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José Bedia

About José Bedia

b. 1959, resides in the United States

As the son of a sailor who used to describe the wonders hidden beyond the horizon with the enthusiasm of a Marco Polo, Bedia has periodically taken on the subject of the island, and each time has attempted a complementary revelation. The periodic reiteration of the archipelago theme is linked to his decision to migrate, first to Mexico in 1991 and then to Florida in 1993, as part of the intense exodus of artists, intellectuals, and other Cubans whose expectations of a better life were sunk by the radical changes to the Cuban economy and culture during the “Special Period.” The wrenching rupture implicit in this decision and the conflictive readjustment to a new environment imposed a distance between Bedia and the island that was geographic as well as sentimental, and which forced him to treasure and compensate on canvas for a link that remains severed.

In pieces created at different moments—Visión de la isla desde lejos (A View of the Island from Afar, 1991), Isla Sola (Lone Island, 1997), Múltiples Perfiles de la Isla (Multiple Profiles of the Island, 1999), and La isla esperando una señal (The Island Waits for a Signal, 2002)—Bedia establishes a kind of insular diary that connects with the work of younger artists, such as Ibrahim Miranda, Sandra Ramos, Kcho, and Tania Bruguera, who emerged at a later time. Bedia’s concerns are not reducible to an examination of the island, its solitude, or its floatability in frozen time. In the exhibition Rodeado de Mar (Surrounded By The Sea, Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, 2000), Bedia’s gaze turned toward maritime history, and he became an ironic chronicler of the naval battle between the Spanish and American fleets during the war of 1898, as well as a commentator on the contemporary use of force in international relations.

Historical and artistic traditions have favored the designation of the Cuban island with feminine names. One has only to think of the indigenous Taino appellation, Cuba, or Columbus christening the island as Juana; the dazzling girl with Phrygian cap and flag who gives a friendly welcome to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, or the naked girls in El nacimiento de las naciones americanas (The Birth of American Nations by Mario Carreño, 1940), to cite a few examples. Therefore, the gender inversion effected by Bedia in this piece strikes us as exceptional. Represented by the male “alter ego” evident in his works from the 1980s, the island assumes a “virile” character. Like a Neptune emerging from the waters while savoring a cigar, the insular giant scrutinizes the skies in search of the clairvoyant signal that indicates when it’s time to depart.

With the 1981 exhibition Volumen I, Cuban art began a profound re-evaluation of the stereotyped armor with which the culture shielded itself. The inquiring, conceptualist attitude of this generation thawed out the concepts of ajiaco (a proverbial cultural stew) and transculturation, both created by writer and anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, and promoted a dynamic vision of everyday culture. In their works, these artists rediscovered the vibrant zones of Cuban “street” culture, especially in the areas of Afro-Cuban religious practices, which had been catalogued in ethnological museums and Marxist manuals as “leftovers from the past.” Against stereotyped definitions of cultural identity, this generation posed a postcolonial point of view: rooted in action, it took its identity from action, not exhibition (Mosquera, 1987, 341).

Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of non-Western cultures, Bedia was one of the driving forces behind this trend. In 1983, he was initiated into Palo Monte, a religion of Bantu origin brought to Cuba during the African diaspora. After his initiation, Bedia’s art lost its expository tone, and instead adopted a graphic figuration based on stylized symbols used by Native American and Afro-Cuban religions. What emerged as a narrative motif was a kind of alter ego or simplified outline of himself—an archetype of the human condition. With the spare use of color and no suggestion of three-dimensional volume, Bedia inserts the transcultural hero into scenes that attest to “the bipolar presence of two colliding worlds: Western/non-western, civilized/savage, postmodern/pre-modern, urban/rural” (Castillo, 2003, 21). As a complement to the image, Bedia places a brief text or caption, usually in the lower area of the piece, which serves as both cryptic adage and title.

By 1989, Bedia himself had become a true transcultural hero. His trips to a Native American reservation in South Dakota, his discovery of interior Mexico, his exhibitions and fellowships in the United States, the installations created for the Second Havana Biennial (1986), the Sao Paulo Biennial of 1987, and the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (1989), forged an anthropophagic will that fuses and expresses, from a Palo Monte point of view, the distilled wisdom of religions around the world. Although Bedia expresses himself freely in the spatial language of his “expanded” sculptures, his drawings are the intimate laboratory where ideas are distilled. Madre de Guerra (Mother of War) is a revelation, or perhaps a warning, to be transmitted using the drawing as a communications device. The gigantic figure of the goddess, unperturbed and armed with knives—symbols of death and carnage—occupies the entire space of the posterboard. The axial symmetry suggests that the future clash will occur between two tendencies or worlds whose origins are indivisibly linked. Through its formal austerity and synthesis, and an absence of rhetorical flourishes, Bedia’s image becomes an admonition about conflict and individual and social disharmony.

A year before creating Doce cuchillos (Twelve Knives), Bedia had been awarded the Grand Prize from the Landscape Salon ’82 for a piece that juxtaposed an aerial view of the Amazon River with purported tools and other objects from indigenous tribes that inhabit that rainforest basin. Bedia’s interest in “primitive” cultures had driven him to take an almost anthropological approach to the structure and tone of these works. In them, the painting component fulfilled a cartographic or illustrative function, counterbalanced by tools, weapons, and ceramic fragments—not true anthropological artifacts, but all replicas made by Bedia himself, in the manner of an archeological cabinet. In 1983, the artist fulfilled a childhood dream: in the Ethnological Museum of Budapest, he costumed himself head to foot in the guise of a Native American. The dream of this Cuban boy, born with the Revolution, had not been nourished by the writings of German adventure novelist Karl May, but by the nostalgia of Hopalong Cassidy movies and Lone Ranger comics.

The exhibition Persistencia del Uso (Persistence of Use), the series to which this piece belongs, was a step in the maturation of his art. Its conceptual foundation was “the persistence in all cultures, since primitive times, of certain functions, and of the instruments with which they are executed” (Mosquera, 1984). Fascinated by the history of productive technologies still in use in the modern world, the artist set out to produce real tools, utilizing basic methods and materials accessible to everyone. His attitude was similar to that of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, creator of the famed Kon-Tiki raft. Bedia executed the actual design of the objects as an empirical anthropological process, and revealed their ritual uses through museum installation of the pieces.

Doce cuchillos (Twelve Knives) is a piece that sums up this thesis. It is a second version of this work, completed shortly after the original. A black circle, drawn in a gestural manner, serves as a blackboard, on whose outer rim Bedia had originally placed real knives made from different materials; in this version, the knives are replaced by their own graphic images. The circular perimeter, a symbolic structure for many non-Western cultures, contains texts explaining the materials used for each implement, arranged in the manner of a clock: for instance, a bone, asphalt, and wood knife at three o’clock, and a copper, asphalt, and wood knife at eight o’clock. Asphalt, repeatedly used in the piece, was widely used in Cuba at that time as an adhesive and an impermeable sealant for homemade fish tanks. Bedia took this everyday material and introduced it into a piece that attempts to unveil the historical continuity of human creation through the tools of its own design. 

References: Catalogue, Kunst aus Kuba: Sammlung Ludwig/Art of Cuba: The Ludwig Collection, Palace Editions, 2002, p. 29. Mosquera, Gerardo, Persistencia del Uso (Persistence of Use), catalogue text, National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, 1994. Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, illust. p. 42.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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