Jose Bedia looks every bit the urban guy of the '90s, with his requisite pony tail, sneakers, T-shirt and denim jacket.
But nothing about the Cuban-born artist's appearance says more about his place in the world than a small beaded badge pinned to the pocket over his heart. Its vibrant red, green and orange design, representing a tepee, was made by Canadian Indians.
It's an indication of where he lives, spiritually, while shuttling across continents acceding to the demands of a mainstream art career. Bedia, for one, has not lost sight of the tributary that thrust him into this all-consuming river. Wherever he is, he nurtures his connection to the native, the indigenous, the so-called primitive.
His first West Coast museum show--"Jose Bedia: De Donde Vengo (Where I Come From)," now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego--offers a particularly earnest and powerful spin on identity politics. In the show's paintings, drawings and installations, made from 1984 to two days before the opening, Bedia confronts--politically, spiritually and historically--his individual role within humanity.
"I'm of the idea that things must be universal, but have as a focus or a starting point the local or regional point of view," Bedia says through an interpreter after walking through the show. "It's important to retain the folklore or the national art and then make it universal, but starting from a local point of view."
Bedia's local point of view at the moment is Miami, where he moved with his wife, Leonore, a ballet instructor, and their 10-year-old son, Jose,in 1993. With more than a million Cubans, Miami has "everything Cuba has, but without the politics," Bedia laughs. He left Havana in 1990 for Mexico City, where he stayed until the Mexican government stopped renewing the visas of its Cuban residents. Like several dozen other Cuban artists living in Mexico, he headed next for the United States.
His people's "forced nomadism" is often shadowed in his work by references to the forced migration of Africans to Cuba as slaves in the 19th Century. Both contemporary and historical issues, however, are always filtered through the cosmological lens of palo monte , the Afro-Cuban religion of which he is an initiate, and the ritual practices of the indigenous cultures of the Americas.
Bedia shapes his paintings round like the Earth, triangular like a mountain, or in a half-circle like the dome of the heavens. The unstretched canvases are pinned to the wall like so many animal hides, inscribed with symbols of belief systems that differ in origin but share a basic faith in the unity of the human and animal, the spiritual and natural worlds.
In the installation "Ngola-La Habana" ("Angola-Havana") (1993), Bedia places a cloth bag atop a small wooden boat, a reference to the medicine bags brought by the first Africans to arrive in Cuba.
In the painting "Primeras Geometrias" ("First Geometries") (1992), small white crosses mark two nude bodies--in their "primary state," as Bedia puts it. In palo monte scarification rituals, such signs are first drawn upon the body in chalk, then cut into the skin.
The references feel remote, but Bedia's visualizations of them strike instantly at a primal, visceral level of consciousness. Whether they evoke cyclical historical processes--colonization, revolution, migration--or fundamental spiritual principles, they are profound reminders of humankind's universal, shared experience.
"When I work with my culture, the people who will best understand me are in my country, of course," he says, his light blue-green eyes intense beneath a constantly furrowed brow. But an experience at a Paris museum assured him that his message was also being heard beyond Cuba's shores.
"I was creating an installation, and part of it consisted of me killing three roosters. No one wanted to help me out and the only person who actually did help me was the janitor, who was from Sri Lanka. Of all of the people connected with the show, he's the one who best understood what my work was about. In my country, he said, we do the same thing. In the end, he took the roosters to his house. It was like a gift."
Born in Havana in 1959, the year Castro took power, Bedia was among the first artists bred and schooled under the revolutionary order.
Upon finishing his formal studies at Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte, he participated in the landmark "Volumen Uno" ("Volume One") exhibition of 1981. The 11 artists in the show were primarily conceptualists and they came to define the "generation of the '80s," according to Luis Camnitzer, art professor at State University of New York at Old Westbury and author of the 1994 book, "New Art of Cuba."
"Cuban art of the '70s was a more testimonial type of art," Camnitzer says, referring to its predominant hyper-realism and references to revolutionary heroes. "There was a certain dogmatism. The Volumen Uno group . . . challenged those tenets and began to shake up Cuban art from a formal point of view and pointed the way for the next generation."
For Bedia, at least, the move away from glorified realism toward conceptualism didn't lead to the heady mind games of his counterparts in the United States. Instead of intellectually scrutinizing the conventions of art-making, he burrowed deeper into the core of what it means to make marks on the world personally, culturally, historically. His sensual, spiritual approach was a natural extension of his longstanding fascination with indigenous cultures. At 13, he had created a Navajo-inspired sand painting.
On his first trip to New York in 1985, he was given the opportunity to transform his interest into first hand experience. He befriended the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham, who offered to take him to a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Claes Oldenburg sprung for the fares, and Bedia was off on the first of three one-month residencies with the Sioux.
"We were received at the medicine man's house," he recalls. "We lived there and participated in ceremonies with them. It was as if we were given entree into them, which is very important with these kinds of closed, indigenous groups. It's important to have references. I was able to participate in experiences that were the realization of my childhood dreams, something that I'd had in mind for a long time."
Bedia's spare, linear drawing style is often compared to the Sioux's pictographic markings on animal hides. But Bedia resists any one-to-one correspondence between what he saw and what he later produced.
"For me, it was the type of experience that went beyond just the visual influence. It was more of a general life experience that was later expressed through my work. I would feel myself immersed in that experience. I would feel the environment. And I may not make anything immediately, but maybe two months later. It's almost like anthropological fieldwork with my own type of methodology."
Another bout of field work with significant repercussions in his life was his military service in Angola, where Cuban troops sponsored by the Soviets fought in a bloody civil war. "We were somehow going to extend a hand and help the people," Bedia says, "In truth, we found out that we were the invading army." Bedia's disillusionment with Cuba's role in Angola set off a chain reaction that led to his emigration.
"It was a question of ethics. Morally, I felt very badly. There were a lot of contradictions that I felt upon my return from Angola (in 1986). I wasn't able to adapt, and I wasn't able to accept the social decrees, what the government said. My personal utopia was destroyed. It's not like I hadn't let myself think like that before--there's been a moral double standard since I was very young--but this was the last straw. I wasn't going to let myself be manipulated anymore, so I left that laboratory where I was just a guinea pig."
His rejection of his country's policies came at a time when he was getting more professional attention abroad than in Cuba itself, which had subsidized its artists and supported their international exposure until the economic downturn of the late '80s.
His work has been shown in galleries and museums across the globe, from Afghanistan to Sweden. "De Donde Vengo," organized by Melissa Feldman for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, follows right on the heels of Bedia's first solo gallery show on the West Coast, last year at Porter Randall Gallery in La Jolla.
Bedia wants to return to Cuba, but says he will do so only on the condition that "the political situation changes totally." Until then, he will continue to enjoy what he regards as the "permissibility" of living in Miami. But the irony of his success, born partly of displacement, is not lost on him.
"It's a little contradictory in nature and sometimes uncomfortable, because I'm speaking about my culture, but I'm not in my culture. It's ironic that I had to leave my country so that other people would be able to get to know my country through me. But that's just the risk you run."
* "Jose Bedia: De Donde Vengo," Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (downtown location), 1001 Kettner Blvd., through May 14. (619) 234-1001.