June 1724, 1999
The Art of Religion
Reading between the lines in the work of a Cuban artist.
by Robin Rice
Faces of the Lecumí: A Tribute to Juan Boza (Caras de los Lecumi Un Homenaje a Juan Boza)
Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., through July 3, 215-925-9914
The Painted Brides current exhibition of Afro-Caribbean Santería art centers on the late Cuban artist Juan Boza (1941-1991). It will probably strike the majority of casual visitors as just another multicultural melange. Those who recognize that every piece in the show has a religious basis may still find it confusing, expressed in codes that only the knowledgeable can decipher.
This is partly because theres little information on the Santería available in the gallery. Signage is minimal, and the catalog for the show (curated by Marc Zuver of the Fondo del Sol in Washington, D.C., where it originated) isnt yet available. Then again, religious or mythic art is often presented without explanation. Its considered "obvious" but thats true only for those who already understand. (Santa Claus, for instance the immortal reindeer-powered deity shouting "Ho Ho Ho" as he enters locked houses through chimneys must seem mighty puzzling to the uninitiated.)
Another reason Santería art may seem obscure is that its deliberately encrypted. Lecumí, a Cuban synonym for Santería, is also another word for Yoruba, the West African source of religious traditions in South America, the West Indies and the United States brought to the New World through centuries of Atlantic slave trade. Though the Yoruba were forced to conceal their beliefs, they found parallels between their theology and that of Roman Catholicism that enabled them to reconcile the two, paying homage in artwork that seemed Catholic to the untrained eye.
Yorubans are monotheistic. They believe in a supreme deity who is rarely worshipped directly. Aspects known as Orishas mediate between humans and the supreme creator. Many Orishas (there are around 40) are thought to have been incarnated as humans. Its not hard to merge the Orishas with the Catholic pantheon of saints. African-descended artists did just that, to the point of introducing Yoruban symbolism into art that appears to be completely Christian. The penetration of Yoruban customs is deep. Even the cry of "Babalú-Ayé" uttered by Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy invokes the Orisha who controls diseases, including, today, AIDS.
How many visitors to the Bride will realize that an image of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba (slightly mistitled in the show, it should be Nuestra Señorita del Cobre) by Cuban-born Jorge Pardo is an Orisha? The melodramatic picture is executed in parallel strokes of oil stick on a black ground. Three men huddled in a small, storm-tossed boat look prayerfully to a majestic representation of the Madonna. She is Oshun, gracious Orisha of the Oshun River, fertility, love, healing, beauty and generosity.
The penetration of Yoruban customs is deep. Even the cry of "Babalú-Ayé" uttered by Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy invokesthe Orisha who controls diseases.
Perhaps an oblique reason for the obscurity of Santería art is the aversion many non-believers feel for animal sacrifice, which is considered the most intimate contact between humans and Orishas. Drips of red paint, particularly in Osvaldo Mesas large installation After the Ceremony reference this practice.
Even some scholarly studies gloss over the purpose and details of sacrifice, yet it ought to be discussed because it causes a popular confusion of Santería with some sort of Satanism. Santería or Lecumí is a legitimate and ancient religion, which is why, in most places, believers are legally permitted to sacrifice animals like roosters.
When you go to the Painted Bride, ascend immediately to the upstairs gallery where Bozas work is displayed. Signage there tells about his life. In Cuba he was persecuted and sent to a reeducation camp. The Mariel boatlift (1980) was a painful farewell to family and friends, yet he sought it "For the Freedom to be Black, the Freedom to be a Santero (priest of Santería), the Freedom to be Gay."
Bozas prints are fluid and confident. Cara/Head, studded with nails like an African sculpture, has a grimacing mouth and cowrie shells for eyes. It represents a commonly misunderstood Orisha, Elegua (Elegba), ruler of the crossroads. Elegua is present when humans choose their destinies before birth. He rewards and punishes and can be mischievous. Sometimes incorrectly equated with the Christian idea of Satan, he is not intrinsically evil and can reward good behavior.
Bozas 1983 traditional painting Santa Barbara/Shango conflates the iconography of Santa Barbara (martyred by her father who was punished by being struck by lightning) with the iconography of Shango (the dynamic male Orisha of lightning, fire, water and social justice).
Altars are temporary installations. Bozas were influential, though theyre remembered only through photographs. One pictured in the show (probably devoted to Olokun, an Orisha of uncertain gender associated with the depths of the ocean) is a baldachin of blue fabric hung with silhouettes of fishes.
Bozas large painting Secret Language (1989-90) a branching, surreal form that looks like an ideogram is pivotal to the show. The image is repeated in the background of a small work downstairs, "Raquelin, Ana y Juan" by Maria Lino. Lino here represents three seminal Lecumí artists: Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), famous for her silueta performance/photograph series and for her premature death (murder?); Raquelin Mendieta, Anas sister, who has taken up her work; and Juan Boza. The three crouch naked around a female silhouette. It resembles Anas works, as well as traditional Orisha images. This piece, like others downstairs, centers on Boza as a nexus of Santería art.
Bozas mentor Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) combined European cubism and surrealism with Cuban motifs. Hes represented by one small print. Ana Mendieta has one tiny drawing. Three unattributed masks illustrate the lively spirit of Yoruba.
Raquelin Mendieta is showing a beautiful installation, Last Crossing, of white and beige sand with white sand dollars and a container of blue-tinted water suspended above a starfish.
Ricardo Vieras small altar, Chango de Todos Homage to All, Homage to Juan Boza, is a small platform in a square of earth. Metal knives tied with a strip of red fabric invoke Shango (Chango). Boza was a babalao (high priest) of Shango.
The 14 artists in the show incorporate many ideas not discussed here. One reason Santería has produced so much art is that the Yoruba believe human beings were created as objects of art. Orishas love art, and making it is a religious act.