At the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Work by José Bedia surveys the artist’s work from an interesting angle, blending his creative and spiritual practices into a seamless whole. The show’s curators, Judith Bettelheim and Janet Catherine Berlo, talked with Cuban Art Newsabout the exhibition, Bedia’s work, and his position in the contemporary art world.
In organizing the show, the curators’ first decision was to make it “completely thematic,” says Bettelheim. The challenge, she says, was to “figure out how many of these pilgrimages could be included, and how many works of art we could find. Because nobody keeps a good accounting of where Bedia works disappear to. And he’s got so many shows all over Europe and the United States and Latin America.”
The exhibition opens with a section on “Cuba and Palo Monte,” the Afro-Cuban religion in which Bedia was initiated in 1983 and is now a high-level practitioner. The second section, “The Americas,” addresses Bedia’s experiences with the Lakota peoples of the upper Midwest, with Semana Santa(Holy Week) festivals in west Mexico villages, and with shamans in Peru. It also includes a section on “Popular Heroes and Revolutionaries”—figures in Caribbean history whom Bedia admires, such as Quintín Banderas and Andrés Petit of Cuba, and Papa Liborio of the Dominican Republic. The final section, “Back to Africa,” focuses on Bedia’s trips to Central Africa, particularly Zambia.
Because Bedia’s own ethnographic collections are intrinsic to his work, “within the exhibition itself there are things we call ‘moments of inspiration,’” explains Bettelheim. “For different pilgrimages, we borrowed objects from his home in Miami and installed them within the narrative of the exhibition.” For her, that’s one reason the Fowler, with its ethnographic scope and interest in contemporary art, was such a good venue for the show. “I don’t think many great contemporary art museums would have allowed that to happen,” she says.
For Berlo, the show’s title is particularly apt. “Bedia is a religious practitioner, so we use the word ‘pilgrim’ not really in a metaphoric sense but almost in a literal one,” she says. “And for the last few years there’s been so much talk in the contemporary art world about cosmopolitanism and transnationalism and so forth. That has always been so central to him, we’re trying to call that to people’s attention. But also, for the most part, in the contemporary art world people are shy about mixing it up with religion too much. So we thought those two words together produced an interesting friction.”
While the exhibition focuses on Bedia’s art and spiritual experiences, the accompanying book also attempts to place him in a contemporary art-world context. “Janet and I really felt strongly that he’s always been left out of a broader artistic discourse,” says Bettelheim, “especially with globalization. One wonders why Bedia’s name doesn’t come up. Or if it does, it comes up incorrectly—that whole idea of primitivism. So we really try to place him within a dialogue about contemporary art.”
For both curators, Bedia’s cosmopolitanism differs from the usual art-world sense of the term. “What does cosmopolitan mean? What does globalization mean?” asks Bettelheim. “Does it mean bienales, going from New York to Paris to Guangju to Dakar? Or going to the Sonoran desert, to Zambia, to South Dakota? We propose different ways of thinking about globalization, where the vectors are not major urban centers but rural places of the world that people connect to.” They use the term ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ to describe Bedia’s approach—because, says Berlo, “any place he goes, he seeks his religious equivalents and his artistic equivalents, not in the metropolitan centers but in the rural areas.”
For Berlo, what sets Bedia apart as a contemporary artist is his encyclopiedic knowledge of the arts of Africa and the Americas. “It’s a second-nature vocabulary to him,” she says. “There’ve been a number of artists since the 1960s who’ve sort of gone slumming in the tribal world, with very little knowledge, and what they produce has a superficial relationship to those worlds. Someone like Joseph Beuys, for example.” Berlo laughs. “Don’t get me started on Joseph Beuys. But that’s the typical disrespect that the ethnographic world gets from the contemporary art world—very superficial knowledge. So it was so exciting, both to Judith and to me, to find someone who was so conversant with these arts and these literatures. It informs José’s art in a very dynamic way.”
At the Fowler, Transcultural Pilgrim runs through January 8. Next spring it opens at the Miami Art Museum—“May 15, I believe,” says Bettelheim. “And it will stay open for a long time, because it’s the last exhibition in the old building while they’re getting the new building ready.”
Asked about the collaboration among “the three JBs,” as they called themselves, Berlo immediately responds, “It was a delight. José really appreciated that Judith and I spoke his language in terms of all the imagery he uses, that he often has to explain to people in a belabored way. And that we would get what he was doing and saw the equivalences between the things he collects and the places he goes and what appears on his canvases. It was just a remarkable collaboration.”