Havana Even among the salsa musicians and Santeria practitioners roaming around Havana's colonial Plaza de la Catedral, Manuel Mendive stands out.
Emerging from the 18th-century cathedral in his typical African boubou robe of linen, his gray dreadlocks swept back in a ponytail, the 57-year-old sculptor and painter is as recognizable here as is his work.
Many call him the island's foremost living artist. Art lovers in Cuba and abroad are fascinated with his brightly colored sculptures and paintings, nearly all dedicated to Santeria, the Afro-Cuban belief system blending Roman Catholic saints and Yoruba deities.
Mendive smiles as he walks across the plaza toward a cafe, using the walking stick he has used ever since a bus ran over his leg. Settling down for a glass of juice, he wrinkles his nose at the photograph of a painting Cuban officials chose for an Internet auction last month.
"Something is missing to integrate the golds. They stand out too much, and the painting looks cold," he says. "In the real painting, the blues are very blue, very violent. So are the pinks."
Mendive wants color to be the first thing people notice about his work. "I want to capture people with the colors. Then gradually, they can discover my message," he says.
Born in a Havana slum in a wooden house his grandfather built, Mendive graduated from Cuba's prestigious San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts in 1963.
During the last three decades, he has had more than 40 exhibits around the world -- in France, Britain, Japan, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and the United States. The Museum of Modern Art in Paris and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., include his pieces in their collections.
Mendive won Cuba's National Prize for Plastic Arts in 2001.
The painting he's studying at the cafe is "Energias de la Naturaleza" ("Energies of Nature"), which he did earlier this year. In it, a seated woman bows to receive a bowl of food from the Yoruba god of destiny, Eleggua, whom Santeria practitioners associate with the Catholic St. Anthony. Spirits emerge from a golden sky and dark green river to feed the fish and birds in a scene of warmth and tranquility.
"It has a lot of mystery, but it transmits the peace and calm that people so often feel in the hour of eating," Mendive says. "My discourse is always the same: man with nature, man with his gods, man with good and evil. Man in life and man in death; from life springs death and from death springs life."
The harmonious world in Mendive's work is not the way the world is, "but the way I believe it should be," he says. Certainly, it's the way he tries to lead his life -- with style, of course: he bought the linen for his boubou in Paris and had it made in Cuba.
Santeria is his religion, inherited from his parents and grandparents before them. At the cathedral, he was celebrating the Day of St. Christopher, Havana's patron saint. In Santeria, St. Christopher is also Aggayu, the Yoruba god of land and protector of travelers.
At his home in the town of Tapaste, just outside Havana, he surrounds himself with a menagerie of the creatures he paints: tropical fish, goats, peacocks. "And people," he adds. "People inspire me, too."
Tragedy and discordance
There is more tragedy and discordance in his older works.
In a 1984 piece on display at Havana's Museo de Bellas Artes, Christopher Columbus spreads his arms and kneels in triumph while indigenous people, birds, fish, and even trees look up at him in awe. The naive-style painting takes the perspective of the creatures and people who greeted Columbus, celebrating the virginity and beauty of a world about to be disrupted.
The 1967 piece "Oggun" depicts the Yoruban god of metal and tragedy sowing evil in the world. People appear murdering each other in the mixed-medium piece -- wood painted in white, red and black to create a nightmarish scene.
Mendive paints and sculpts what he knows. But for inspiration, he has traveled outside Cuba, including to several African countries, where he learned the art of body painting.
He used the skill in a festive opening of his sculpture exhibit in the Bellas Artes museum on Dec. 10. Dancers painted blue and yellow picked up sculptures from the Wilfredo Lam Gallery in Old Havana and danced their way down Havana Bay to arrange the display in the museum.
Blue is the color of the Yoruba ocean goddess Yemaya, linked with Our Lady of Regla, the patron saint of Havana Bay. Yellow is the color of Ochun, goddess of love and rivers, associated with Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity.