José Bedia’s interest in Afro-Caribbean cultures is both personal and anthropological. He is a scholar and practitioner of the Afro-Cuban religion Palo Monte, whose traditions are rooted in religions that arrived in Cuba with Central African slaves. They believed that the voyage across the ocean brought them to the land of the dead. Mamá Kalunga, whose name is written on the skull emerging from the bottom of a frayed semi-circular canvas, is the Palo Monte fertility spirit. An inscription between two of the arched stripes, written in a mix of Spanish and Bantu, refers to the boat being held by the two figures at the top of the canvas: Buenas noches Baluande, ahora si va a nguria un nkumbe kalunga como es debido, cobrandose su derecho, briyumba congo son briyumba
[Good evening Baluande (a being of the ocean) now you are going to eat a boat, as is your due, charging your fee (over your domain), Briyumba (the second of three main Congolese branches in Cuba: Mayombe, Briyumba, and Kimbisa) we are what we are (meaning: we belong to the Briyumba branch)].
Mamá Kalunga is associated with the sea. In Congolese tradition, the term kalunga
refers to the threshold between the horizon and the surface of the water, the line that divides the upperworld, the world of the living, from the the underworld, the world of the dead.
(Source: Catalogue for the exhibition Portadores de sentido
Listen to the artist talk about their work:
My name is José Bedia. This piece is called Mamá Kalunga
. I made this piece after I had moved away from Cuba, specifically to Mexico. It has to do with Afro-Cuban traditions; I’m interested in religions, popular cultures, especially, in this case, Bantu culture in Cuba. Mamá Kalunga
is the dividing line of the horizon that, like grass, separates the universe into the upper world and the lower world, in this case, the underworld. The painting depicts the underworld, with a skull that could be an ancestor’s skull at the bottom, and there are two mermaids carrying a boat, in this case a shipwreck, over the waves, the waves of the sea, toward the bottom. The painting has a semi-circular form; at the time I wasn’t interested in giving my paintings conventional, Western, rectangular shapes, but for the paintings to have a form that came from the canvas’s essential idea. In this case it’s the ocean waves and the line of the horizon in the distance, and I tried to keep to this kind of very specific format that had to do with a reverberation of the sea or the intrinsic force of nature exercising itself, in this case, on this boat, which could be a shipwreck or a figure; some people lost at sea.