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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

Recalling his interaction with an American university, Bedia is a little more hesitant. "It was good because people were able to get to know one another," he recalls. "There was communication on a cultural level. There was some talk about politics, but I tried to avoid it. The problem was that the people who arranged this were from the left, and they saw us as Cubans living within the Cuban system in a very naive way, as if we were the revolutionaries and we were resisting imperialism and all that. But things aren't like that. They're just not black and white. If you live in Cuba, it's your country and you're in agreement with some things and not with others.

"I think art education is better in Cuba," he adds. "At Old Westbury they had good professors and all the materials, but the students weren't up to the task. We were always saying if we had all of those resources, what great artists we would have been."

As a youngster Bedia displayed an interest in drawing. A neighbor suggested that his mother enroll him in art school, which she did. His training started at age twelve, first at the San Alejandro school and then at the Instituto Superior de Arte, both in Havana. While continuing to develop his own work and exhibiting with his colleagues, he began teaching, as artists have done since the revolution. After instructing delinquent children in a cultural center, he became a professor at the Instituto Superior in 1987.

He soon found that things had changed since he had been a student there; the younger artists were expanding the freedoms gained by his generation, creating works that incorporated derogatory images of Castro and Che Guevara, and engaging in critical street performances. "The students began doing things that directly addressed the government," he recalls. "What they brought in was an act that was totally political and subversive. I thought about it and decided that there were two things I could do: denounce them and fail their work, or leave the school. I wasn't going to denounce them because they were my friends. I wasn't going to fail their work because it wasn't bad. This was something the government had to stop because the government was the cause of it. But I was the one who was going to have the problems because they would blame the teachers for the students' behavior. So I decided to leave. And that's one reason why I left the country. I just realized it was their fight as a generation, not mine.

"In a way an artist is always a subversive force no matter where he is. My generation changed a lot of points of view in Cuban art that were very traditional, very official, very static. My group -- and we were hundreds of artists -- ended that. But the ones who came after me did away with other things that we didn't touch. We were interested in the tie with the popular and religious traditions, sort of an anthropological study of Cuban society. The group that came after me, whom we taught as professors, were launching a political attack A and with reason. But that was their battle. Each one breaks his own barriers, and that's the way that it's been in Cuba.

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