This article is from the current issue of Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. It was written by Hera Gallery artist, John Kotula.
For twenty-ﬁve years, the painting sat forgotten in a basement. Today, it is a world treasure. But this isn’t the ﬁrst time Danza Afro-Cubana has set off ﬁreworks.
BY JOHN KOTULA
In the summer of 1970, when artist Roberto Julio Bessin was sixteen, his grandfather gave him a painting. The two were spending the summer ﬁshing on Long Island Sound, and the gift was a gesture to encourage the teenager’s dreams of becoming an artist. Thirty-seven years later, the painting was auctioned for $2.6 million last May.
It is hard for anyone who doesn’t see art as a commodity to think that a painting could cost as much as putting twenty students through four years of a private college, supporting 125 families of four above the poverty line for a year or buying pretty good season tickets to the Patriots for yourself and more than 2,000 of your best friends. Yet, if any painting looks as if it is worth $2.6 million, it is Mario Carreño’s Danza Afro-Cubana. It is big—sixty-five by forty-eight inches—beautifully composed, so colorful it seems to vibrate. And frankly, it is damn sexy.
In the painting, a man and woman are dancing in a cane field. The man is costumed and masked from head to ankle, but his exposed hands and feet reveal that he is black. The woman is white. She is naked except for a cloth wrapped around her hips, shimmying so fast that her legs and arms appear in two places at once. Her round, upturned breasts are at the center of the composition. There’s almost no question how this night will end.
There are two sides to every story. If the story is a good one, there are as many versions as tellers. Memory fails, emotional patina builds up, perceptions change. This is one story of Danza Afro-Cubana—the man who painted it, the one who acquired it and the grandson who learned what it means to love and part with something of great value.
Roberto Julio Bessin’s studio is a large, sunny room in an old mill building in North Kingstown. Art books, auction catalogs and bulging file folders form piles on shelves and tables. Nature photographs, paintings, drawings and old guitars cover the walls. There are comfortable chairs, a good music system. The studio is not only a place to make art, it is a good place to sit around, listen to Richard Thompson or Van Morrison recordings and talk politics over a cup of coffee.