The Farber Collection
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Manuel Mendive

About Manuel Mendive

b. 1944, resides in Cuba

The cultural background necessary to understand Manuel Mendive’s work concerns the enormous sociocultural impact of the African diaspora, which came to Latin America as a result of the slave trade, and was, from the 17th century, driven by the plantation economy. The religious worldviews brought by people from diverse African nations were quickly adapted to new social and environmental conditions. Through various strategies of symbolic resistance, these beliefs have made themselves felt in the collective imaginations of contemporary societies. This is the case with the Rule of Ocha, or Santería, a religion of Yoruba origin that took root and flourished in Cuba and Brazil.

Mendive’s art cannot be separated from his identity as a Santero. He is a loyal practitioner of a religion that, in 1990s Cuba, ceased to be regarded solely as a refuge for poor blacks and mulattoes and assumed a multiracial, multiclass character. In a secular, materialistic, modern society that views all religious extremism with suspicion, Mendive’s art has gained acceptance in the guise of folklore or exotic spectacle. The key to its interpretation, however, does not lie in the sensibility of the tourist, who eagerly snaps up souvenirs as proof of voyages round the world. Instead, it lies in the unity between the artist’s vision and his means of expression, in the intensity of his search and his ethical commitment.

After he graduated from the San Alejandro art school in 1963, Mendive’s artistic production was forged in the cultural polemic between the partisans of Socialist Realism and the supporters of a Cuban socialist “heresy” that wanted no part of it. Equally influential was the sociocultural tug-of-war between the tolerance and even encouragement of African cultural traditions and the simultaneous rejection of African religions as “backward” beliefs supposedly doomed by the (immediate) advent of the Cuban “new man,” with his atheistic and scientific cast of mind. Surrounded by the impressive creative achievements of such artists as Raúl Martínez, Servando Cabrera, Antonia Eiriz, and Ángel Acosta León, among others, Mendive remained faithful to his origins and family context. In stark contrast to the epic aspirations of the moment, he explored a magical dimension. “I lived in a marginal neighborhood, Luyanó, in Havana,” he recalled. “My family was very familiar with the ancient Yoruba religion” (Britto, 2001, 10). To Cuba’s social utopians, who conceived the U.S.S.R. as the ultimate model, Mendive offered an opposing worldview in which human beings and deities exist hand in hand without exception—first in carved, polychrome wood, later in paintings, performances and designs on dancers’ bodies.

Mendive is not a naïve artist, but a creator trained in Western art techniques who has chosen an iconography, a particular style, as the vehicle best suited to tell his stories. He cites as influences “the paintings of Giotto, who is my favorite master, and of Fra Angelico. They are my painters, the ones who have always helped me” (Britto, 2001, 11). Sculpture resurfaced as one of Mendive’s creative outlets in his 1987 exhibition, Para el ojo que mira (For the Gazing Eye), becoming more frequent in recent years. This is reflected in his use of bronze castings and cut sheet-metal, the integration of diverse materials such as shells, votive offerings, textiles, and the creation of self-contained installations and spatial projections.

In Los hijos del agua…, the artist returns to a theme previously explored in his bronze Mujer y pez (Woman and Fish, 2000): the seamless coexistence of people and animals, in accordance with the conceptual essence of Santería—animistic, polytheistic, and instilled with an intense affinity for nature. This is not the persistent reverence that the fisherman Santiago offers to the fish in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but an artistic universe that vindicates the infusion of magical thinking into everyday life—where man, fish, and all beings that live in the sea share, with generosity, the sources of creation and the favor of the divine orishas.

References: Catalogue, Mendive: Shangó y la Vida, p. 88, listed as number 12.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri