Cuban painter draws on Santeria
HAVANA—Even among the salsa musicians and Santeria practitioners roaming around Havana's colonial Plaza de la Catedral, Manuel Mendive stands out.
Emerging from the 18th-century cathedral in his typical African
boubou robe of linen, his gray dreadlocks swept back in a ponytail, the
57-year-old sculptor and
painter is as recognizable here as is his work.
Many call him the island's foremost living artist. Art lovers
in Cuba and abroad are fascinated with his brightly coloured sculptures
and paintings, nearly all dedicated
to Santeria, the Afro-Cuban belief system blending Roman Catholic saints and Yoruba deities.
Mendive walks across the plaza toward a café, using the
walking stick he has used ever since a bus ran over his leg. Settling down
for a glass of juice, he wrinkles
his nose at the photograph of a painting Cuban officials chose for an Internet auction last month.
"Something is missing to integrate the golds. They stand out too much, and the painting looks cold," he says. "In the real painting, the blues are very blue, very violent. So are the pinks.''
Mendive wants colour to be the first thing people notice about
his work. "I want to capture people with the colours. Then gradually, they
can discover my message,"
Born in a Havana slum in a wooden house his grandfather built, Mendive graduated from Cuba's prestigious San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts in 1963.
Over the last three decades, he has had more than 40 exhibits
around the world — in France, Britain, Japan, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and
the United States. The
Museum of Modern Art in Paris and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., include his pieces in their collections.
The painting he's studying at the cafe is Energias de la Naturaleza
(Energies of Nature), which he did earlier this year. In it, a seated woman
bows to receive a bowl
of food from the Yoruba god of destiny, Eleggua, whom Santeria practitioners associate with the Catholic St. Anthony.
"My discourse is always the same: Man with nature, man with his
gods, man with good and evil. Man in life and man in death; from life springs
death and from death
springs life," he says.
Santeria is his religion, inherited from his parents and grandparents
before them. At the cathedral, he was celebrating the Day of St. Christopher,
saint. In Santeria, St. Christopher is also Aggayu, the Yoruba god of land and protector of travellers.
At his home in the town of Tapaste, just outside Havana, he surrounds himself with a menagerie of the creatures he paints: tropical fish, goats, peacocks.
"And people," he adds. "People inspire me, too.''
There is more tragedy and discordance in his older works.
The 1967 piece Oggun depicts the Yoruban god of metal and tragedy sowing evil in the world. People murder each other in the nightmarish scene.
Mendive paints and sculpts what he knows. But for inspiration,
he has travelled outside Cuba, including to several African countries.