From time immemorial, illnesses and threats to our health have always worried us. As we are surrounded by uncertainty caused by the pandemic that has gripped our world, it may be of comfort to know that we’re not the only ones who have experienced sweeping waves of contagion and great illness. The NCMA curators and GSK Curatorial Fellow have pulled together stories from the collection that show how works of art have been used for healing by people of diverse cultural backgrounds and religion throughout the centuries, or were created to remember those who have proffered medical care in times of need.
José Bedia, San Lázaro (O Yo Soy La Ruta), 1992, acrylic on canvas, Purchased with funds from the bequest of W. R. Valentiner, by exchange
José Bedia’s art reflects his immersion in the cultures of his native Cuba and of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, Africa, and North America. He draws from a variety of sources to create works about the transformations, transitions, and displacements that occur when one journeys from one place to another—geographically, culturally, spiritually, and emotionally.
Central to Bedia’s work is his practice of the Afro-Cuban religion Palo Monte. San Lázaro, depicted in this painting, is the Palo Monte god of both health and sickness, and is also seen as a spiritual guide. Both revered and feared, San Lázaro is believed to be responsible for bringing epidemics of infectious diseases like smallpox and HIV/AIDS, and also capable of curing these diseases by performing miracles and transformational healings.
Around the central figure, Bedia has inscribed the canvas with varying Palo Monte names, such as Babaluaye, for the venerated San Lázaro. He is depicted with his attributes: crutches and guide dogs licking his wounds. This humble saint of health and healing is often described as showing no mercy to the vain and arrogant, instead providing solace to the afflicted and especially to the poor and to immigrants. His comforting words appear in the middle of the painting: Yo soy la ruta, el camino por donde vas (I am the way, the path to get you there). Filled with symbols, text, and metaphors, Bedia’s painting is a powerful mix of cross-cultural connections and universal beliefs exploring faith, affliction, and healing.