A Bedia Bestiary

"Those, like poets, who have not distanced themselves from their childhood will remember that as children they believed that animals thought and behaved like men," wrote the late Afro-Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera in her book Animals in the Folklore and Magic of Cuba. "In the inner world of childhood, insects, reptiles, men, birds, quadrupeds, even the elements, have the same soul as theirs and subscribe to the same conduct -- human."
Jose Bedia, the most widely known of the Cuban artists who have come to live in Miami since the decade began, has consistently proven himself a master of recaptured innocence. He creates immensely inviting works with impressive technical proficiency, using an apparently childish simplicity as emotional bait to reel in the viewer. And it works.

Bedia practices the Congo-rooted religion Palo Monte (one of the most commonly followed Afro-Cuban faiths, along with the better-known, Yoruba-derived Santeria), and he is schooled in Native American rituals. His use of vaguely indigenous symbolism and depictions of animals performing human tasks have always granted his work a fantastic touch -- the kind of so-called magic realism so many collectors and curators in the United States seem to find irresistible. Bedia's penchant for painting with his hands and his installations constructed of rough found materials, coupled with an exceptional artistic ability honed in European-style Cuban art academies in Havana, have made him a fitting art star for the multicultural age.

But over the four years since he took up residence here, Bedia has proved that his work transcends trendy exoticism. His narrative pictures may appear merely naive at first, but they are layered with complex meaning. They ooze memories, allusions, spiritual esotericisms, and hint at moral lessons to be learned. The spare lines of his drawings tend to recall primitive diagrams scratched in the dirt with a stick. But at the same time they are hardly casual; his compositions are as fastidious as architectural renderings.

The artist's methodical naivete is often expressed through figures of feisty personified animals, and these anthropomorphic beasts predominate in a striking show of Bedia's new drawings, Historia de Animales, at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery. In large, dark graphic works on paper and smaller, more colorful drawings on parchment, stags play the part of humble Everymen and foxes fidget at classroom desks or take the wheel of sports cars that fatally crash. Insects and birds abound. (Which is not to say followers of the artist's work will find themselves on unfamiliar ground: Bedia covers typical themes such as travel, emigration, alienation, and -- a local evergreen -- the schism between Cubans living on the island and in exile.)

Rows of eight-foot-long drawings in ink and conte on heavy handmade paper cover two of the gallery's walls. A line of handwritten text bands the bottom of each drawing, recalling both ceremonial banners and highway billboards. Despite their grand scale, these are intimate works; instead of making consciously "important" pieces, Bedia, who seems more comfortable with his personal language than ever, has allowed himself to indulge his sense of humor and childhood memories.

One drawing shows five small foxes sitting at a row of desks before their teacher. While most of the pupils have their hands eagerly raised, one sits with his head hanging down. The text at the bottom reads (in Spanish): "He'll never learn that." According to Snitzer, the picture represents the artist's recollections of his insecure school days. But the level of draftsmanship makes the characters come alive, and Bedia is able to charge with real emotion what might otherwise be just a cutesy scene.

The same is true of some large drawings that work as illustrated parables, divided into panels like comics. Significantly, No Acorrales un Animal Herido (Don't Corner a Wounded Animal) charts a fox's revenge on a foolish hunter, and the bawdy Todo en la Vida se Paga (One Pays for Everything in Life) -- the title of which refers to the chorus of a popular old Cuban song -- shows a bare-breasted female fox speeding to her death in a fancy car.

Other drawings are more sober, evoking spiritual concerns. Ceremonia Bajo el Puente (Ceremony Under the Bridge) depicts a stag shaking maracas and a blue figure of a man with a knife and cane -- all symbols of an Afro-Cuban ceremony -- while cars thunder past on a busy overpass. Bedia likes to include religious images in his work: The small iron pots placed on Palo Monte altars, machetes, and swirling designs, like those drawn to symbolize the presence of the gods in Afro-Cuban and Vodou ceremonies, all appear frequently. While these totems presumably have precise significance for the artist, their exact meaning isn't particularly crucial to the effect of the drawings. And to the uninitiated, their suggestive ambiguity is in itself seductive.

The artist's employment of common Afro-Cuban images extends to his use of animals. Practitioners of the syncretic Cuban religions believe their deities are often embodied in animals, which are seen to have a close relationship with God and with the world of the dead. In Afro-Cuban lore, deer are clairvoyant -- they have ears on their hooves -- and can easily turn themselves into human beings. But they're also often cast as victims of man's evil ways. In Bedia's drawing Apenas un Espacio para el Venado (Hardly a Space for the Deer), a bemused stag is caught between two arching, traffic-clogged highways. Vienen los Dias del Venado (The Days of the Deer Are Coming) is dominated by a giant deer's head growing out of the head of a man, while a small stag/man runs free at the bottom of the picture. A swirling composition of celestial symbols and figures, this work shows Bedia at his boldest and best.

While the current show offers no real surprises, the drawings on parchment, hung together on one wall, hint at new directions. Smaller and sparer than the large, bold works that are more typical of Bedia's oeuvre, these 40-by-26-inch pieces have a delicate quality that persists despite their splashes of primary colors. In one untitled work, a boat, a plane, a bird, a dragonfly, and a horned man's head are laid out in a spare geometric formation, like hieroglyphics; together they work as shorthand for travel, emigration, and freedom. Generally, these smaller drawings are less narrative and more abstract than the large banners, recalling the work of other artists who use spiritual and religious imagery, such as Kandinsky, Klee, and (vaguely) Marc Chagall.

Bedia's imagery is simple and repetitive, yet his work is genuinely affecting, with the universal appeal of tales passed down through generations. The pieces captivate because the artist is a teller of stories that he himself believes no matter how facile they are, and because he is therefore able to deliver through his animals a sense of humanity.

Historia de Animales.
Through October 10 at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, 3078 SW 38th Ct; 448-8976.


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