New York

José Bedia

Frumkin/Adams Gallery

Both José Bedia’s crypto-symbolic figurative paintings and his compelling mixed-media installations suggest a ritual atmosphere: they are complementary aspects of the artist’s ongoing exploration of the Afro-Cuban religions Santeria and Palo Monte. The Cuban folkways that Bedia’s work engages are themselves rich and eclectic mixtures of various cultural traditions African, Western Christian, even Native American—and it is precisely this syncretism that fuels his work, that allows him to explore the complexity of postcolonial identity.

In his paintings he often sets a linear figuration, adopted from the North Dakota Sioux, against mildly turbulent, painterly fields, a calculated grounding of non-Western spiritualism within an unmistakably Western pictorial context. In Ya Va Fuiri (How it works, all works 1992), Bedia summarizes the Kongo world view with a simple narrative of the cosmos that depicts the continuity between humans and other living beings, and between life and death. This world is elsewhere shown to be populated with various Afro-Cuban deities and spirits, such as the towering figure amidst a field of stars in Senor de la Noche (Master of the night), whose identity is suggested by a single shooting star. This “flash of the spirit”—discussed by Robert Farris Thompson in connection with Afro-Atlantic art—illuminates Bedia’s paintings in the form of magical transformations and the crossing of worldly boundaries. In Mouna Tiene Bilongo (Woman under a spell) a man near a bedridden woman is shown sacrificing a rooster over a cauldron to invoke a healing spirit that enters the scene from an open door. The animal’s drops of blood are echoed by repeated drips of paint, which dominate the field here the painting process itself is subtly equated with ritual healing.

Bedia brings the material richness and improvisatory spirit of both Santeria and Palo Monte to his mixed-media works, transforming actual ritual elements into original statements. Three of the four installation works shown here were initially part of a larger installation in 1992, Brevisima Relacion de la Destruction de las Indias (A brief history of the destruction of the Americas), conceived as a polemical response to the celebration of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. Most dramatic was Llegada del Christo (The arrival of Christ), in which three animal pelts were nailed to a wall by arrows as if violently crucified, representing the genocide of indigenous American peoples by European conquerors. Three corresponding silhouettes, simultaneously identified and indicted by the accompanying labels “La Niña,” “La Pinta,” and “Sta. Maria,” rose like ghosts behind the pelts. Bedia’s own response to these specters was The Little Revenge from the Periphery, which featured a popular poster illustrating “the white man’s burden.” In this case the tables were turned; the arrows, as well as other weapons, pierced an image of the European man, while members of the four “races”—Indian, African, Asian, and Pacific Islander—looked on. Bedia centered this scene within a circle, a rather benign compositional device but for the fact that it echoes the Kongo “cosmogram,” sometimes used to invoke vengeful spirits.

Bedia constantly crosses boundaries between the cultural mainstream and its margins, between art and religion, and between high and low. He enriches the notion of installation space with ritual elements, using it to provide alternative constructions of identity.

—Jenifer P. Borum