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Stanford Report, January 22, 2003

Cuban-born artist explores roots in Cantor installation

BY JOHN SANFORD

Everything is connected in Nsila-El Camino: José Bedia and the Spirit's Path in Congo Art, an exhibition on view at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts through April 20.

Cuban-born artist José Bedia, right, worked on an art installation with friend and art dealer Fredric Snitzer, left, at the Cantor Center last week. After rapidly painting a 9-by-21-foot canvas, Bedia worked on a small figure covered by a black cloth and bound with rope. Photo: L.A. Cicero

In May, artist Bedia sketched and photographed three Congolese statuettes from the center's permanent collection. Returning to his Miami studio, he then made nine mixed-media paintings based on the wooden figures. But he did not begin the final piece of the exhibition until last Wednesday.

That afternoon, Bedia, who wore a black denim jacket, blue jeans and slate-blue canvas high-tops, stood in the Halperin Gallery on the second floor of the Cantor Center and contemplated a large painting he had finished that morning on a 9-by-21-foot canvas. He had worked quickly, dipping his latex-gloved hands into black paint to fashion the abstract figure -- a mountainous head, shoulders and upper torso. Traced into the paint were outlines of bones and organs; black droplets flew off its exterior like sweat.

The figure was rising from "Kalunga" -- a Congolese and Angolan mythic conception of the underworld that is associated with the sea, the realm of the dead -- according to Bedia.

"'Kalunga' is the line of the ocean, the line that divides the world of the dead and the world of the living people," he said. A native of Cuba, Bedia, 44, studied art there in the 1970s. In 1985, he was sent to Angola to participate in the Cuban government's African military campaign, which he considered disgraceful. He left Cuba for Mexico in 1990. In 1993, he came to the United States. He now lives in Miami.

His art is influenced by African, Afro-Cuban and Native American religions and cosmology. Bedia himself was initiated into the Regla de Congo, whose traditions are rooted in Kongo religions that arrived in Cuba with West African slaves.

That history is addressed in the exhibition, too, in the form of an installation. A small and indistinct figure, covered by a black cloth and bound with sandy-colored rope, sits in a slender wooden canoe in front of the large canvas. Sticks surround the figure, pointing outward. Black chains connect the ends of the canoe to different points of the large painting; the two combine to form a multi-media installation.

Artist José Bedia spoke with visitors at the Cantor Center’s Halperin Gallery last week as he worked on a painting and installation. Photo: L.A. Cicero

The nine smaller paintings are an effort to restore a kind of spiritual essence to the statuettes, Bedia explained.

"People made them for some specific meaning, for some specific purpose, and this is what I try to recuperate in the drawings -- of something as alive, that still have power and still have many things to teach us," he said.

Small photographic copies of the statuettes are incorporated into the larger, more abstract paintings of them. Kikongo and Afro-Cuban terms also decorate the works and refer to various spiritual, cultural and tribal aspects of West African peoples. One such term is nsila, a Cuban word derived from the Kikongo nzila, which may be literally translated as a path, a road or a journey. In a religious or philosophical context, it can refer to an extraordinary journey on a meaningful path, according to Manuel Jordán Pérez, the Phyllis Wattis Curator of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, who invited the artist to stage the exhibition.