José Bedia | Piango Piango Llega Lejos (Step by Step, We Arrive Very Far), 2000
The graphic power of José Bedia’s mixed media drawings, paintings, and site-specific installations captivates viewers in a glance. In many of his artworks, linear elements lock elongated figures within a pattern as eye-catching as a spider’s web. Bedia often cre- ates monumental wall drawings that are done primarily in black, accompanied by ob- jects that are handmade or culled from either pop culture or nature, such as a toy boat or pair of antlers. To access the deeper symbolic associations contained in his imagery, however, viewers find it valuable to learn something of the influences the artist has em- braced. Bedia is Cuban; his heritage blends diverse ethnic traditions, including Hispanic, Native American, African, Afro-Cuban, and European. Early in his career, he developed an interest in ethnographic studies, but since his maturation as an artist, his work flows primarily out of his internalization of ideas “concerning the relationship of human beings with the world, from Afro- and Indo-American viewpoints.”57
A frequent motif in Bedia’s art is the representation of a journey. A journey may be represented explicitly (by a boat or a bridge, for instance), or a journey may be shown implicitly (with a labyrinth or passage of paint that appears to glow, thus mark- ing an inner spiritual transformation). In Bedia’s imagery, a mystical journey repre- sents the process by which knowledge is gained. Gaining knowledge provides the opportunity for a metaphysical transformation; such a transformation is the dramatic center of many important works of art and literature of South and Central America as well as the Caribbean.
Spiritual or transforming journeys are central to Bedia’s art, as well as to his own autobiographic experiences. Starting in the 1970s, as a teenager in Havana, Bedia accompanied his mother on visits to a priest of Palo Monte. Palo Monte is a religious faith transposed to the Caribbean by black slaves who were brought from central Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; as a religion, Palo Monte claims a sacred connection between the world of humans and of animals. According to Robert Farris Thompson, an expert on the art history of the Afro-Atlantic world, “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.”58 Since his indoctrination into Palo Monte in the early 1980s, Bedia has devoted much of his art to a represen- tation of reality as seen through the Palo Monte belief system. Words are incorpo- rated frequently into his imagery to pinpoint the specific issues (such as the frailty of life) that the artwork directs the viewer to consider. Words, inserted as titles or captions, are often snippets of Palo songs and expressions—mambos—some pro- foundly spiritual, others political and topical, often in reference to the challenges and injustices stemming from colonialism. In addition to incorporating Palo Monte words, Bedia’s art may utilize ritual objects and altarpiece forms to evoke the reli- gious practices of the Kongo that were brought to the New World by slaves. (In cen- tral Africa, altars can represent the face of the gods.)
The Palo Monte religion, an Afro-Cuban religion, contains “parallels with Native American cultures and religions such as the Nahuatl, Lakota, Sioux or Navajo.”59 Bedia recognized these affinities intuitively and then confirmed them through research in anthropology texts. In 1985, the artist traveled to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, where he lived with a shaman. Among the Sioux, immersed in a North American Plains Indian culture, Bedia intensely explored art and artifacts in which “every element, color, and image carries a specific symbolic reference.”60 The shaman instructed Bedia in ritualistic practices, such as the sweat lodge, in which spiritual regeneration occurs through self-purification. Bedia’s own creative practice has since incorporated imagery (such as pipes for smoking and concentric patterns) that is derived from the cosmologies of the North American Plains Indians. An example of this influence is seen in Piango Piango Llega Lejos (Step by Step, We Arrive Very Far) (2000) [9-21]; the circular overall shape of this artwork and the rounded, reddish torso of the figure within the composition echo the circular motif that remains a cen- tral symbol in many of the world’s religions and cosmologies, including those of the Amerindian and Afro-Cuban traditions that have been particularly influential for Bedia. Within Bedia’s imaginative conception, “the transcultural pilgrim has mor- phed into a turtle, albeit one with human limbs and the ability to smoke a pipe.” The turtle’s shell is adorned with “elements of the visual vocabulary of Palo Monte, in- cluding the anvil, cauldron, knife, and the arriero bird.”61 A smaller version of the turtle figure extends on the right side of the artwork below the abstract representa- tion of water, both outlined by a glowing white linear pattern. A phrase in the Kongo language, which serves also as the artwork’s title, arcs across the top edge; the words imply the wisdom of caution: Piango, piango, lega lejos (“Step by step, you can go far”).
Immersing himself in other Native American traditions (including Aztec and Mayan traditions of Mexico), Bedia has found inspiration for his simplified, almost cartoon-like forms. Among these preliterate cultures from ancient times the realms of people, animals, and nature interpenetrated on physical and metaphysical planes. In various artworks that the artist has produced over his career, figures often gesture to a void, while their eyes glow or stare at empty spaces, signifying the hidden di- mensions that lie behind the façade of everyday existence.
The artist claims that his use of symbolism is authentic, that his work is anchored in his own firsthand knowledge of actual traditions. In an interview published in 1999, he explained, “I don’t invent anything. For example, the sand symbols. I learned what each thing represents from a medicine man in Montana.”62 Drafted into the Cuban army in 1986, Bedia traveled to Africa; in Angola, he studied African religious beliefs that are ancestral to the Palo Monte and Santería traditions of Cuba. According to the artist, while he may duplicate an altar within the process of creat- ing an artwork, the resulting artwork is not a sacred altar. The artwork cannot function in a truly spiritual way because the artist would never place “the sacred elements of his religion in a secular art installation.”63 Such an artwork is never consecrated.
Among Bedia’s most powerful artworks are those the artist has created by painting or drawing directly on gallery or museum walls, attaching or adding other materials to complete the installation. An example of this creative strategy, Las Cosas Que Me Arrastan (The Things That Drag Me Along) (2008) [9-22] includes a double-headed figure being “dragged” forward through the space of the gallery, attached by chains to a collection of found objects. Each head is defined by a jaw protruding in a way that is characteristic of many of Bedia’s figures. Notice how the negative space between the faces and necks creates a dramatic white arrow that points out the path onward. Festooned across the enormous figure’s chest are pasted photographs of an iron cauldron and sweat lodge, symbols of the Afro- Cuban and Plains Indian faiths, respectively (likewise, the two heads also signify these two influences). Pulling the figure is a “team” of boats laden with objects that represent the range of Bedia’s knowledge of sacred rituals. For example, a coyote stands in the lead of the Amerindian boat; the animal is on a spiritual journey. Such a quest is the primary goal in all that the artist undertakes and all that his art repre- sents. The entire artwork functions further as a collection of talismanic images and objects that may lead the viewer along the path of enlightenment as well.
While containing symbolic passages that offer a political critique of historical injustices, Bedia’s art is, ultimately, suffused with a joyous optimism anchored in spir- itual awareness. For example, Esperando en los Cerros (Waiting in the Hills) (2009) [9-23] offers for contemplation a night scene in which a multitude of horned figures slumber while glowing heads scan the night sky. Meanwhile, unseen by these vari- ous figures, and yet prominent in the center of the composition, a golden female spirit illuminates the path on a dark mountain.
Born in Havana in 1959, Bedia left Cuba permanently in 1990. He spent three years in Mexico, after which he migrated to the United States in 1993, where he set- tled in Miami, choosing that city for its close ties to Hispanic culture.