Manuel Mendive is perhaps the most respected Cuban artist of recent decades and one of the most famous painters in the Spanish-speaking Americas. His works have been inspired by elements of African culture that still survive in the Caribbean.
The artist was born in 1944, in the Luyanó sector of the Cuban capital, to a family that was involved in Santeria. At age 11, he won an art prize from UNESCO. In 1963, he graduated from the prestigious San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts in Havana.
Mendive has dedicated himself to sculpture and painting, though the latter has become more prominent. In the 1970s, he began creating sculptures of wood and he later decided to fuse this medium with his pictorial creations. He has also worked in other media, ranging from drawing to stained glass to body painting. The artist has also combined his visual art with performance art. An example is La vida, in which the artist painted the bodies of dancers who expressed, through physical movement, the painter’s magical-religious viewpoint.
Understanding the imaginary and other characteristic elements of the Yoruba culture has allowed Mendive to develop an aesthetic style all his own that refers, in some ways, to the artistic traditions of West Africa (Mendive did not travel to Africa until 1982, however). Similarly, the artist’s exploration of Africa’s mark on Caribbean culture has allowed him (and the school of admirers who follow his work) to examine more closely the characteristics of the Cuban culture. Although some of his works reconstruct ritualistic Yoruba elements, the prevailing characteristics point toward a questioning of modern life, identity and beauty.
Mendive paints rounded, often unreal figures in soft, light colors to represent Santeria deities. The figures are fluid and at times appear to take on the unreal consistency of spirits or pagan orishas. The simple and luminous creations have a very particular strength.
The artist’s work is framed by the period that followed the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. His participation in art activities promoted by the government of Cuba has created resentment in the anti-Castro Cuban exile communities. In 1988, for example, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion burned a painting by Mendive, El pavo real.
Among the most important honors Mendive has received, in addition to the one mentioned above from UNESCO, are the Adam Montparnasse Prize from the Salon de Mai in Paris (in 1968), the National Prize at the Second International Festival of Painting at Cagnes-sur-Mer (1970), The Order of 1,300 Years of Bulgarian Culture, Bulgaria Ministry of Culture (1984), Saint Guiliano Terme Commune Medal, Italy (1990), Junior Olympics Medal, in Japan (1989), and the Chevalier des Arts et Lettresfrom the French Ministry of Culture (in 1994), in addition to various national prizes in Cuba.
Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: April 30, 2012.
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