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Face of the Gods: The Artists and Their Altars

Author(s): Robert Farris Thompson


Source: African Arts, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Winter, 1995), pp. 50-61
Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3337250
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uratedbyRobertFarrisThompson,

with specialassistancefrom
C. Daniel Dawson, "Faceof the Gods:
Art and Altars of Africaand the African
Americas"presentedapproximately
eighteenaltarscomposedof morethan
100 Africanand African-American
artworks.Originatingat theMuseum
for AfricanArt in New YorkCity

OF

THE

THE

ARTISTS
THEIR ALTARS

AND

ROBERTFARRISTHOMPSON

ltars everywhereare sites of ritual communicationwith heaven, ancestors,


and spirits, marking the boundary between the ordinary world and the
world of the spirits. Elevated or grounded, simple or elaborate, personal or

(September24, 1993-January9, 1994),


the exhibitionhas traveledto the Seattle

communal, they focus the faithful in worship. Altars are central to African religions on

Art Museum (see reviewin African

both sides of the Atlantic, inspiring women and men to set down offerings to the gods

Arts, Autumn 1994, p. 74) and is

and build models of heaven.


This exhibition articulates two principal metaphors for altars in the African-Atlantic

currentlyat the UniversityArt Museum,


Berkeley,throughFebruary1. Future

world-one

host institutionsare theMuseumof Fine

Africa, the altar is referred to as a "face of the gods," a place for appeasement, where

Arts, Montgomery(March19-May 21),


and the VirginiaMuseumof Fine Arts,

votive pottery is placed and cool liquids are poured from vessels. Yoruba altars gleam
with massed vessels whose fragility demands tact and delicacy in worship. In contrast,

Richmond(June27-September10).

Kongo civilizations of Central Africa consider the altar to be a "turning point," the

Thealtars in the exhibitionwere


installedafterthe companioncatalogue,
by RobertFarrisThompson,had been
written (336 pp., 27 b/w & 286 color
photos;$70 hardcover,$39.50 softcover)
and thereforedo not appearin that
volume.African Arts is pleasedto
illustratemost of the African-American
examplesin thefollowingpages,together
with discussiondrawnfrom the
exhibitiontexts and shortbiographiesof
theirmakers.
50

Yoruba, one Kongo. Among the Yoruba and other Kwa speakers of West

crossroads, the threshold to another world. Kongo worshipers make the tombs of their
ancestors into altars, using a cross-in-a-circle pattern mirroring the passage of the sun
to signify the cycle of life and chart the immortal journey of the soul.
In terms of museum practice, "Face of the Gods" adopts a range of approaches that
are usually separate. Some of the objects on display had religious applications long
ago, but have acquired a second history in museum exhibits or collections. Others
were created and sanctified by religious leaders in the Museum for African Art, and
these exhibits have religious applications now. Still others are partial or total reconstructions, as in the dioramas found in traditional natural history museums. As a secondary issue, the exhibition thus explores the contested borders between authenticity
and inauthenticity, art and belief.
africanarts* winter1995

YORUBA GODS
AND THEIR EMBLEMS
The Yoruba of Nigeria, sixteen million
strong, are heirs to an ancient culture
renowned for its complexity. One section
of the exhibition presents the visual
vocabulary of Yoruba worship on both
sides of the Atlantic. The orisha, or
deities, in the Yoruba pantheon distinguish themselves in altars by their colors, foods, banners, and icons. Under
creole inventive pressure, these emblems
vary and change, but nonetheless they
span three continents and many centuries with remarkable consistency.
Transparent beads on Yoruba altars
speak of the goddesses of the waters;
blue and white symbolize Yemoja and
the Atlantic Ocean; transparent yellow,
the color of love, honey, and sweetness,
personifies Oshun. Black and red, symbolic of extreme power, including night
and fire, identify the trickster EshuiElegba. Raffia and seed stand for Nana
Bukuiu and her son, Obaluaiye, the deity
of earth and disease.
Foremost among altars of boldness
and immediacy on both sides of the
Atlantic are those dedicated to Shang6,
the thunder god. Religions of Yoruba origin have been named for him throughout
the Caribbean and Brazil. Shang6's colors
are red and white, red indicating the flash
of his lightning-like a knife in the eyes of
all liars and adulterers-and white his
controlling calm and purity of character.
Manifested in storms, Shang6 brings to
the world a purifying moral vengeance.

PHOTO: JERRY L THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

Altar
OjuOxala:Afro-Brazilian
to the YorubaCreatorGod
Based on an altarmadeby MaiJocelinhain
Salvador,Bahia,Brazil,summer1982.Mounted
Sanches,withaltar
by Eneida
metalwork
Menezesda Silva(Oxala
Assunq.o
by Clodimir
staffs,metalplates),and EneidaAssunqao
Sanches (crown,bells,spoon),bothof Salvador,
Bahia,Brazil.
Thisimmaculate
altar(ojt)conveysthe glory,
honesty,andpurityof Oxala(theYoruba
god of creativityandcustom.Clean
whitecloths,flowers,metals,andceramictiles
Obat.l.),
are evocationsof his spotless reputation.
Before
the altaris a bed inwhitelinenuponwhich
devotees maykneelandmeditatebeforehis
inspiringpresence.Thetinstaffs(opaxoro)by
Clodomir
Menezesda Silva(Mimito)
signifythe
andwisdomof Oxalufom,
the eldestof
maturity
Oxala'savatars.

african
arts* winter
1995

EneidaAssungaoSanches
Bornin 1962 in Salvador,Bahia,Brazil,Eneida
Sanches began studyingpainting,sculpture,
music,dance, and copeiraunderthe tutelage
of RobitaBalgida,Directorof the LittleSchool
of Artin Bahia.She wenton to studypainting
and filmat the AntonioVieiraSchooland architectureat the FederalUniversity
of Bahia,
receivingherbachelorof science degree in
in 1990.Sanches learnedreligious
architecture
frommastermetalworker
Gilmar
metalworking
Tavares;theirtechniquedescends froma long
in Africa.Sanches has
tradition
originating
traveledextensively,studyingmultipleformsof
architectural
and spiritualart,and is currently
workingas a sculptorinSalvador.She has
exhibitedin Brazilat the Boa MorteFestivalin
Cachoeira,the Casa do Benin,and the Centro
de EstudosAfroBrasileiros;
and inthe United
Statesat the CaribbeanCultural
Center,New
YorkCity.

51

Obatala'sWarriors
MadebyJohnMasonof NewYork.
the Yorubagod of creativityand purity,
or avatarsdedicatedto his
has fourwarriors
Obatla.,
Eshb,the trickster(thehead inthe
protection:
lowearthenwarebowl);Ogon,the blacksmith
(metalimplementsand ironpot);Oshbbsi,the
hunter(antlersand bow);andOsanyin,the
doctor(staff).Joinedtogether,these fourdeities
honor.
providean everlastingshieldin
Obatal.'s
JohnMason
as a priestof ObatalAin 1970,John
Initiated
Masonis the directorof the YorubaTheological
in NewYorkCityand has taught
Archministry
the UnitedStateson a
and lecturedthroughout
widevarietyof subjects,mostrecentlyon
Yorubaartat the ArtInstituteof Chicago.His
studyof Yorubacultureinthe AfricanAmericas,
based on fieldresearchin the U.S.,Cuba,Haiti,
Jamaica,and PuertoRico,has
Brazil,Trinidad,
yieldedthe books OnjeFunOrisa,Foodforthe
Gods(1981),BlackGods:OrisaStudiesin the
New World(1985),and OrinOrisa:Songs for
SelectedHeads(1992).He has also workedon
filmson AmericanYorubatradifeature-length
Secret
tions,includingthe BBC'sNew York:
AfricanCity,and was a special consultantto El
Museodel Barrioin NewYorkforthe exhibition
Masonis also a designer,
"SantaCommida."
musician,and drummaker,specializingin the
musicof Cuba,Haiti,PuertoRico,Trinidad,
Nigeria,and Ghana.

DAWSON
PHOTO:
C. DANIEL

PHOTO: C. DANIELDAWSON

52

1995
african
artsowinter

PHOTO: JERRY L. THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

Altarto Seven YorubaDeities


MadebyAlbertoMorganof UnionCity,
NewJersey.
deities(orichas)can be
Here,seven prominent
distinguished
bythe colorof theirclothandsymbolicallycoded bead necklaces.Theyare, from
left(thespellingof each Yorubadeityis CubanYoruba):
Chang6(redandwhite),Obatala
(white),OchOn(yellow),EleguB(blackand red),
Oya-Yansa(maroon),Yemaya(blueandwhite),
and Olokun(darkblueandcoral).Thefaces of
the Yorubadeitiesin Cubaare maskedwithin
coveredtureensholdingstones of spiritual
The orichas,each richly
powerand authority.
draped,are placedtogetherforan initiation
or the feast dayof an individual
anniversary
are evidentinthe
oricha.Creolerecombinations
iconography.

AlbertoMorgan
AlbertoMorganwas bornin Havana,Cuba,in
1939and came to the UnitedStatesin 1980.A
priestof Santeriaforthirty-two
years,he
combineshis artistictalentsand spiritual
sensibilitiesto buildaltars.He studieddance,
drama,and paintingat Havana'swell-known
Schooland has touredFrance,
San Alejandro
and dancer.
Spain,and Belgiumas a performer
Veryactivein the theater,Morgantravels
betweenPuertoRico,UnionCity,and Miami.
He has performedin OchunObejeye,a play
aboutthe African-syncretic
saints/deities
OchOn,St. Lazarus,St. Barbara,and Elegui;
at CarnegieHalland RadioCityMusicHallwith
OlgaGuillo;and withCeliaCruzin a tributeto
the Cubanmusicalgenius BennyMore.An
authorof songs and playsbased on Cuban
legends, his currentmusicalprojectis a
collaboration
withRuthFernandez,who is
called "theCeliaCruzof PuertoRico."

PHOTO C DANIELDAWSON

africanarts* winter1995

53

PHOTO: JERRY L. THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

TIED SPACE AND SPIRITUAL


CIRCLING:
KONGO-ATLANTIC ALTARS
About forty percent of the ten million persons taken from Africa in the Atlantic
Trade between 1550 and 1850 came from
Kongo-influenced Central Africa. To this
day, Kongo elders "tie" plates belonging
to ancestors to trees or branches in the
cemetery to arrest their talents for the
benefit of the living. Under creole pressure, this custom reemerged in the
African-American and African-Caribbean
"bottle tree," where spirits, attracted by
the flash of the bottles, are captured.
Tying is the metaphoric binding together
of spirit and object, or spirit to a location,
such as inside a bottle. It can be symbolized in various other ways, among them
wrapping with string, driving in nails,
and chaining and padlocking an object.
The powerful Kongo tradition of the
nkisi, or "medicine of God," tells the spirit what to do with material ideographs.
Hence a figure with a mirror drives off
evil in the flash of the glass, or soars
invincibly with feathers, or blesses mystically with other symbolic elements. "Face
of the Gods" includes two small mirrornkisi from Kongo and culturally related
feather- and mirror-studded "Kongo pacquets" from Haiti. Opposite these, a yard
show provides an answering black North
American tradition of using mirrors on
the porch or on the front wall to guard a
house from evil.
54

BottleTree
(foreground)
Combinesthe string-and-hurl
style of Cornelius
Lee of Tidewater,
(inwhichbottles
Virginia
connectedwithstringare thrownovera branch),
andthe stub-and-jam
style of the Mississippi
Delta(bottlesarejammedontothe ends of
branches).The latterrecallsthe impaledplates
of Kongo.
the talentsof the deadto
Customslike"tying"
trees withplates,andthe beliefthatthe flashof
glass whenhitby lightcan attractandcapture
evil,havefusedtogetherin NorthAmericainthe
bottletree. Itimpliesthe
festive-looking
followingmessage:"Ifyou come to do harm,
here are dead trees anddead branchesfrom
the forestof the protectivedead, butifyoucome
in good faithmayyoursoul be
strengthenedin the flashof theirspirit."
Spiritrepellingskilletsare paintedredto
resemblethe taillightsof an automobile.

YardShow
(background)
Bottlelawninthe style of BlackAustin,Texas;
preparedguardiandollsandwheelwithskullby
blacktraditionalist
GypPacknettof southwestern Mississippi.
Bottlesfilledwithcoloredwater"wardoffdogs,"
butmorethandogs are beingturnedaway.The
powerof bottlesand medicinesas protective
artformsis hallmarked
here. Inthiscomposite
of variousAfrican-American
yardtraditions,
Gyp
Packnetttiedtwindolls,one witha pistol,to the
frontwallof his house so thatall mightrealize
forcesunderGodguardhis premisesand
"knowhowto takecare of things."Inaddition,a
tireplanter,bladesfromelectricfans, and a
with
wagonwheelencodethe preoccupation
the cyclingandcontinuity
of the soul.

africanarts* winter1995

KongoTreeAltarto the Ancestors


Preparedandconsecratedby Dr.K.KiaBunseki
Fu-Kiau
of Zaireand Boston.
The Kongocustomof showingaffectionforthe
dead by surrounding
the gravewithplates
attachedto sticksprefiguresone kindof North
Americanbottletree.The plates'resemblance
to mushroomsevokes a Kongopun:
mushroom/to
love.K.Kia
matondo/tonda,
BunsekiFu-Kiau
offeredthe followingwordsat
the consecrationof this"mushroom
tree":
InAfrica,beforeanydedicationevent
such as the dedicationof this"mushroom
tree,"one wouldalwayssay, Mfumana
mfuma,ngangana nganga.Thismotto
deal withpoliticians;
states, "Politicians
doctorswithdoctors."Wegatherhere
all
becausewe loveandappreciateart
and its hiddenmeanings,yesterday,
Whena powerful
today,andtomorrow.
individual-aleader,a chief,a twin-mother,a hero,a community
healer,or the
historian-dies,one says, N'ti
community
"Thetree has fallen,"or Sisi
ubunddbidi,
whichmeans"Theflameis
kizimini,
gone."Thisfallentree inthe upperworld
joinsthe ancestorsinthe lowerworld,
andto offerthanks,jars,pots, knives,
plates,bottles,and braceletsare laidon
the ancestraltombs.

K.KiaBunsekiFu-Kiau
fromZaire,K.KiaBunsekiFu-Kiau
Originally
nowworksat the SuffolkCountyHouseof
outsideBoston.Therehe
Corrections
developedand implementedthe courses
"African
Worldand Culture,"
an insightintothe
Africanrootsof African-American
culture,
gearedtowardbuildingself-esteemand a
sense of prideamonginmatesof African
descent in particular.
He has also taughtat
severaluniversities,amongthemYaleand
Tufts,and publishednumerousarticleson
has
Kongofaithand healingtraditions.Fu-Kiau
receiveddegrees in psychologyand cultural
as wellas master'sdegrees in
anthropology,
educationand libraryscience, and a Ph.D.in
educationand communitydevelopmentfrom
the UnionInstitutein Cincinnati.

PHOTO: JERRY L THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

african
arts* winter
1995

55

SaamakaAltar
An evocationof the Saamakahighaltarto the
ancestorsat Asindoopo,Suriname.
A flagaltarto the ancestorswouldhave housed
a guardianfigurewithfunerealwhiteheadwrap
andthe stripedclothsprizedby the ancestors.
hoistedtoward
Peggedanddramatically
heaven,the fabricsexaltthose who liberated
themselvesfromplantation
slavery.The
fence is an old-styleornamentation
surrounding
meantto please the ancestorsthrough
re-creation
of theirartforms.

FLAG ALTARS
TO THE ANCESTORS
In the rain forests of Suriname, South
America, multiple African and European
traditions fuse in the flag altars of the
NdjukA and Saamaka. Composed of peoples of Mande, Akan, and Fon/Ewe, as
well as Kongo and Yoruba origin, these
African-influenced maroon societies use
flags to signal spiritual presence and cultural independence. They specially honor
heroic ancestors who "heard the guns of
war"-who successfully fought-for liberation from plantation slavey in the eighteenth century.
Honoring the ancestors with cloth is a
tradition of the Yoruba, Kongo, and other
cultures throughout West and Central
Africa. Yoruba-Cuban practitioners drape
their altars with vertical pieces of cloth to
create throne-like atmospheres. The
Kongo use flags spiritually to capture the
wind; their word for "flag" also carries
meanings of wind and spirit, a banner
waving in the breeze that represents an
honored ancestor.
Two maroon flag altars, both communal, are represented in the exhibition. One
is an evocation of the Ndjuka high altar to
the ancestors at Dii Tabiki, the capital of
the Ndjukd people. It recalls how Ndjukd
altar makers suspend long, immaculate
white cloths from the top of a T-form cross
within a carpentered enclosure to call on
God (Gaa Gadu) and the ancestors. The
second, a Saamaka altar, is shown here.

ART
PHOTOJERRYL THOMPSON.
COURTESY
OFTHEMUSEUM
FORAFRICAN

56

african
arts* winter
1995

THE CIRCLING OF THE SOUL


AND KONGO MEDICINES OF GOD

At the coreof classicalKongoreligionis


the cosmogramcalled dikenga,a cross
withina circle,a symbolicchartof the
voyageof the soul.It revolveslikea star
in heaven,a shiningcircle,the sun in

miniature. As a miniature of the sun, the


soul has four moments: birth (sunrise),
flowering (high noon), fading (sunset),
and the return in the dawn of a coming
day. The dikengasign also takes the form
of a cross without a circle, a simple diamond, or a diamond with adornments at
each of the four points. Because the
Kongo believe the soul resides in the
forehead, dikenga motifs often adorn the
foreheads of masks.
The nkisi (pl. minkisi) is a "medicine of
God." It is created by a priest, filled with
earths to summon spirits, and with ideographic writing and objects to tell the
spirit how to protect the soul of its owner
and others in need. Among the more
dramatic minkisi are the zinkondi, the
famous Kongo blade images, studded
with thorns, wedges, nails, and blades,
and used in Central Africa for oath-taking, protection, and healing. In Cuba,
minkisi are placed in isolated rooms, closets, corners, or crossroads, and adorned
with feathers, stones, sticks, beads,
earths, and iron. Many minkisi are set in
spiritual motion with multiple feathers.

PHOTO: JERRY L THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

Altarto the SpiritSarabandaRompeMonte


Designedandexecutedby FelipeGarcia
Villamil
of Matanzas(Cuba)andthe Bronx
(NewYork).Walldrawings(firmas)executedby
AlfonsoSerrano,flagexecutedby Santiago
and metalsymbolof Sarabanda
Barriarios,
madeby OgundipeFayomi.
Mynameis NkuyuWatariamba.
Myroadis Sarabanda.
of September,
I was bornon the twenty-first
1993.
Oneformof KongoaltarfoundintheAfro-Cuban
religionof PaloMonte(alsocalledPalo
is nkisiSarabanda.Sarabandais
Mayombe)
consideredbysome Paloprieststo be the spirit
Thisnkisiwas
of a powerfulrailroad
worker.
createdby a priestandis composedof objects
fromthe worldof the living(e.g., bones,shells,
feathers,plants)andotherobjectssuch as
stones anddifferent
typesof soils.Thealtardisplayedhereis basedon a closet modelinwhich

FelipeGarcia'sSarabandawas mounted.
Hangingfromthe nkisiarebeadedanimalhorns
anddivination.
The horns
used forprotection
withmirrors
are calledvititimensu(leavesabout
is calleda
the eyes), andone withouta mirror
mpaka(horn).
Onthe floorin frontof Sarabandais another
nkisicalledLuceroMundo,whichrepresentsthe
morningor eveningstar.Itacts as a squireto
Sarabandaandassists himin his work.The
bottleon the leftcontainschamba,a mixtureof
rumand herbsused to saluteandactivate
minkisi.Thesmallwhiteshells on the floorare
calledchamalongoandare used fordivination.
Abovethe closet enclosurehangsa protective
The nkisi,the closet doors,
spirit,Gurufinda.
andthe largeredflagon the backwallare
coveredwithprotectivesigns calledfirmas
locks).These
(signatures)or gand6s(spiritual
signs are also used to assist the nkisiin its
movementthroughtimeandspace.

african
artso winter
1995

FelipeGarciaVillamil
Thesynthesisand syncretismof Afro-Cuban
religionand musicare FelipeGarciaVillamil's
heritage.A mastermusicianand craftsmanin
bothYorubaand Kongotraditions,he was born
in Matanzas,Cuba,intoa well-known
musical
and spiritualfamily.Hismother,TomasaVillamil,
is the granddaughter
of Yorubamusiciansfrom
the city-stateof Oyo,Nigeria.Hisfather,
BenignoGarciaGarcia,heldseven degrees in
PaloMonte.Fromhis Yorubagreat-grandfathers
GarciaVillamil
inheriteda set of sacred bata
drumsand was initiatedas theircaretaker.A
skilleddrummaker,he also createsexquisitely
beaded ceremonialobjectsand clothbanners
thatpresentthe ideographicwritingof his
religioustradition.InCuba,GarciaVillamil
became a memberof the all-malesociety,
Abakua,thatbroughtthe drums,beats, and
costumesof Calabar,Nigeria,to the island.He
foundedthe folkloricgroupEmikeke,serving
as musicaldirector,musician,and teacher.
GarciaVillamil
emigratedto the UnitedStates i
n 1980and currently
livesin the Bronx.He
performsand teaches at manyeducational
institutions,
includingthe AmericanMuseumof
NaturalHistory,
ColumbiaUniversity,
the
CaribbeanCultural
Center,and YaleUniversity.

57

PHOTO: JERRY L. THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

Kongo-CubanAltarto LuceroMundo,
FranciscoSiete Rayos, and Comisi6nIndia
Designedand installedby Jose Bediaof
Havana,Cuba.
Jose Bediawas initiatedintoPaloMontein
Havana.Toconcealhis faithhe createdan altar
whichhe hidin a laundryhamper.The altarin
"Faceof the Gods"is similarto the one in
Havanain designand proportions.
Centralis
LuceroMundo,a descendantof the nkisi
hookedstickof power,a
nkondi,witha "nailed"
cross honoringGodAlmighty,
and a seashell for
longlifeandthe soul'seternaljourney.Atleftis
the spiritFranciscoSiete Rayos;at rightis
Comisi6nIndia.The paintingson the backdrop
portraythe twoworlds:nightandday,the
ancestorsandthe living.

58

Jose Bedia
Jose Bediais a Cuban-bornpainterwho has
exhibitedthroughout
Europe,LatinAmerica,
and the UnitedStates.He studiedat the School
of Artin San Alejandro
and the Superior
Instituteof Artin Havanabeforemovingto
Miami.Hisworkshang in the permanent
collectionsof the Philadelphia
Museumof Art,
the ArkansasArtCenter,the Museode Belles
Artesin Caracas,and the CentroCultural/Arte
in MexicoCity,amongothers.
Contemporaneo
in the PaloMonte
Bediais an activeparticipant
a creolemixof the ancienttraditions
tradition,
of Kongoand SpanishCatholicism,
and
contributed
an altarreflectinghis Afro-Cuban
spiritualdevelopmentand heritage."When
(RobertFarris)Thompsonsaw the personal
altarat my home,he asked me to makeone for
the show.Normallypeople haveonlyone altar
forpersonalritual,so the one I am creatingin
NewYorkwillbe a replica.I'llconstructthe altar
in a cornerspace, a crossroads,wheretwo
wallsmeet;on the one side I'llpaintthe day
withthe sun and on the otherside the moon
withthe stars-a cosmogram.Onthe floorwill
be a bricktrianglefilledwithearthrepresenting
a garden,and on top of it reststhe Lucero
Mundo,in thiscase a largeseashell,witha
bundleof healingmedicinesinside,surrounded
by brokenbranches."

africanarts* winter1995

FUSION FAITHS
Afro-Atlantic altars often form a locus of
healing and moral reckoning. The altars in
this section demonstrate the creative
fusion of symbols inspired by Yoruba and
Kongo art in the Western Hemisphere. A
Yoruba-Brazilian altar to Omo-Olu, the
deity of pestilence-now associated with
protection from AIDS-combines pierced
earthenware bowls symbolizing spots and
skin eruptions with wrought-iron staffs to
honor Osanyin, the Yoruba god of herbal
healing (right). Omo-Olu uses the threat
of disease to provoke peoples' social conscience. Symbolically spotted things-sesame candy, perforated pottery, speckled
guinea hen feathers, and brain coral-are
employed as morally intimidating signs of
infections and disease. The ultimate creolization of healing arts is an Umbanda
altar devoted to charity and mental healing. It brings together saints, feathers, candles, and cosmograms to form a syncretic
mix of Yoruba, Kongo, Catholic, and
Amerindian power, medicine, and practices (next page).

PHOTO: JERRY L THOMPSON, COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

Omo-OIuAltar
Designedand installedby PaiBalbino(Daniel
de Paula)of Salvador,Bahia,Brazil.Executed
da Conceigdo,and
by Balbino,AnailtonMauricio
EneidaAssunq&o
Sanches.Metalwork
by Jose
Adariodos Santosof Salvador;the
miniature
strawimageof Omo-Olu(centerback)
by Dentinhade Xang6of the terreiro(temple)lie6
Axe Op6AganjuinSalvador.
Omo-Olu("Child
of the Lord")
is one of the
manyaliases of Obaluaiye,and is the name
in
commonlyused Brazil.Omo-Olunowtackles
the horrorof AIDS;the pots restingon their
sides at the footof the altarare dedicatedto
womenplace
those who havedied.Customarily,
theirownpotterybase forthe deity'spresence
on the leftside of his altar.Menplacetheir
side. Ajeredishes,
offeringson the right-hand
are set upsidedown.
perforated,
symbolically
The underlying
bowlcontainsa stone for
Omo-Olu.Bird-topped
staffs,
wrought-iron
attributes
of Osanyin,the deityof healing,
for
the
future
and
the
prayerthat
providehope
a cureforAIDSwillsoon be found.
africanarts* winter1995

BalbinoDanielde Paula
BabalorishaBalbinoDanielde Paulawas born
at Pontade Areiaon the islandof Itaparica,
Salvador,Brazil.He comes froma familyof
of the Candomblereligionin
practitioners
Brazil,and was himselfinitiatedby Mae
Senhora,a famouspriestessin Bahia.Balbino
is a priestof Shangoand the head of the
Candombleterreirolie6Ax6Op6Aganju.In
Nigeriahe receivedthe titlesof Mobangunle
and Alade,and was confirmedas Obaxoruin
the terreiro
of BabaEgunon Itaparica.Balbino
has been the subjectof international
scholarly
and popularwritingsand has been featuredin
Brasileiros
da
Africa:
manyfilms,including
Africanosde Brasilby PierreVerger,TheOrisha
Tradition
by AngelaFontanes,and lie Aiyeby
DavidByrne.

59

UmbandaAltar
DesignedbyAmiraLeporeof Riode Janeiro,
Brazil,andQueens,NewYork.Constructed
by
DanielLepore,EduardoMonaco,Amadeu
Menuzzo,andAurelioMenuzzo.
Charityis essentialto Umbanda.Inthisaltar,
designedby a rankingUmbandapriestess,the
deitiesin the Yorubapantheon,nowinthe guise
of Catholicsaints,havegatheredon and
arounda tablein a tributeto the charitable
humanspiritandthe artof healing.Huesof blue
translatethe domainof ocean intothe sky,
honoringYemanja(Brazilian
spellingof Yemoja),
the goddess
of the waters,whoappearswith
palmsextendedin a framedimageon the wall.
Oxala/Jesus(Oxalais the Brazilian
ObatBla)is
centralamongthe orixa/saints.
Obaluaiye
has becomeSaintLazarus,his
(Omo-Olu)
woundsassociatedwiththe signs of disease.
Exu(Eshu)is representedinthreeforms:thatof
a horneddevil,a suave manin a zoot suit,and
a charmingly
loquacioussailor.

AmiraLepore
Forthe lasttwenty-nine
yearsAmiraLepore
has been an activeUmbandapractitioner.
She
foundedherownspiritualhouse in Brazil,as
wellas the Foundation
AmadeuBricangao,
namedafterherfather.TheFoundation
supportsthe workof dentistsand doctorswho
give free inoculationsand othermedical
servicesto the poorpeople of Rio.Leporewas
honoredforhergood worksin 1987 by the
Brazilian
governmentas a CariocaCitizenand
was giventhe PedroHernestomedal,an honor
she shareswiththe Pope. She is nowwritinga
five-volumeworkcalled Forceof the Spiritsfor
the Brazilian
publisherEditoraAbril.Whileher
templeis stillmaintainedin Brazil,in 1988
Leporerelocatedto Queens,NewYork,and
opened the firstUmbandatempleinthe U.S.
on April25, 1992. EachFridaynight,over200
people attendhersessions duringwhichshe
receivesthe spiritsZ6Pelintraand Dr.Adolf
Fritz.Thewell-known
Brazilian
magazine
Manchetehas featuredhersuccesses, and her
followingin the UnitedStatesis growing.

PHOTO: JERRY L. THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

60

african
arts*winter
1995

PHOTO JERRY L THOMPSON. COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART

THE ULTIMATEALTAR:
THE ATLANTIC OCEAN

Addressingthe AtlanticOceanas a vast


Brazilian-Yoruba
altarof YemanjA,
godthoudess of the watersandabundance,
sandsof the faithfulgo to Copacabana,
Ipanema,and otherbeachesof Rio on
NewYear'sEve.Theretheyaskherblessing for the comingyear,and dedicate
altarstoOxum(goddessof love)andIbeji
(twinspirits).Somehold floralofferings
aloftlikebanners,saya prayer,thenhurl
themintothe sea.Otherscarveout cavities in the sandand lightcandleswithin
thesewind-protected
spaces,oftenaddingwhiteroses("themostperfectof flowers")and champagne("thefoamof her
ocean"),until by midnightthe beach
altarsas
blazeswithtwinklingminiature
faras theeyecansee.Associatedwiththe
riseof Umbandain the '20sand '30s,Rio
beachaltarsrepresent
anexplosionof cultural improvisationand dramatizethe
fusionof Afriongoingtwentieth-century
iconsand
andAmerindian
can,Christian,
ideology.Theaestheticcreativitytypified
has
by this richblendof iconographies
given spiritualand moralsustenanceto
Africansin theAmericasforcenturies.
1995
african
arts* winter

PHOTO C DANIELDAWSON

61