The English version of the introductory wall text uses the redundant-sounding term "Hispanic-Cuban" to describe José Bedia. This is jarring, since all Cubans are Hispanic according to the general usage of the word. Yet despite the awkward phrasing, there is an important point being made here: Bedia's bloodline comes from Spain rather than from Africa. (The Spanish wall text is clearer, stating that the artist is a "Cuban of Spanish origin.") The reason this matters is that so much of Bedia's work—especially his early work—is rooted in Palo Monte, an Afro-Cuban religion whose roots lie in the Congo. Not having been raised in that culture, Bedia first approached the religion as an outsider. As such he might be seen as following in the footsteps of such European artists as Picasso and Modigliani, who were inspired by African art but had a somewhat colonialist mentality. However, unlike these earlier artists, Bedia seeks a deeper, more respectful, and more authentic relationship to African-based culture. He became an initiate and practitioner of Palo Monte, and his work reflects his identity as a believer, an insider. It's not just about the religion; it is an expression of the religion.
Expert wall labels guide the visitor through the various geographic, biographical, and spiritual paths that Bedia has taken. His first visit to Africa itself was not at all pleasant: as a draftee in the Cuban army he was sent to Angola to fight in the civil war there. Later, a key piece from the '90s shows the artist stepping over the sea, leaving Cuba behind and seeking a new life in the U.S. He remains based in Miami, although his travels to other places greatly inform his work. These journeys have taken him to the Dominican Republic, northwestern Mexico, the Peruvian Amazon, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, and to the native peoples of the North American Great Plains. In all these travels Bedia is shown to be an honest seeker of the sacred, in direct opposition to the cultural and political colonizers that have come before him.
José Bedia, installation view of Figura que define su propio horizonte (Figure Who Defines His Own Horizon Line), 2011, dimensions variable, Fowler Museum X2011.12.1a-d; purchased with funds provided by the Fay Bettye Green Fund to Commission New Work; Photograph by Brian Forrest.
Bedia's gracefully delineated figures owe a debt to the iconic 20th century Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam; yet Bedia has developed his own artistic vocabulary which distills that heritage and merges it with the graphic symbols of Palo Monte and other folk traditions, as well as with his own contemporary techniques. A strong sense of scale is one of his most effective pictorial strategies: huge figures share space with tiny ones, indicating power relationships both physical and metaphysical. Two large installations in the exhibition are magnificent examples of this.
One of the most gratifying aspects of this well-put-together exhibition is the inclusion of several displays of traditional folk art from Bedia's own collection. These include Mexican masks, historic ledger drawings by Plains Indians, peyote boxes of the Native American Church, Guatemalan carved slingshots, and sculpture and clothing from West and Central Africa. By including these works, the artist and the curators give credit where credit is due, showing where Bedia gets much of his inspiration from, but also showing how these objects can stand as beautiful and potent works of art in their own right.
(Image on top right: José Bedia, Mama quiere menga, menga de su nkombo (Mama Wants Blood, Blood of His Bull), 1988, acrylic on canvas, 55 x 78-3/4 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Miami Art Museum / collection of Diane and Robert Moss, Miami, Florida)