Begin/Again: Marking Black Memories

Visitor Reflections | Manuel Mendive

Dr. Judith Bettleheim, Professor of Art History, Emerita San Francisco State University 

Every time I see a Manuel Mendive serigraph, I can’t help but recall all the misinformation that surrounds this artist.  He is considered one of the most important figures in the AfroCubanismo movement, and he is often referred to as a “primitive” or “intuitive”. Yet his work is solidly based on his practice of the religion Santería, and he holds a degree from one of Cuba’s most important art schools. Santería is grounded in Yoruba based practices derived from the area of Africa now known as Nigeria. 

Mendive works simultaneously in two genres-his popular serigraphs (screen prints) and his groundbreaking public performances in which he paints the bodies of the dancers with imaginative and colorful configurations of motifs., emphasizing eyes, hands, and contoured flowing lines.

These same aesthetic formulas can be seen in the serigraph pictured here, dated 1995 and published in an edition of 30.  And importantly Mendive has included imagery based on Santería. For example the merging of the turtle on the back of a human form is most often associated with the oricha Chango, a major spirit in the Santería pantheon. The tree rooted in the earth may reference the royal palm, not literally but metaphorically. Not every motif can be described iconographically. Many are evoked in a flat, colorful palette preferred by Mendive. In total, Manuel Mendive creates an atmosphere of personal spirituality.

Lauren Thorburn, Student, HON 210: Monsters and Monstrosities

While working my way through the virtual art gallery, I noticed how each artist was able to evoke emotions and move me in different ways. However, the artist who made the biggest impression on me was Manuel Mendive and his print titled "Unknown". I was drawn to the art itself because of the colors used, as well as the abstract portrayal of humans and nature together. When reading about the work, I was inspired by Mendive's decision to move past the western art styles and embrace more of his own roots. It was refreshing to see Mendive's culture shine through all his work, including all the works shown in the videos. In particular, I was mesmerized by Mendive's use of music, dancers and/or actors to convey his ideas in an extremely breathtaking way.  Another thing that stood out to me about this artist was when he mentioned that he had found "a whole unified multicultural vision" through his work. Mendive also stated that he wants to be able to speak for the whole world and address important issues. One such issue that I feel like he is trying to portray is the fact that nature is all around us, it is apart of who we are, and we are at risk of losing it. I believe art is one of the best forms to address and spread awareness about issues, and Manuel Mendive does a brilliant job of this.

Olivia Wagner, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourism

The artist I chose to reflect on and write about from this exhibit was Manuel Mendive. Mendive’s work instantly caught my attention and sparked my interest. As a viewer, Mendive’s work provoked a sense of curiosity within me, as his use of colors, symbols, and shapes leaves a great deal unanswered and raises many different questions at first glance, ultimately encouraging me to examine the piece with a more critical eye. For example, looking at his painting listed in the exhibit as “Unknown” I am drawn into the figures, faces, and tree-like shapes, and as a viewer I want to piece together a story in my head of how these symbols are connected to one another. Knowing Mendive’s background, however, adds an entirely new layer of complexity to viewing this piece, as I was fascinated to find out that Mendive gained recognition for combining European and African styles for the purpose of promoting Afro-Cuban culture. 
To me, the issues that Mendive’s work brings to light are fascinating, as his work tells the history of slavery and African mythologies in relation to their transformation of the Caribbean Islands. Because of this, I see Mendive’s art as confronting issues and stories that are often dark in their nature, yet doing so through his painting and sculpting makes the stories he portrays that much more powerful. I think people are more receptive to learning these narratives when they’re expressed in a manner such as art, and for this reason I do think art has the capacity to change situations as Mendive is doing with his paintings. Knowing and understanding a history is essential, and Mendive’s work aides this process by exploring the socio-cultural impact of these stories; his work is ultimately changing situations by bringing awareness surrounding his culture through these portrayals. I do believe that art like this can be considered dark tourism, since it addresses certain aspects of a past that are often considered dark and even filled with trauma, yet it does so in a constructive way that almost feels hopeful or uplifting in what it is trying to accomplish.

Ellie Knight, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourism

In Manuel Mendive's painting "Unknown", I see the tension and confusion from the diaspora caused by the slave trade. One tree is upside down and one is right side up, evoking a combination of two places in one painting.  The central man looking at the spirit evokes indigenous art styles.  The man speaking with the spirit in this confusing landscape shows how the Africans who were brutally stolen from their homelands, having their intricate culture labeled barbaric, tried to maintain their traditions abroad.

A thought-provoking issue of the piece is that Mendive specifically chose to mix his cultural art style with the European medium so that it would be better received by the westerners. It's problematic that to be considered by the well-known art critics, the artist has to adapt his medium. 
I think art like this could definitely be considered "Dark Tourism" as it explores the dark aspects of how African identity was affected by slavery and imperialism. 

Taylor Kliss, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourism

The piece that I chose to focus on was Manuel Mendive's piece. As a historian, it particular caught my eye because it reminded me of ancient cave paintings and I wanted to learn more about the inspiration for the piece. Upon reading about Mendive's background, I was fascinated by his upbringing and the blending of cultures that he experienced throughout his life. I think that this piece truly goes on to answer the question about incorporating black memories into our lives. Beginning with the slave trade, black memories went from being exclusively on one continent to worldwide. Their traditions were changed by those that captured them, but they also blended in ways that made new customs and traditions arise from the broken ones. The informational section about the piece says that it "captures the fusion of Latin American, European, and Cubo-African sensibilities." Just with this information, we can already see how black memories have influenced European and other Western cultures.

I think that are like this can be considered dark tourism, especially some of the other pieces in the exhibit that focus on trauma and persecution due to sexual orientation. However, in a climate like the one we are facing today, I think it is important for works like these to be shared because many of us are so unaware of the problems that black individuals have been facing for centuries. Rotimi Fani-Kayode's piece struck me because sometimes being part of the LGBTQ + community can already be difficult, but black members of this community often face even worse treatment. Without being exposed to this art or these stories that so many brave individuals have shared, I would not be educated on the matter and would not know that there are so many injustices that we need to keep fighting in this country.

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