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[Published on AfroCubaWeb with permission, from a chapter in Afro-Cuba: An Anthology, co-edited by Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs.]



Manuel Mendive has become the single most important Cuban painter today. His work is quintessentially Afro-Cuban, inspired by his own Yoruba family background. The following is based on the article "Manuel Mendive y la evolución de su pintura" ("Manuel Mendive and the Evolution of his Painting" by art critic Gerardo Mosquera in his book Exploraciones en la plastica cubana (Explorations into Cuban Art), Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1983, pp. 232-45, 280-82. Mosquera uses quotes on the work of Mendive by Rogelio Martínez Furé and Nancy Morejón. Each has here been separated out, and Martínez Furé quoted at greater length from the original. To bring the overall piece up to date, a fourth part has been added by Pedro Pérez Sarduy


Manuel Mendive Hoyo was born on December 15, 1944, in Luyanó, the same Havana neighborhood where Wifredo Lam went back to live for a few months on his "retours au pays natal" in 1942 and where he made his first "rediscoveries" of that visual universe André Breton would later describe as an untrammelled union of real and magical worlds. It is mainly a dock and factory worker neighborhood.

The wooden house [where he was born] was built in 1900 by his maternal grandfather Fermín Hoyo Espelusín, a construction worker... This grandfather is the most direct family antecedent for Mendive's artistic talent, for he was also a carver and engraver. He would be sought for complicated architectural projects with decorative work and other nonfunctional aspects, such as the "Mudejar Palace" in the Plaza de las Ursulinas or the monument to General Antonio Maceo in the Havana park of the same name. During the building of the latter he was to be blinded in an accident. He was one of those anonymous master-builders who from colonial times spontaneously shaped "the style" of a city "without style" as it was aptly described by Carpentier in a memorable essay on the architecture of Havana; one of those eclectic "naifs" who were bold enough to invent scores of rare orders, with unusual, fancy columns and capitals whose design was hardly ever repeated throughout the kilometers of avenued porchways dating back to the turn of the century...

But it was not only his family. Mendive grew up in a crowded, tucked-away city neighborhood, with little traffic, where there are silk-cotton trees on street corners and yards with banana trees. Everybody knows one another. On Sunday men sit out on the porches in their vests playing dominoes, people chat from house to house across the street, and doors are left ajar, on a hook, so as not to have to go and open them each time a neighbor wants to come in to the living room or dining room or go through to the kitchen at the back for a chat, while children play ball outdoors or mark the pavement with chalk. It is one of those bustling Havana neighborhoods that is at the same time well-ordered and family-oriented, by-passed to a certain extent by the traffic and conglomeration of more hectic central areas. It is a neighborhood where family and group traditions are kept strong.

In this neighborhood, the case of a family like Mendive's, mulatto believers in santería or Regla de Ocha -- the syncretic faith derived basically from Yorubá beliefs -- is fairly common... believers don't see a contradiction with contemporary Cuban life, in which they play a positive part. This can be summed up in a strong image to be seen in houses in Mendive's neighborhood, as in Cuban homes elsewhere: an altar to Santa Barbara-Changó or the Brown Virgin of El Cobre-Ochún, flanked by portraits of Fidel Castro, José Martí, Camilo Cienfuegos, Che and even Lenin...

Santería worship spans a wide range, from the babalao and iyawó to the non-believer who in a moment of desperation seeks "protection" or makes a "promise", and the Catholic who unconsciously puts red flowers for Saint Barbara and white ones for the Virgin of Mercy, not knowing that they are the colors of African deities, or who worships a mass-produced statue of a leper on crutches, without realizing that it is taken from a parable of Jesus syncretized with the Dahomeyan god Babalú-Ayé and not a saint canonized by the Church.

Ever since he was a child, Mendive had shown a natural inclination toward painting and artistic things, and a great love for animals which he always liked to have around him: dogs, pigeons, rabbits, ducks, fish, a peacock, a monkey... He would pass the time painting the altar to Saint Barbara in the living room of his home, and also flowers, cityscapes and family portraits...

He studied up to eighth grade in a state school. When the revolution triumphed he was 14. He enrolled in the Villate Academy to study commercial art, which was in those times a base for the poor with artistic talent. But he was only there for a few months. His painting, his [1955] UNESCO prize for painting, the recognition of his work, and above all, the new climate of support for culture from the outset of the revolution, consolidated a decision on his part to devote himself to art. In 1959 he enrolled in painting and sculpture classes at the San Alejandro Academy...

Paradoxically, at the Academy, the future painter was primarily interested in sculpture... His hands shaped brown and black nudes in a sensual and opulent naturalism, with a baroque concern for body movement... He did of course also study painting. He worked on landscape, portraits, flowers, the human form... He liked to cross the bay to Regla -- a town which has its own "virgin", Our Lady of Regla, patron saint of Havana port, syncretized with Yemayá, Yoruba goddess of the sea, and where there has been a strong presence of santería and Abakuá...

... [Mendive] completely identifies with what he paints. He is incapable of painting from a distance, from the outside, not even as an academic exercise. This is very important to understanding his later painting. He paints only people, animals and things that are close to him, that belong to his creative universe. When he is tempted to paint something exterior, he does so by almost forcing it into his personal world, to the point that might seem incongruous, though not in aesthetic dimension. This psychological-artistic device, framed within his wide ingenuity, is what produced the strong images of a cosmic rocket flying among Yoruba deities... or Martí on a small rocking chair with Che and Oyá, the orisha of the cemetery, who cuts the flowers..."

Gerardo Mosquera in Exploraciones en la plastica cubana (Explorations into Cuban Art), Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1983, pp. 232-245.


"My head is turning" [Erí Wolé in Yoruba] ... it's philosophical analysis, thematic renovation and abrupt experience. Here we have the old concept of composition in bands; and yet, they are not absolutely rectilinear but irregular and curved. This new concept of composition allows movement. In each of the bands there is an action as in the early Birth of Ochún, this time tremendously dynamic. The first band shows his ancestors. Among them, mounted on a goat, Eshu, spirit of evil and good, with his two faces. The face of good smokes a cigar; the face of evil devours a rat's head.

In the second band is the painter himself and his family; all seated on chairs, they look into infinity. Flying over their heads an eye, a peacock, a hen; and next to the head of the painter's self-portrait, fear in animal form. The third band, in sinuous and triangular form, bounded along the bottom by a large serpent (his constant theme of life and death) takes the form of a bladder engulfing humankind in its chaos. Many rats devour men and women, and near the center, a waning moon and a little man sitting on top. The alienated little man is staring. A man who is madness thrusts a dagger in the moon. All the while each rat eats an arm of a woman to stop her from fighting, the tongue of a man to stop him from speaking, the genitals of a child to stop procreation. In the fourth, main band, huge peacocks fly over a bus. One peacock alights on the roof of a small bus. The passengers can be seen. One is going out of the back door. Ikú, blocking the way, barricades the front door. Mendive stretched out on the street, with his right foot under the front wheel, looking at the moon. In the last band are men and women, his friends. At the end of the band, the self-portrait of the painter on crutches. The predominant color is red.

Nancy Morejón in "El mundo de un primitivo" in Gaceta de Cuba, Havana, No. 76, September 1969, quoted in Mosquero, pp. 280-82.


Mendive welcomes us smiling. He is young, but his thick black beard gives him the look of an Ethiopian monk. He has a deep voice and ponders over the questions before answering. In the yard, a peacock, sacred bird of Oshún and Yemayá, shows off its enormous tail, while some new-born ducklings splash in a green gully. In the distance, the sound of factory whistles.

"You ask why I chose the Yoruba theme for my work. Well, I'll tell you... African traditions that have so influenced our culture have been the medium that has enabled me to express my life experiences. It is the theme I have always used, it is my means of expression, although my style has changed a lot from my early paintings to the present. At the beginning, my work was aggressive in its impact, which produced an ephemeral sensation in the spectator, given the violence of the painting. Now that is no longer a prevalent factor, but rather subtlety of image, which is designed to envelop the same previously aggressive elements in a more suggestive atmosphere."

Mendive's family is one of those typical Cuban families -- of which there are so many in the western provinces -- who have kept our traditions of Yoruba ancestry strong. His father has been a railway worker for over 25 years. His uncles and cousins are tamboreros (oló-batá) and singers (akpwón), of that line of Cubans who have handed down Yoruba rhythms, songs and language over the centuries. The mother reigns in this house, moving through her domain with that legendary dignity of the priestess (iyalosha) daughters of Yemayá, to give us that cup of coffee or, in her large red-tiled kitchen impregnated with the aroma of herbs, to make us the dishes brought from African lands: ilá, oshinshín, amalá. Food for deities and human beings.

Mendive's background is traditional and at the same time modern, which permits him, thanks to his academic study and his contact with other young Cuban painters, to be up-to-date on the latest trends in world painting, familiar with ancient and modern techniques, and also, thanks to his family life, to be deeply informed on the complex symbolism of our myths. There is nothing gratuitous in his work; each color, each form, has a meaning, a precise function...

It is difficult to classify Mendive's work as that of a given school or trend. It is neither symbolist nor primitive, in the European sense. While his inspiration comes from deep national roots and his images from certain paintings and sculpture we can find in Cuban casas de santos -- especially in the provinces -- decorating walls, jugs or items used for ritual, and even holy manuscripts or books, and whose ingenuity is like a last star in the Cuban firmament of the great art of the Yoruba and Dahomeyan peoples of Western Africa, there is a contemporary feel and use of the latest techniques in all his work. In the composition, in the textures he creates, there is always the intelligence of a modern artist, desiring to express his vision of the world and to find a language of his own with its roots in one of the rich traditions of his people...

Mendive lives surrounded by paintings and sculptures. In his room he has some of his early work, done as a student, of which he is particularly fond. He has decorated the walls with photographs of classic African, Greek and pre-Colombian art. The stained-glass partitions are of vividly colored geometric design. And in prominent position, opposite his bed, the first thing he sees when he wakes up and before he falls asleep: Elegba. A statue over a century old, inherited from his forbears. A startling head some 45cms in height, carved in coral rock, with cowrie eyes, and the mouth wide open, as if clamoring from the start of time. This Elegba is the most impressive image I have seen of the master of paths and crossroads, symbol of destiny, in our mythology...

Mendive accompanies me to the porch. He smiles as he sees me off. As I reach the corner, I discover a huge revolutionary mural painted on a white wall. I am taken by the imagination and rhythm in the ordering of the figures. Thinking of a talented popular artist hidden in the neighborhood, I returned to Mendive's house and asked. He replied with a look of complicity: "Sometimes I go with the kids and the people of the Committee [for the Defense of the Revolution] to decorate the block."

Again there is a smile on his old Ethiopian monk's face.

Rogelio Martínez Furé in Diálogos imaginarios (Imaginary Dialogues), Arte y Literatura, Havana, 1979, pp.239-243, quoted in Mosquera, pp. 240-41.


Entering the home and studio of Manuel Mendive is crossing the threshold into the magical world of an artist who has gathered within its domain all the elements that nurture his paintings, sculpture, ceramics and "dancing canvases". A colorful menagerie of tropical fish, parrots, canaries, parakeets and dogs of many breeds (including his favorite Alsatian) live harmoniously together with his hens and ducks and aging peacock, sacred bird of Oshun and Yemaya, the two female aquarian deities in the Afro-Cuban pantheon. They all share the modern studio where Mendive works by day, in the bright sunlight streaming in, uninvited, through the large airy room. They co-habit the yard of lemon, avocado, coconut and orange trees, herbs and wild flowers. At the back, a goat awaits the propitious occasion for a banquet offering.

Leaving behind the noise and artificial smells of the city, Mendive took refuge beyond the city outskirts. He settled in the small village of Santa María del Rosario, in search of a night symphony of crickets and the fragrance of rosemary. Visible from Mendive's roof-terrace, atop the hill, towering over the village, Santa María del Rosario Church, one of the oldest in Cuba, with its gold-plated mahogany altar. It was built by the rich Count of Casa Bayona, a member of the creole sugar aristocracy about whom strange stories have been handed down, not least his relations with his African slaves. The painter found a small, abandoned house made of the best wood, which had been the overseer's home. This house, with its modest but classical appearance, has been painstakingly rebuilt and transformed in the image of the artist, with high tiled roof, two wings, porches, patio and yard. It is Mendive's shrine to the imagination, amidst flora and fauna, where his friends also find refuge. With his now thick gray beard and Rastafarian locks, Mendive has even more the appearance of an Ethiopian monk, receiving visitors, friends or new acquaintances, with a warm smile, recounting stories of the region, which he has also depicted in an enormous mural at the entrance to the village.

Undoubtedly a mythical world. But a culture without myth would be a tree without leaves.

Pedro Pérez Sarduy in Water, Fish, Men, catalogue to a Mendive exhibition at the October Gallery, London, 1988.


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