Things that Cannot Be Seen Any Other Way

The Art of Manuel Mendive

Centered on the fifty-year career of prominent Afro-Cuban artist Manuel Mendive, this will be the first exhibition and publication in the United States to focus exclusively on the contemporary visual and material culture of Afro-Cuban religion, and will include works produced in both Cuba and Africa, a number of which will be drawn from the artist’s personal collection.  The selected works, held today in Cuba, elsewhere in the Caribbean and in the United States, have rarely been exhibited together. In addition to Mendive’s works, the exhibition will feature a diverse range of objects, drawn from both contemporary artistic practice and popular culture, including prints, drawings, paintings, costumes and African sculptures. 

Part of the generation of Cuban artists who emerged from Cuba’s national fine art academy, San Alejandro, Manuel Mendive is regarded as one of the foremost contemporary artists in Cuba and the Caribbean.  Mendive, who began his career in the early 1960s around the time that a dominant period of Cuban abstract expressionism was waning, paved new ground by moving beyond the reliance on mainstream western art forms such as cubism and surrealism that had been common among his predecessors and incorporating visual elements rooted in Lukumi/Yoruba visual traditions into his painting.  The exhibition and publication will trace Mendive’s drawing, painting, sculpture and performances from the early 1960’s to the present, giving special focus to discrete themes common across his work, including religion, nationalism and memory. Mendive’s most significant work, which will form the central conceptual and physical focus of the project, are his 1960s and 1970s series “Yoruba Mythology” and “Middle Passage” and his performances in the late 1980s, such as “La Vida.” Each series bears witness to both the time and place of its making, showing the artist’s growth and development, but also testifying to his deep commitment to Afro-Cuban culture and the art of painting and his concerns around the nature of religion and its visual language. 

The exhibition and publication will chronicle the iconography of Afro-Cuban art in conjunction with an examination of the influence of both Western and African artistic practices on Cuban art and will explore issues such as creolization, hybridity and syncretism through the XX century to the present day. This examination will include a tracing of the transmission of images and African themes in Cuban art prior to Mendive’s work, including in the vanguard movement in the late 1920s, the negritude movement in the 1920s and 1940s and the Afro-Cuban centrism promotes by the Cuban revolution, highlighting the role played by politics of identity, race and resistance by African descendants in indigenous works of art. Work by artists who made some of the most important and compelling art in Cuba before Mendive’s time, including Cunde Bermudes, Roberto Diago, Eduardo Abela and Wifredo Lam, will be discussed. 

Book Contents

I. Introduction

In introducing Mendive’s work in relation to the fundamentals of contemporary Afro-Cuban art in Latin America and the Caribbean, this section will define the principles of the Yoruba-based visual vocabulary that Mendive developed, explore the manner in which he built his art around these visual traits and discuss his approach within the context of the broader Cuban contemporary art scene. It will engage Mendive’s own personal background, challenging the idea of a universal artistic discourse that undervalues an artist’s specific cultural and religious tradition.

II. Voice Over 

This section will define and explore terms and issues including Afro-Cuban art, Afro-Cuban religions, exoticism and appropriation and will explore the role and imagining of African identity across artistic practice in Cuba.  It will address the potential conflict between the African cultural model and the manner in which it has been appropriated and disassembled, including by looking back to earlier modern artists influenced by African visual practice such as Picasso at the turn of the XX century. Mendive, like his predecessor Wifredo Lam, witnesses African masks and other traditional objects as part of an ethnographic display, is struck by them for purely aesthetic and spiritual reasons, then re-represents them through the Western medium of oil paint. However, in contrast to other Cuban artists, including Lam, Mendive essentially renovates Afro-Cuban visual culture, material culture and aesthetic, concealing their nature as the output of a very specific (Lucumi/Yoruba), very different cultural reality, both objectifying and deconstructing them to form a series of basic formal codes.  In exploring Mendive’s use of this structured visual vocabulary over the course of his career, the section will also draw upon the lessons of the Avant Garde period and Surrealist artistic movements in which Mandive was initially trained and contrast his work and the approach that underlies it to that of artists from such period.

III. Some Things that Cannot Be Seen Any Other Way

Focusing on the contribution of Mendive’s art to the contemporary Cuban art scene, this section examines the continuity it displays with Yoruba tradition – both historic and among contemporary Yoruba artists in Africa – and on the influence of such fealty on the discourse surrounding Afro-Cuban artistic and religious traditions. This section will also discuss the shortcomings of existing discourse surrounding Mendive’s art; principally, the degree to which contemporary reception of Mendive’s Afro-Cuban themes has tended to exoticize and fetishize it, for both its aesthetic of otherness and for the novelty with which it views normalized Western aesthetic modes.  Unlike other artists who, in trying to reconcile Afro-Cuban tradition and expression with Western artistic language, have encountered difficultly achieving semantic stability and stumbled over the limitations of conventional language within the Cuban fine art community, Mendive has been able to maintain a consistent and coherent visual vocabulary throughout his career. Mendive, unlike his predecessor Wifredo Lam, is an active participant in Afro-Cuban cultural traditions and, as such, has succeeded in creating art that has stayed true to its cultural roots and has not been watered down by attempts to fit it within Western expectations.

IV. Conclusion

V. Chronology

VI. Notes

VII. Bibliography

VIII. Credits

List of Lenders

List of Credits

Copyright Credits

Photo Credits

IX. Index

Exhibition Sections

Section 1 Ethnic Visualization in Afro-Cuban Theme

Refers to the presence of African cultures in the origins of Cuban culture and what might be called the Cuban cultural imaginary. Demonstrates the degree to which African influences can be seen in the representational language of painting, sculpture, drawing and graphic art and in how these representations recreate mythology and underlying cosmological beliefs. 

Section 2 Exegeses: Notes on Visual Poetry

Focuses on the ways in which the transplanted Yoruba culture was synthesized and became a referential text within Cuban culture more broadly and by Mandive individually. Examines the manner in which the Lukumi/Yoruba cultures have facilitated expression and of how their thematic references allow us to recognize the typological elements, philosophic content and cosmological visions of the related Afro-Cuban religions.

Section 3 Trance and Contagion

Explores what I would call the instrumentalism of the material world and examines how Mendive as an artist adopts mechanisms and systems for the representation of objects from Afro-Cuban religions and is able to imbue his work with a sense of ritual, conceptual materialism and metaphorical character. Traces the development and use of Mendive’s Yoruba-based visual vocabulary across his diverse body of work.

Section 4 Chronicles of Memory

Reflects upon the degree to which Mendive’s work is oriented to address questions related to the human condition and how he attempted to analyze the world through mythological knowledge and notions of reality determined by magic-realistic thinking by using the artistic morphology of Yoruba-based Afro-Cuban religious traditions.

© Barbaro Martinez Ruiz 2013