In tandem with the December 2022 print edition of A.i.A., the Religion Issue, we revisit this article from the July 1997 issue. Originally published as “Sacred Silhouettes,” the article was penned by Robert Farris Thompson (1932-2021), a longtime Yale University professor and art historian who specialized in African and Afro-Atlantic art. He delved into the multi-medium works of Cuban artist José Bedia and his deep involvement with Afro-Cuban and Native American religions.
View a PDF of the original article.
HAVANA, FRANZ PAIZ, Orthopedic Hospital, Barrio La Lisa, 1980—Wifredo Lam, Cuba’s most famous 20th-century painter, ailing but game, is receiving guests. José Bedia, 21 years old, accompanied by two other young aspirant painters, stands by the bedside. Night after night, for a month and a half, ignoring disapproving nurses, relying solely on Lam’s smile as authorization, Bedia pays court.
“After a few weeks I brought him drawings for critical reaction,” Bedia recalled in a recent conversation. “With his good hand—the left side of his body had been totally paralyzed by a stroke—he’d point to a work and say ‘that one’s good’ or ‘this one’s terrible’ and tell me why—all this with an infinite patience.”
Bedia also brought Lam books on sub-Saharan art. When they came to a page illustrating Bamana antelope headdresses, the bed-ridden painter came alive, telling Bedia to ponder the lean, ascetic forms. But, when Ejagham art appeared, Lam turned the page. The rugged realism of this style from the deep forest was evidently too much. (Lam’s rapture with the Bamana drops a clue about sources: note the stylized, antelopelike, neck-to-head transitions in certain of his works, particularly a Figure, dated 1949.) Talking to Bedia, Lam mixed stylistic revelations—the art of Oceania was his other love—with mentions of Paris and Marseilles, Picasso and Breton. Bedia was dazzled. Then Lam returned to Paris where he died, two years later, on Sept. 11, 1982.
The Havana seminar may have been short-lived, but in the meeting of Lam and Bedia something exponential had taken place. The attention of the renowned artist suggested that he sensed in Bedia the next in the tradition of African-influenced Cuban painting. By the mid-’80s, Bedia was on his way to proving Lam right with an art of distinctive, graphic power that cut across the mediums of painting, drawing, collage and installation. In all these forms, Bedia favors sleek, long-limbed figures of humans and animals (and human-animal hybrids), usually silhouetted against stark horizons. The images, generally painted in black acrylic, are accompanied by handwritten Spanish phrases, identifying the spirits, their ceremonies and admonitions. Sometimes the background is patterned with Miró-like starbursts, rows of glowing ovals or closely spaced concentric circles. When painting, Bedia often works on irregularly shaped canvases and his installations have used everything from animal pelts to car engines. Extending the stylistic amalgam of African, Caribbean and European motifs achieved by Lam, Bedia has enriched his own art through intimate involvement with the Afro-Cuban religion, Palo Monte, as well as deeply felt borrowings from aspects of Native American religion.
The artist’s years in Cuba also included formal art training, first at the San Alejandro school (1972-76), then at the Institute Superior de Arte (1976-81). There he encountered instruction in conventional genres of Western painting, plus a dash of Socialist Realism. Following a stint in the Cuban Army (he served in Angola, where he found opportunities to extend his knowledge of African art and culture), Bedia resumed his artistic career. In 1985, he made his first visit to the U.S. for a four-month artist’s residency and participation in a traveling show titled “New Art in Cuba.”1
The first substantial international recognition of Bedia’s art came in 1987, when he represented Cuba in the XIX Bienal Internacional de São Paulo. This was followed by participation in the 1989 “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. In his 1994 book New Art of Cuba, Luis Camnitzer reports that numerous Cuban artists now work abroad—because of the severe economic dislocation on the island triggered by the collapse of Russian communism.2 Bedia, who left Havana in 1990, figures prominently among these exiles. After spending several years in Mexico City, where he began to exhibit with Galena Nina Menocal and was part of a community of young Cuban artists, Bedia moved to Miami in 1993.
In the last several years, his work has been the focus of a number of exhibitions, including “Jose Bedia: De Donde Vengo,” seen in 1994 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the Center for Fine Arts in Miami, and “Mi Essencialismo,” a show consisting of Bedia’s recent paintings, drawings and installations, which traveled in 1996 to the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, the Pori Art Museum in Pori, Finland, and the George Adams Gallery in New York (where Bedia shows regularly). This year, Bedia’s work is the subject of two shows, an exhibition of recent paintings, installations and drawings at SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, and a full-scale retrospective at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterrey, Mexico.
IN HIS AFRICAN CIVILIZATIONS in the New World (1971), Roger Bastide noted a “spiritual void” in the cities of the modem Western world. Hence, as he put it, “the European [as well as the black person] turns to [the religions of] Africa or Black America for the satisfaction of vital needs which industrial society can no longer answer.” It is certainly tme that from the dance court of the Candomble Gantois (a traditional place of worship on a hill for those who follow Yoruba gods in Bahia) to the Campo de Mayombé (a religious center off Avenida Independencia in Havana where Kongo spirits are invoked), I see essentially the same intent white women and white men. They bring intimate problems of love and social dislocation for black priestesses and priests to hear and, hopefully, resolve, by the authority granted them by the saints and the spirits.
The mother of José Bedia was one of these intent women. When Bedia was in school in 1976, she used to take him with her on visits to Alberto Goicochea, a noted Havana priest of Palo Monte. The name of the faith refers to “trees of the sacred forest,” for the classical Kongo religion of Central Africa focuses on special spirits or saints, bisimbi, and ancestors, bakulu, and both are believed to reside in the forests beyond the city.
Bedia was 16 on his first visit. Palo dance and song, signs representing the cosmos and altar walls painted blue with animated stars—backdrops to the coming of the spirit—impressed him and pulled him in. So when, in 1983, Bedia applied for initiation, he was no stranger to the Palo following. Señor Goicochea himself initiated Bedia at his shrine, Briyumba Cotalima, in the Vedado section of Havana.
During the nighttime initiation, the priests traced, in white pigment, protective Kongo cosmograms on Bedia’s back. They caused him to move in a counterclockwise circle with other acolytes, mostly black. This round brought back the classical structure of a Kongo sacred dance. But it also had its creole meaning: memorializing African slaves in early 19th-century Cuba, activating a sugar mill with their bodies, round and round, like oxen.
In the process of the initiation Señor Goicochea introduced Bedia to the core elements of the Palo altar. These are the premia (called in the Ki-Kongo language nkisi, or “the medicine of God”), a three-legged iron vessel reliquary bristling with ritual insertions of strong forest wood, knives, machetes and other emblems of spiritualized militance, that provoke the spirit within the prenda to wage war on evil; the bititi menso (“the eye sharpened with herbs”), a horn with an inserted mirror, for prayer and transcendent vision; and the lucero (“the guiding light”), a guardian saint with clairvoyant eyes made of cowries, to watch over things at the threshold of the altar.
Bedia thus stood at the heart of an important New World black religion. He found himself in the midst of artistically gifted, working-class blacks whose richness of vision and, especially, spiritual charity transcended their economic situation. In time, much of his art came to mirror the lore and the values of Palo. The night he was initiated, seven signs (small crosses and parallel lines) were cut, very finely, into the flesh of his chest. Several Bedia drawings show men wearing such cuts, marked in red, and the reliquary vessel, clairvoyant horn and guardian lucero recur throughout his drawings and installations.
For a major artist to have penetrated the heart of one of the most important faiths of the Black Atlantic is revolutionary. The initiation was a blessing for both sides. Palo now had its Giotto. Bedia could spread the truth, reveal the religion’s values. At the same time, he attained a level of access undreamt of even by Lam. “Before my initiation,” Bedia recalled recently in Miami, “my art was essentially photographic anthropology. But after entrance into Palo I began to make drawings, lots of drawings, [specifically about Palo] with a deliberately down-to-earth line.” His post-initiatory mode of drawing, kept simple and straightforward, so as not to interfere with the transmission of religious truths, brought into being what I think of as “Bedia men” and “Bedia women,” each with the same signature lean body and jutting jaw.
Since his initiation, Bedia often represents aspects of Palo Monte by writing vernacular titles or Palo songs—mambos—in Palmer longhand on drawings or paintings. (The word mambo means, in creolized Ki-Kongo, “problems,” “words,” “most important matters,” as in a song sung to the spirit in the prenda, “open your ears, hear these issues.”3) In a drawing of a dog lying on its back, for example, he writes out the words of a Palo song, in a vernacular mixture of Ki-Kongo nouns and Spanish verbs. This mambo warns us about the fragility of the human condition: mbuá va fuirí, nsusu mayimbi va uriar (the dog—the initiate—will one day die, to be fed upon by buzzards). Above the written passage, ominous V’s swarm in the sky.
In another, crayon-on-paper work, Bedia illustrates a different Palo song. One of a pair of silhouetted figures is short, the other is tall. They stand together. Bedia writes, beneath, a mambo which translates as: “who knows more, Isabel or Isabelita, who knows more?” In other words: respect the elder, respect the seasoned mother in Palo. In another song illustration men repose beneath a tree, surmounting a short, enigmatic phrase which could be rendered: “so many branches, but where is the shade?” The “branches” are the men, but lolling about, absorbed in self, they don’t comprise a tree. Meaning: I see a lot of idle brothers, doing nothing for the common cause.
In a two-part 1984 drawing Bedia shows a Palo Monte priest, a palero, singing a mambo while sacrificing a chicken to a spirit, Sarabanda. In response to the sacrifice, Sarabanda looms up and marvelously bends over the kneeling supplicant, asking to know why he has been summoned. Sarabanda was a legendary black man who worked on the railroad, the John Henry of the Afro-Cubans. Cubans revere him as a bold and generous defender of the people. At the 1989 “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition in Paris, Bedia’s acrylic wall painting showed Sarabanda’s massive body rolling down the rails, a human train, breathing black clouds of locomotive smoke. Sarabanda also inspired an amazing installation which Bedia elaborated at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1995. There, Sarabanda once again took flight, soaring in solid black acrylic, larger than life, taking a whole museum wall as his space of passage. He was accompanied by a ritual vessel on the floor, made from a six-cylinder engine from an old Cadillac, hooked branches inserted into each cylinder. Called lungowa, such branches are placed in the prenda as virile augmentation. They hook in good fortune and pull out all evil. Contemplating these potent branches, it’s worth remembering that as an adept, Bedia had to memorize many trees of the forest, each with its proper Ki-Kongo or creole name and spiritual properties.
(To hide his own altar from prying eyes, as is standard in Palo, Bedia, when he lived in Havana, tended his prenda Sarabanda first in a closet and then in an elaborately hinged space disguised to resemble a laundry hamper. Compare his poetic painting, With the License of the Moon (1990). This shows a Palo priest talking to the moon, asking God’s permission to cut certain sacred branches of forest wood. In the picture, the priest has his prenda but Bedia hides its representation behind a tiny hinge of cotton cloth affixed to the painting, recalling the concealing of his own home altar.)
The Philadelphia altar bristled marvelously with the inserted lungowa, simultaneously evoking Kongo practices and the work of Jean Tinguely. It seemed a veritable motor for travel into the other world. The mambo lettered on the wall—Kakuisa el songe (iron takes flight)—provided translation, like a subtitle floating on a screen, as well as being the title of the composition. In this installation, Bedia celebrates Sarabanda rising up in iron. Appropriate emblems placed within an actual prenda for this spirit include heavy-duty railroad spikes and a piece of roadbed rail.
The sum of all these installations betrays Bedia’s fluency in the spiritual idioms of Palo Monte. Natalia Bolivar, one of contemporary Cuba’s most distinguished scholars of Afro-Cuban lore, will soon publish a book on Palo. Her text will be entirely illustrated by Bedia. This is, distinctly, a tribute to the ethnographic accuracy of his eye. But, along with Palo, there is another font of visionary inspiration in Bedia’s art to which we now attend: the Amerindian element.
“OUR FORMS COME from the land, male mountains and feminine valleys, and from the moving drama in the sky, lightning, clouds, and rain,” the gifted Pueblo potter and anthropologist Rina Swentzell told me recently. Enamored, since childhood, of Native American art and culture, and identifying with the heroic mounted warriors of the Lakota, Bedia is strongly involved in the Plains esthetic, and the way it voices reverence for earth and animals.
A very early work—a pencil drawing signed by one José Bedia Valdés on Mar. 15, 1973, when the artist was 14—illustrates a Native American warrior mounted on his horse. Two feathers in his hair, he aims his rifle at an unseen target. A nascent sense of spiritual space is already apparent. During his years of studying art in Cuba, Bedia encountered conventional instruction but the Palo priests and the distant artists of the North American plains became his real tutors, the latter teaching him from a remove of time and space, initially via illustrations in Pijoan’s Spanish-language handbook on world art history.
Detailing the musculature of a horse in the 1973 drawing, Bedia already shows an Amerind-like respect for animals as equal valences in the world. Indeed, the jutting-jaw human profile Bedia repeatedly draws is crypto-shamanic, in the style of the Plains tribes: it resonates with the sharp-angled muzzle of a horse or a dog. In Transformation, a group of heads dated 1993, a human visage, slowly but surely, turns into a horse, rhyming together acutely angled jaws. What is the point of all this? A hunger and an instinct, which Bedia explored, first from afar and then, chance once again favoring the prepared mind, from actual contact with shamans in South Dakota.
In 1981, as Lucy Lippard reports, Bedia’s fascination with Native American culture led him to adopt the guise of an anthropologist in order to make and exhibit “faked shards, arrows, feathers, beads, photo-transfers in glass cases and the gridded maps of archeological excavations,” all these elements commenting on cultural destruction.4 Word of Amerind subjects in Bedia’s emerging style eventually reached the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham. In a fascinating exhibition titled “Bedia’s Basement,” Durham took note of this work by awarding Bedia’s name to an imaginary “explorer investigating the future remains of the Plain White People.”5 This led, when Bedia was exhibiting art in the United States in 1985, to a meeting of the two artists, in New York, orchestrated by Luis Camnitzer. The Cherokee and the Cuban hit it off, and Durham immediately arranged (with a generous subvention from Claes Oldenburg) for Bedia and his Cuban colleague, Ricardo Rodriguez Brey, to visit the Lakota nation in South Dakota in the summer of 1985.
This was a second turning-point. Bedia encountered and immediately apprenticed himself to a noted Lakota shaman, Leonard Crow Dog, at the Rosebud Reservation. The shaman introduced the artist to the lore and beliefs of the Lakota in a substantial way, teaching him prayers, the use of the ritual smoking-pipe and the spiritual meanings of its vapors. He also led the Cuban visitor into one of the climactic points of Lakota culture, the sweat lodge, where one learns spiritual regeneration through self-purification. Crow Dog also instructed Bedia in the making of medicine bundles wrapped in red cloth and taught him how to make incense for the spirits from filaments of sagebrush.
When I visited Bedia’s Havana apartment, in November 1986, a corner of a room was already a miniature museum of Lakota art. There were crimson medicine bundles and a ritual pipe carved in a reddish stone, all from his 1985 visit to South Dakota. (In Bedia’s Miami house three entire rooms resonate with Native American presence: painted drums from the Tarahumara, Kayapo feather art, Acoma and Mimbres pottery, drawings from the Plains.)
To this day, Amerind themes inform his art in both its visual content and through its titles. Like the Ki-Kongo phrasings which continue to stud his Palo pieces, Bedia labels Plains-oriented works in the Lakota language. Formally, he succeeds in capturing their sense of the landscape. Witness a recent painting of a sacred peak, Mato Paha (Bear Mountain, 1995), where he shows the mountain smoking the ritual pipe, mixing breath with vapor at the level of the sky. This puts a strong, native interpretation upon the landscape. When we pass on, so it is believed, our last breath reaches heaven to become a cloud.
The style of Bedia, ever adaptive, helps him connect native ritual to its sense. In lnitipi (Sweat Lodge, 1996) he shows men in a domical sweat lodge. More than a building, the sweat lodge is a curve over an aspiration. The Lakota believe that to enter the heat and moisture of the sweat lodge is to reenter the womb. One reemerges, after sweating out evil, cleansed and reborn and ready. Re-creating the scene, Bedia loads his acrylic with water. This blurs the figures, remarkably limning sweat-house heat and wet.
In his self-chosen world of visual languages—Kongo and Lakota—Bedia has come to the point where these traditions are formally translucent, one to the other, as when painted images of two Ute men erupting from a photo-collage recall Sarabanda rising from a prenda, or when an Amerind-like shaman slips magically into the ear of a woman bearing a classically African coiffure. Bedia similarly interweaves modem-art traditions, as when a found-art motor is sanctified with inserted branches from the forests of Palo.
No wonder he restricts his palette and keeps his line simple and clear. As in early Cubism, a lot is going on. Viewing the clash of cultures as privilege and creative challenge, instead of predicament and danger, Bedia is leading us beyond postmodernism to a stance as yet unnamed which is distinctly more open and optimistic.
THE VERSION OF “Mi Essencialismo” I saw, at the George Adams Gallery in New York, had as its centerpiece a wall-and-floor work titled The Things That Drag Me Along. Incorporating drawing, sculpture and collage, this piece was an intricate display of Bedia’s mastery of his chosen visual languages. It also underlined how much viewers of his work can benefit from a familiarity with the symbols of Palo Monte and the Lakota.
Drawn directly on one wall of the gallery’s main room was one of Bedia’s black acrylic images of a double-headed figure. From the chest of the figure extended two chains which met in the middle of the room. At this midair meeting point the two chains became 11, each dropping down to a small-scale voyaging model-—ships, a plane and, intriguingly, leading the parade, a bullock marked with a sign of the cosmos and carrying hospital crutches. This ragtag group of what were in fact mobilized altars pulled strongly forward the figure on the wall.
Bedia accented the core of the Kongo-Cuban religion, the iron cauldron, and a core element of the Lakota religion, the sweat lodge, by pasting tiny photographs of these culturally critical objects on the chest of the two-headed figure. It is exactly at these two points that the chains, which simultaneously evoke and upset conventional perspectival space, were anchored to the wall.
When I visited the show, I found the best way to study The Things That Drag Me Along was to lie on the floor, to view at close range each little shrine with its miniature offerings. From this angle one could easily recognize the toy tanker, the boats, a plane, and, especially, the bullock at the front, as changeling, miniature altars, laden with different sacrifices, some from Palo-oriented herbal stores (botánicas) in Spanish Harlem and some from the Plains. Close up, the accomplishment was clear: the gallery floor was covered with a summa of the ritual knowledge of José Bedia.
The largest altar, at the end of the left-hand chain, is Lakota, invoking the spirit of a bison with the skull of that animal, itself garlanded with aromatic pinches of sweetgrass, sage and tobacco, the three incenses of the Plains. Two trucks pull this skull dressed in meanings.
A miniature truck hauls a prenda with the sign of the lucero drawn upon the vessel. In a tiny kayak stand two toy soldiers, one supporting a wounded comrade. They are placed there to suggest, in the artist’s words, “men helping each other in difficult situations.” This, in turn, symbolizes a moment when Bedia came to the aid of a seriously drunk comrade, during his six months of compulsory military duty in Angola in 1985.
The climax is the bullock at the front, marching with miniature crutches tied to either side. Crutches in Palo emblematize four saints of healing, from four different religions, creolized as one— Obaluaiye from the Yoruba of Nigeria, Sakpata from among the Fon of the Benin Republic, Saint Lazarus from the Roman Catholic world, and Kobayende in Palo. The bullock, marked with a cosmogram communicating the power to cross boundaries, is a hero. As Bedia puts it, the bullock “carries crutches, signs of affliction, into the future, for the purpose of healing.” He is not to be stopped by any vanishing point, by any hegemonic tracing. That bullock is Bedia, a buey suelto, a free agent, jumping the lines of politics and contingency.
The Things That Drag Me Along was not the first time that Bedia asked viewers to follow his religious content from ink to sculpture via chains. In America The Bride of the Sun, an installation created at Antwerp, Belgium, in 1992, the artist connected, via a branch of forest wood, a houselike block of wood in the middle of the floor to the thigh of a shamanlike spirit outlined in black on a white museum wall. The latter stretched to the comer of the wall, turned right, put up his dukes in a challenging way. This spirit fought for a renascent Native America, and Bedia appropriately showed him releasing a fusillade of jet-black spheres.
In such works, Bedia is living the ideals that a young California sculptor, Kevin McCauley, shared with me recently in a personal communication: “to be working not as an individual isolated in his studio, but as a learner and teacher, a researcher calling meaning out into the world.” Postmodernism generates nihilism, capitalism generates greed, Palo, at its best, generates meaning and demands generosity. Ama uke? Which do you prefer?
Bedia’s choice one might christen primalist. The primalist blends contemporary art with sacred impulses from beyond the West but this time around as service, not appropriation. Unlike the appropriative methods of Picasso or of Max Ernst, the primalist process involves direct sacrifice, a giving back, rigorous tests of body and mind, and the nurturing of trust and friendship with native artists and philosophers. Bedia does not wander the Trocadero, raiding images and stealing forms. He flies to the Rosebud Reservation and undergoes, by Lakota invitation, shamanic training. All this in exchange for primal insights of form and meaning. Even Lam, when he referred to the Yoruba religion in Cuba or to the Abakuá, did so glancingly, as the doyen of Afro-Cuban studies, Don Fernando Ortiz, long ago pointed out.
In its expansiveness and depth, Bedia’s primalism lets us measure just how far we’ve traveled—how far we’ve been pulled forward—from the devouring primitivism of the past.
1. The residency was at the State University of New York at Old Westbury and the show, curated by Luis Camnitzer, included Bedia, Ricardo Rodriguez Brey and Flavio Gaxciandia. See Lucy Lippard, “Made in the U.S A: Art from Cuba,” Art in America, April 1986, pp. 27-35.
2. Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.
3. Mambo, the mid-20th-century dance music, took its name from these socially allusive texts, as if to spread a moral medicine beyond the Caribbean, but the origin of the ritual songs of Palo lies in African art history. On the coast of North Kongo, when a woman wants publicly to complain about an erring husband she can have an artist carve a kind of sculptured symbolic song on the lid of a wooden vessel. Serving his food under this container she uses the picturing of her problem to embarrass him and demand her rights publicly. The problem to be pictured in such carvings is called a mambu. In repicturing a mambu, creolized to mambo, Bedia thus restores a lost visual component to an Afro-Atlantic tradition.
4. Lippard, p. 32.
5. See Lucy Lippard, “Jimmie Durham: Postmodernist ‘Savage,’” Art in America, February 1993, pp. 62-69.
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