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José Bedia

Retrato del artista by José       Bedia

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Oct 07, 2001
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with José Bedia in Los Angeles, CA.
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  Can you speak about you interest in indigenous cultures, particularly in the symbiosis of forms found in your art work?

José Bedia:  Yes, well my interest is basically that, an interest in the cultures of North America, Cuba and Mexico where I have spent much time. I am very interested in the parallel worlds one has at arms length but that is not tangible – the crossing form one to the other. I try to bring out these relations among men, animals and men, men and machines, the world and man. I often use the image of the deer; the man/deer is a kind of spirit. I am interested in these symbioses- the human element and the animal element. In Western society we reject any kind of "animalism" but I am very interested in them. The deer is very closely tied with Ochosi who is an Afro-Cuban deity. This deity is found in the Yoruba religion and the Konga religion. Ochosi is the god of the hunt and it is often seen there represented with a bow and arrow. People often wear this symbol as pendants and as jewelry. It is syncretized into the Catholic Religion as Saint Noberto.

LatinArt:  Can you speak a bit about your technique? You work a lot with drawings don’t you?

José Bedia:  Yes, small and simple all begins with experiences that I’ve personally had or heard about and these get transformed into visual metaphors. I have a book and many folders full of drawings. I collect what interests me and I simply add to them. That way, when I’m ready to paint, I already know what's going to happen.

LatinArt:  I’m also interested how you use the canvas...different shapes and perspectives.

José Bedia:  That technique began with my dissatisfaction with what was the conventional format of Western painting – the square frame. I saw that many areas of primitive cultures were represented, not on flat surfaces, but rather on spheres like ceramics, on discs like on a shield. These people had a vision of the world that was not linear, nor did they have one-point perspective, so they really had no need for the square frame. What I am really interested in is breaking with these conventions and the idea of the renaissance perspective. In the end, painting is flat and you can move and manipulate it as you like. I have conceived painting as something that could be changed around and be used on different planes. Any painting could be a cape or a teepee for example.

The technique, as it is, is very simple and I don’t have much interest in using a lot of materials nor a lot of color. These things tend to be distracting. I am interested in the content and in creating a work that is simple in its representation so that the content is palpable.

LatinArt:  You were also influenced by American cartoons.

José Bedia:  Yes, The American as well the Cuban cartoon. When I was young I was interested in the cartoon storyline, the way a story unfolds square by square. When I started school I wanted to be a cartoonist and make comic strips. When I entered art school, though, I was a bit confused because at the art academy they told me "No, No that’s not art! This is what you’re supposed to do!" At that point they would have you copy fruit bowls and human figures and all that. Despite this, I tried to keep that almost infantile interest in that simple kind of representation. I later realized that there were certain elements in the cartoon that were very basic but dealt very much with the primitive world...the primary world of the primitive world-view. Views that were quite sofisticated at the same time. I combined both things and maintained what I desired as a student and added what I learned later.

LatinArt:  You studied at the San Alejandro Academy and later the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. What influence did your studies have on what you are interested in now?

José Bedia:   At the Institute there was something quite new which was Soviet Socialist Realism that was very strong at the time in Cuba. I even had Soviet professors...later it opened up much more to different influences. I was very good at the academic study of art, the problem is that it wasn’t what I was interested in. It was as if I had two parallel lives as a student. On one hand I did the work that was asked of me in order to keep up my grades, while on the other hand I was looking for my own world of ideas rooted in earlier cultures, in the spontaneous art of tribal people, of art from people who had no art training of any kind. I now try to find people that have never painted nor have had any type of artistic training.

LatinArt:  Do you think that that academic environment, with its rules and regulations pushed you in one way or another to look toward a different form of artistic language?

José Bedia:  That’s what happened to me in a forces one to choose.

LatinArt:  You have a great deal of personal experience with different indigenous groups and religious teachings – being initiated in the Palo Monte religion in Cuba, for example. Could you speak more about this?

José Bedia:  The thing is that, when I go to these kind of ritualistic practices I don’t go consciously thinking "Ok I’m going to see this and I’m going to learn that." I go with a much more open mind and later on the things I experienced get processed in me and later they get expressed in my art. When I go, I never know what I’m looking for nor do I know what is going to influence me. I become very involved with the experience and I let it take over. I draw closer to these events in a kind of anthropological way without the cold methodology of an anthropologist. "OK, we are going to study the population census and inter-familial relations..." I know all that. I have studied anthropology. My experience is more sensitive. I let myself be accepted by these groups, up to the point they will accept me, and I participate up to the point where it’s possible. But, I don’t know how this is all going to be expressed in my work until later. It takes me a great deal of time to elaborate on those experiences. I exhibited work in Havana in '89 dealing with what I saw in Angola in 1985 during my military service. It took me that time to form that body of work.

LatinArt:  Your work definitely has more to deal with participation than observation. Yet, there are the obvious comparisons to the work of Wilfredo Lam. What do you think of this?

José Bedia:  Many people like to see a kind of relation and that doesn’t bother me. The problem is that one shouldn’t see strict connections with what he did and with what I do. The visual references and similarities refer to the communities we both have interests in. He and I both search tribal art for influences as a vehicle for artistic production, whether they be formal or conceptual. That, I would say is the only similarity between the two of us.

LatinArt:  Your work has been described as dealing very much with the experience of exile. Could you elaborate on this?

José Bedia:  This theme deals, of course, with my personal experience but it was never something I looked to express. When you find yourself in a country that’s not your own – that you’ve left with no possibility of returning, at least for the immediate future, then you find yourself thinking about these things. I have become a sort of "nomad," moving from one place to another with my culture, and where I land is where I plant my things. And that’s the way it goes, you become a "cultural" nomad.

LatinArt:  You were an art instructor in Cuba and even though you live here in the U.S., you have said that the distance has made you "more Cuban than the Cubans." How do you see the art movement in Cuba with respect to the interest it has developed here in the States?

José Bedia:  Concerning the art movement, I know that there are many young artists that are following the road paved by my generation. In some way they have been able to take advantage of this, as my generation was one of rupture and change. A lot of things changed. Things that were not do-able, not even thinkable, are now possibilities...the terrain has loosened up a bit. The thing is that I sense what has been lost – seeing from the outside what has been happening. The new art seems to be an art for export that is not used and consumed in Cuba. In the 80s we at least thought of showing our art to a Cuban public. In Cuba nobody buys art but we produced art with a utopian vision of sharing it with the public. Not a single drawing was sold but you knew that there was a core of people who were seeing your work, who followed you and often acquired your work. I have the feeling that the artists in Cuba today are more interested in exhibiting their art elsewhere and having it bought by other people. It is a commercial phenomenon...but a healthy culture can’t operate that way.

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