The works of Manuel Mendive conjure enchanted lands where the trees have eyes, the fish sprout human heads and limbs, and the people spread wings and fly. Freed from mundane limitations, these hybrid inhabitants evoke the intertwined fates of mankind and nature, imparting a symbiotic message that transcends the picture plane.
Two overlapping exhibitions in Miami this winter ushered in the Afro-Cuban master’s 70th birthday with immersion in the universal harmony Mendive imagines in shifting shapes, vivid pigments and mystical embellishments. An enlightening thematic retrospective at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University (FIU) was complemented by a showcase at Cernuda Arte (…).
Spanning a career that has already endured 50 years, it is the first retrospective in the U.S. to focus on Mendive’s exploration of the belief systems and visual culture of Lucumí (…). Curator Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz, (…) grounded his analysis in a conventional foundation by first establishing how Mendive’s formal education at San Alejandro Academy (…) prepared him to render a marginalized cultural heritage in aesthetic terms accepted by mainstream audiences. (…) Although the cluster of childhood drawings and student sketches (…) made an underwhelming point of entry, they were strategically positioned to legitimize and contextualize the distinctive voice then yet to emerge. (…) Among the most captivating works in the retrospective are a dozen loaned to the Frost by Ramón and Nercys Cernuda. The Cuban émigrés’ hung their remaining Mendive holdings concurrently at their eponymous Miami gallery to set off the sublime paintings and pastel drawings from 1989-90 consigned this fall from a private collection in Italy. (…) Damian recalled an exchange with Mendive in the Frost exhibition when he responded to inquiries about particular pictorial elements by indicating that some decisions are driven more by formal than ideological considerations. As he relayed through an interpreter, “I am who I am. I am a Santero, I am a storyteller, I am a believer – these are my spirits – but I couldn’t do this if I wasn’t an artist.”1
- Damian, Carol in: Gordon, Margery. Interview with Carol Damian. January 14, 2014, unpublished.