AFRO-CUBAN ORISHA ARTS IN MIAMI
THE AFRO-CUBAN ORISHA RELIGION
ORISHA WORSHIP IN MIAMI
Artists play an essential role in the Orisha community in Miami, where they cater to divine as well as human tastes. Beadworkers, tailors/seamstresses, metalworkers, woodcarvers, and other artists must be well versed in the aesthetic preferences of the individual orishas whom they serve. Gratifying an orisha is an extremely important consideration, since an orisha’s pleasure or displeasure with an artwork can have divine influence on the artist’s prosperity in the community. An orisha could “close the roads” for the artist!
At the same time, the artist must create an item that is aesthetically pleasing both to the olorisha (priest/priestess) who commissioned it and to the community who will frequently see it during ceremonial gatherings. Like the orishas, the community is influential in spreading the word about the artist’s expertise and grace, or lack thereof. The community, too, can be influential in “closing roads,” if it does not find an artwork appealing and worthy of the orisha for whom it was created.
In the Orisha religion, the babalawo (“father of secrets”) is considered to occupy the highest category within the spiritual hierarchy. He is a priest of Orunmila, the orisha of divination, knowledge, and wisdom. His specialization is the study of Odu Ifá, the corpus of 256 verses, prescriptions, and proscriptions of the Ifá oracle, believed to have been handed down by Olodumaré (the Supreme Being). The babalawo employs a number of objects, such as the opón Ifá and opele, in his daily ritual responsibilities.
The opón Ifá is a wooden tray used primarily for divination with specially consecrated palm nuts. It is also employed for sacrificial ceremonies. The opón Ifá symbolizes the earth and is the resting place of Orunmila. Within the tray is the presence of Elegbá, Olodumaré’s cosmic deputy, who is symbolized by anything from a simple cross (representing the four winds) to a pair of hyperboloid eyes (representing the deity’s ever-watchful presence).
A chain, known as an “opele,” is a babalawo’s most commonly used instrument for consulting the oracle. After reciting initial incantations, the babalawo casts the chain on a mat to reveal one of the Odu Ifá. The opele’s popularity stems from its ease of use and the fact that it can be cast at any time of day or night. (Palm nuts, though religiously superior to the opele, require a more complex protocol.) While in Yorubaland an opele is made with the pods of the opele tree, in Cuba it is typically made from coconut shells.
THE ORISHA TRADITION IN POPULAR ARTS
During the 1950s, Desi Arnaz introduced Americans to the Orisha deity Babaluaiyé in the television sitcom I Love Lucy. Since the 1960s, a Cuban-American popular culture has developed in Miami that continues to reflect the influence of the Orisha religion in music, dance, literature, and the visual arts.
In the realm of music, popular singer Willie Chirino has referred to the Orisha religion in several hit songs. In “Mr. Don’t Touch the Banana,” for example, he advises an unsuspecting visitor to an Orisha ceremony not to touch the bananas belonging to Shangó! Two dance groups in Miami, Ifé-Ilé and Iroko, teach and perform Afro-Cuban religious dance, as well as other traditional Cuban dance styles. The leaders of these two ensembles, Neri Torres and Elena Garcia, draw extensively on their knowledge of the Orisha tradition in their choreography for performances featuring popular singers. Torres has worked with Gloria Estefan for several years, while Garcia has collaborated with Albita Rodriguez.
Numerous painters and sculptors in Miami have found inspiration in the Orisha religion. Alberto del Pozo, now deceased, produced a well-known series of ink and crayon illustrations of the major orishas. Contemporary artists, such as Miguel Ordoqui, Raul Montero, Laura Luna, José Chiu, and Felix González Sanchez, create works that incorporate a wide range of Orisha motifs, symbols, and colors. These works, along with popular music and dance performances, help to transport the Orisha tradition from the religious community to the wider public of South Florida and beyond.
The Historical Museum of Southern Florida thanks the following individuals and organizations for their contributions to this exhibition.
Miguel “Willie” Ramos
RESEARCH, PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEOGRAPHY
Alma Cirugeda Suarez
EXHIBITION SCRIPT TRANSLATION
Javier Quiñones Ortiz
Donald J. Cosentino
Mercedes Cros Sandoval
Obaaye Naidelinne Johnson
Michael A. Mason
Joseph M. Murphy
Alberto del Pozo
Felix González Sanchez
René “Kadafi” Diaz
Angela Nefertiti Davis
Felix González Sanchez
Luis G. Mayorga
Alex Villamia, Yemaya Products
Richter Library, University of Miami
This exhibition and its programs received major funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support was received from the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council and the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners.