's not Cuba," says gallery owner Fred Snitzer, who shows many of the Cuban artists in Miami, though none as prosperous as Bedia. "If you're an American artist and you become successful, you make money, you buy a house in the Hamptons. For the Cubans it's not that simple."

In 1981 a controversial exhibition of the work of eleven artists called Volumen I was seen by 8000 people in Havana during its two-week run. The now-mythical event marked a turning point for Cuban contemporary art. "The generation was defined more by a shared interest in experimentation than by age, level of studies, or aesthetic program," Uruguayan artist and critic Luis Camnitzer writes in the first chapter of his book New Art of Cuba. "What gave importance to Volumen I, much more than the work exhibited, was the fact that the exhibition became the starting point for a series of group shows...and it began a process with increasingly radical ruptures with Cuban art traditions. It also fueled the break with an epic past, opened the way for self-referential issues about art that were absent during the 1970s, and dealt with the international art scene without a guilt complex. This new generation changed the perception of art in Cuba and the perception of Cuba in the international arena."

The artists, Jose Bedia among them, had mounted an exhibition of intricate installations, manipulated photographs, and collages with hidden meanings at a time when hyper-realism and pop appropriation of revolutionary iconography represented the avant-garde. Officials at first found problematic such provocative works as those displayed in Volumen I. But when the public embraced the artists' experimentation, and foreign curators praised the work and asked to show it abroad, the government accepted it as a valuable national product that could be used as a promotional tool.

Under this less restricted cultural climate, artists were permitted, even encouraged, to participate in international exhibitions, either under the auspices of the Cuban cultural ministry or invited by foreign museums. Bedia traveled widely, beginning with a trip to Europe in 1982, the year he won a drawing award from the Joan Mir cents Foundation in Barcelona.

Bedia visited the United States in 1985 as a participant in a rare cultural exchange between Cuban and American artists, hosted by the State University of New York at Old Westbury. The program was organized by Luis Camnitzer, who describes it as "a millisecond in time in which the Ford Foundation was willing to finance it, the state department was willing to let them in, and the Cuban government was willing to let them come." The program also allowed American and Cuban-American artists to travel to Cuba. Under the aegis of this cultural Camelot, Bedia traveled to South Dakota, where he was presented to members of the Sioux Nation by Native American artist Jimmy Durham, and under the guidance of Sioux medicine man Larry Crow Dog was allowed to partake of secret tribal ceremonies and spiritual practices that sometimes involved long, vision-inducing sessions in a sweathouse or ingesting peyote. Bedia speaks with utmost respect of the tribe and the enlightenment he gained from the experience.

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