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Santería Aesthetics

SanterÍa Aesthetics

Santería aesthetics is a Yoruba-American artistic expression rooted in the history of enslaved Africans' desire to preserve their religion and culture during their enslavement in the Americas. Art is seminal to the cultural identity of all African peoples and, in particular, the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria, for whom the arts are intricately connected to their religion. Yoruba artistic preeminence in the visual arts is legendary, dating back to the first millennium. In Flash of the Spirit, African art historian Robert Farris Thompson (1983) stated, "Yoruba assess everything aesthetically." Thompson's observation applies to the Yoruba diaspora as well. Everywhere in the Americas where the Yoruba presence is found there is evidence that art and aesthetics play a dominant role in daily life. According to Yoruba religious belief, Olodumare, the supreme being, sent down lesser deities known as orishas to begin life on earth. One of the first orishas sent by Olodumare was Obatalá, who was given charge of creativity.

The transatlantic slave trade brought about the dispersal of Yoruba religion and culture in the Americas, particularly in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, where the first wave of the Yoruba diaspora landed. With the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, peoples of African descent were able to move freely, resulting in a second wave of Yoruba culture dispersing to other parts of the Caribbean and Central and North America. A third wave spread the religion and culture in the mid-twentieth century as large numbers of Cubans migrated to the United States and other parts of Latin America in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Finally, the Mariel exodus of 1980 provided a fourth wave of Cuban exiles. Santería practitioners in the last two waves have made significant contributions to religion and culture throughout America. In The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, William Bascom (1969), a pioneer scholar of African and African-American culture, writes that "no African group has had greater influence on New World culture than the Yoruba."

The term Santería is one of many used to describe a Yoruba-American religion that is based on the traditional religion of the Yoruba known as Ifa or Esin Abalaye in Nigeria, and on Roman Catholicism. In Cuba it is known as Santería, Lucumí, or Regla de Ocha. It is known as Santería in the Dominican Republic, Panama, the United States, and other parts of the world as a result of the Cuban migration. In Trinidad and Tobago, as well as in other Windward Caribbean islands, it is known as Shango, while in Brazil it is known as Candomblé. Literally translated, Santería means "the way of the saints," an apt, albeit mistaken, characterization for what might appear to the uninitiated to be a Roman Catholic cult dedicated to the worship of Christian saints. Another mistaken characterization of the religion is that it is a syncretic faith. Many scholars arrived at this conclusion because of a now defunct practice of requiring Santería devotees to be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church prior to initiation, the presence of statues and polychrome pictures of Roman Catholic saints on home altars, the celebration of the feast days of these saints, and the reference to devotees as santeros.

The commingling of the two religions in the Yoruba diaspora began as a subterfuge by enslaved Yoruba who were forced to accept Roman Catholicism. To avoid persecution, the Yoruba and their descendents camouflaged their orishas with the images, color symbolism, and iconography of Catholic saints. Essentially, they overtly accepted Roman Catholicism, misleading their enslavers into believing that they had become Christian converts while they covertly continued to practice their religion. This subterfuge also made it possible for them to develop and preserve a Yoruba-American aesthetic from one generation to another through oral tradition, music, literature, dance, folklore, and the visual arts. As religious persecution abated and tolerance increased throughout the Americas in the twentieth century, a number of santeros started abandoning vestiges of Roman Catholicism. Also, by the end of the twentieth century many devotees began to view the term Santería as pejorative and preferred to refer to their religion as Yoruba religion, Afro-Cuban Orisha worship, Orisha worship, or Lucumí. In spite of semantics, the term Santería still has currency with many devotees who refuse to remove the Catholic saints from their altars because of personal allegiances. Santería aesthetics therefore comprises a complex mythology, a pantheon of deities, color symbolism, rituals, and ceremonies that santeros employ in the veneration of the orishas. This aesthetic also gained currency with modern and contemporary artists beginning in the twentieth century.

Traditional Yoruba aesthetics in the Americas experienced a serious setback as their art-making traditions became severely curtailed during slavery. Although limited, the making or displaying of religious objects did not become extinct. To avoid punishment, however, the display of such objects, like the religion itself, became secretive. Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz amassed a large and impressive collection of dolls that were used in Lucumí devotional practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His collection is now in the permanent collection of Casa de Africa in Havana, Cuba.

The Yoruba had also distinguished themselves with an impressive legacy in the architectural arts. However, the practice of building palaces, public shrines, altars, and temples with religious and/or political significance was eclipsed in the "New" World. Nevertheless, the resolve of the Yoruba to maintain an intimate relationship with their orishas in a sacred spacean important tenet in the religionled to the phenomenon of home altars called tronos, or thrones.

SanterÍa Aesthetics in Modern Art

European avant-garde artists' search for new influences to invigorate their work at the beginning of the twentieth century lead them to investigate the aesthetic properties of African art. Whereas most modern artists were influenced by the formal elements of African art, artists of the African diaspora sought to explore deeper cultural and spiritual meaning in these objects. In his 1925 essay "The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts," Alain Locke (1992), the principal aesthetician of the Harlem Renaissance, urged African-American artists to look to African art for inspiration. Locke believed that the arts could serve as a vehicle to reverse negative stereotypical images of the "Negro" in an era when racism was at its peak. He wrote, "any vital artistic expression of the Negro theme and subject in art must break thorough the stereotypes to a new style, a distinctive fresh technique, and some sort of characteristic idiom." While Locke was advocating for a cutting-edge Afrocentric aesthetic, so too were the African and Caribbean artists and intellectuals of the Négritude movement. The Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, who was part of the Négritude movement, was the first to introduce a secular Santería aesthetic in the visual arts when he presented the orishas in his paintings as subject matter, albeit camouflaged. Although African-American artists in the United States, at the insistence of Locke, did include African images in their work, in the early years these images appeared more like African icons. This would change, however, by mid- to late century.

Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Art

The aftermath of the civil rights movement in the latter part of the twentieth century shaped the postmodern era with concerns for pluralism, multiculturalism, appropriation, and hybridization, resulting in the mainstream art world becoming more sensitive to the art and culture of the peoples of African descent. During this period new genre art forms were introduced that accommodated Santería aesthetic concerns rather well. Concurrently, the Pan-Africanist movement had politicized artists of African descent with concerns for rediscovering and preserving African legacies. They were determined to produce what Locke called a "racial art" that positively depicted their communities. The intersection of a new climate interested in multiculturalism in the art world, new genre art forms, and Afrocentricity in the arts created a fertile ground in which a secular Santería aesthetic would grow. The result has been a Yoruba aesthetic renaissance. Santería tronos, rituals, and ritual objects have been transformed into contemporary art as installations, performance art, concept art, and body art, while the orishas have become the subject matter for paintings, drawings, collages, and assemblages. These works are now being exhibited in prestigious galleries and museums worldwide, sometimes with the assistance of santeros as collaborators and/or consultants. Locke's call for "a new style, a distinctive fresh technique, and some sort of characteristic idiom" has been realized. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Santería aesthetics continues to thrive in both sacred and secular art.

See also Healing and the Arts in Afro-Caribbean Cultures; Orisha; Santería; Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas


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Bascom, William. The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969.

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Jacob, Mary Jane. Ana Mendieta: The "Silueta" Series. New York: Galerie Lelong, 1991.

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Sims, Lowery Stokes. "Syncretism and Syntax in the Art of Wifredo Lam." In Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, edited by Valerie Fletcher. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Sims, Lowery Stokes. "Wifredo Lam: From Spain Back to Cuba." In Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries, 19381952. New York: Studio Museum in Harlem; Harry N. Abrams, 1992.

Sims, Lowery Stokes. Wifredo Lam and the International Avant Garde, 19231982. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit. New York: Random House, 1983.

arturo lindsay (2005)

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