The Miami Art Museum’s retrospective of José Bedia is interesting for several reasons—even before viewing a single work. That one of the city’s most celebrated and collected artists, a Cuban émigré born the year Batista was ousted no less, hasn’t received a show of this scale in his adopted hometown is somewhat shocking—especially when one considers that major solo exhibits of his work have been mounted in Mexico, Spain and the Canary Islands. Also surprising is the fact that the traveling show came from an institution outside Miami; in this case, the Fowler Museum at UCLA, which hosted the 2011 premiere. Then there’s its title, Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work, relating its religious subject matter as opposed to Bedia’s better-known themes of politics, immigration and memory. Lastly, it combines the artist’s large personal collection of objects from decades spent immersing himself in nonorganized religions throughout Africa and the Americas.
“It’s pretty rare for artists to share their influences so directly with the public, but this is an open book,” says Bedia, who exhibits his drums, peyote boxes, beaded rattles and a rare dance platform, among other treasures, alongside 34 paintings, installations and works on paper. “I hope people come away with a better understanding of global cultures.”
Bedia deepened his passion for amateur anthropology in the mid ’80s while serving in the Cuban army in Angola, where he visited the African country’s interior villages on supply caravans. Though most Afro-Cuban religion centers on Santeria, Bedia was fascinated by Palo Monte, a creed fusion developed by Central African slaves in the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean that’s explored in many of the show’s works, from a reproduction of an altar to paintings featuring its main ceremonial icon, the nganga, or cauldron. In the show’s exclusive addition from MAM’s collection, a nganga filled with bones and branches rests between wall paintings of two heads that greatly differ in size to emphasize the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next.
“He’s able to put these traditional icons into contemporary language for a new audience,” says MAM Chief Curator Tobias Ostrander.
Bedia is humble and dedicated regarding his unusual access into these communities, and he returns to them regularly whether to paint a house, as he did in Angola recently; study with shamans in the Peruvian Amazon; or participate in a sweat lodge ritual with his adopted Native American family. The show chronicles his experiences with tribes whose provenances stretch from the Sonora Desert in Mexico to the border between Montana and Canada. Rather than the typical immigration points of entry, Bedia’s introduction to the U.S. was (in 1985 before his exile from Cuba) through the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and its influence continues in pieces like “Tunkashila,” in which a winged skeletal figure engulfed by a grander dark figure relays the Lakotas’ belief in powers that live in the sacred sky and mountains.
“I’ve been involved [with these tribes for] so long that [members I met as] children are now parents,” says Bedia, who photographs, sketches and films testimonials to produce work once he’s back in his Miami studio. “I’m constantly teaching myself, and all these objects and research are like books.”
Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work runs May 24-Sept. 2 at the Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami, 305.375.3000, miamiartmuseum.org