The Miami Art Museum’s current retrospective of José Bedia is more focused than a traditional mid-career survey. Instead, its goal is to pinpoint the spiritual sources of the artist’s startling imagery. Titled Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work by José Bedia, the exhibit presents work that resulted from Bedia’s travels to Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, the North American praire, the Amazonian rain forest, the Dominican countryside, and the Central African savanna. During his travels, Bedia doesn’t simply don an ethnographer’s hat: he readily participates in rituals and builds long-lasting relationships—a kind of fieldwork that’s integral to his art. Much like the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell, Bedia is on a lifeling journey to discover universal truths.
Bedia was born in Cuba in 1959. From his earliest recollections, as evident in teenage sketches, Bedia was fascinated with spirituality and anthropology. It could be said that his first pilgrimage began in his hometown, where he was formally initiated in 1983 into the Afro-Cuban religion, Palo Monte.
He depicts this experience in the work Mama quiere menga, menga de su nkombo (Mama Wants Blood, Blood of His Bull). In the center of the painting is the nganga, a cauldron that signals Sarabanda, who later became Bedia’s guiding spirit. On the torso’s shoulders are Afro-Cuban ritual initiation markings. These signs are common themes in Bedia’s work, as are symbolism, iconography, and creolization.
In 1985, after recently completing a Ford Foundation artist’s residency in the U.S., Bedia unexpectedly received a letter from the Cuban army and was sent to Angola for mandatory service. In 1991, disgusted with army practice, he left Cuba (he still rarely visits except to see family), though the experience provided him the rare chance to delve into African culture and his newfound faith.
Travelling first to Mexico, he settled in Miami in 1993 and became an American citizen in 1999. Consumed by wanderlust, Bedia travelled extensively. He spent a lot of time on Native American reservations, where he was initiated into a second religion, Peyote. The fusing of Peyote with Palo Monte is depicted in Pájaro que busca otro horizonte (The Bird Who Seeks Another Land). The central red bird represents the seeker, while the shape of the canvas embodies both a tipi and a nganga.
Even though Bedia is something of a nomad, his work consistently exudes a strong sense of place. Many of Transcultural Pilgrim’s display cases are dotted with artifacts from the communities he’s visited, complementing his work. While some people refer to them as part of Bedia’s vast personal collection, he frames it differently: “For me, those are learning objects that I put around me in my home. Every day I learn something from those things.”
Whatever the geographic subject matter, Bedia remains an artistic narrator who is driven to explore and share his discoveries with sacred reverence. As he’s said, “I create an iconographic code, but everybody can read it.”
Transcultural Pilgrim is on view at the Miami Art Museum through September 2. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Fredric Snitzer Gallery has mounted José Bedia: Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), which is on view through May 20.