Photograph by Mansa K. Mussa, 2014.
Just after I handed the book manuscript over to the publisher for the last time, a tiny bit of chaos ensued. The digital image selected for the cover was old, and was not enough megapixels to work. But, that fan created by the artist Ben Jones was a perfect fit for that cover. Ben suggested that I contact New Jersey-based photographer, Mansa Mussa, to reshoot the fan. Mansa saved the day.
Since that time, I have been very fortunate to have made a new colleague and friend in the field of Afro-Atlantic arts and cultural expression. Mansa K. Mussa’s photography and artwork is exceptional. Above I include one of the images that he shot at a fashion show in Havana, Cuba, in the autumn of 2014. This model’s performance on the runway, holding a gold, Akan-inspired-sculpture-turned fan, wearing a yellow-gold dress, is fabulous. The references to the deity Ochún and contemporary West African fashion in Havana is pivotal to understanding contemporary attitudes to African Diasporic expression today.
More of Mansa K. Mussa’s work from that 2014 fashion show can be found here:
Among the photographs and personal papers belonging to twentieth-century Afro-Atlantic religious leaders that I consulted, there were a lot of notes. Ochún Guerre, or Hortensia Ferrer (1907-1992), documented her work thoroughly. Below is one of the notes from her collection.
Here is a translation of the document that Ochún Guerre likely wrote in the 1980s:
Remedies for Asthma*
Take one small piece of turtle shell and boil it in a liter and a half of water. Reduce to one liter. Take this three times a day for 21 days. Repeat the cycle two more times. That means to say, 21 days and 21 days more to complete a cycle of 63 days. Then stop taking this for one month and repeat the same formula.
Take one bottle of honey and one of dry wine. Boil them together and reduce into one bottle. Afterwards, place the bottle in the sun and leave undisturbed for three days. Take two times a day, morning and night.
Although very brief, these treatments involve significant references to mythologies and arts of the oricha, or the divinities of the Afro-Atlantic. Admittedly as a writer and art historian, I am tempted to break down these mythologies and meanings in Ochún Guerre’s note above for you and place these in the context of the Special Period in Cuba in the 1980s . However, as an educator, I suspect that this note might be a compelling way to engage students learning about African Diasporic history and religious arts.
*Please note: This is a translation of historical Afro-Atlantic treatments for asthma as written in the 1980s. The author of this website takes no position on efficacy. As in the past, contemporary Afro-Atlantic religious leaders insist that anyone suffering from such a condition must consult a licensed medical doctor.
I am in the throes of getting ready to present two papers in April. First up, my current research on early Twentieth-Century postcard representations of Cuba. Here is a small gallery of just eleven of the several hundred photomechanically produced images with which I am working. Below that is the abstract for my paper.
"Comparsa de Carnival." C. Jordi Publisher. Havana, Cuba. Circa 1901 to 1915.
‘A Cuban Courtship’: Postcards and Colonial Nostalgia in the Early Twentieth Century
Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1899 ignited new movements in the depiction of Cuban culture through postcard production. Although the Cuban government and press appeared to advocate independence, this paper investigates conflicting movements that arose within popular sentiment. To be clear, in spite of rhetoric encouraging national sovereignty, a tide of Colonial nostalgia emerged among many tourism-based and creative industries. In most instances, postcard images were photographed by Cubans but mechanically printed in the United States and sold in Cuban tourist venues to both national and international audiences. These postcards regularly sought to characterise the nation and its people by transforming once-semi-anthropological materials that presented race, costume and social class into leisure-based paraphernalia. Arguably, this creative adaptation of such cultural studies involved rather extreme creative license and embellishment. In particular, postcards from the decades following Cuban independence illustrate extensive colouring of images as well as photomontage practices. This paper examines some of the more pernicious trends in the postcard representation of Cuba as these images offered inexpensive, mass-produced stereotypes of Cuban people to audiences both within Cuba and abroad. In striking contrast to the typologies printed about Cuba, many of these same postcard publishers otherwise printed images illustrating modern industrial development in European and American cities. However, in collusion, photographers and publishers continued to print images celebrating Cuba’s Colonial past and enforced stereotypes that persist even today.
Conference website: Branding Latin America
In a book review of Afro-Cuban Religious Arts from The Latin Americanist, dated December 2014, historian Tiffany Sippial writes:
A collection of old photographs and treasured religious items provided Kristine Juncker with an entryway into a world that is often difficult for outsiders to access—the world of Afro-Cuban religion. . . .
This concealment stems not only from a reverence for the sacred, but also from a long history of religious persecution on the island. . . .
Juncker provides a rigorous—almost curatorial—catalog of specific altars with a special focus on the symbolic meaning of the individual objects contained therein.. . .
See: The Latin Americanist
At the conclusion of the review, I was intrigued by the idea of working with the recipes as a teaching tool! Among the recipes, in particular, I will note here that those cornmeal cakes for Yemayá with sugarcane syrup are a lot of work! This would engage a lot of the senses. There’s the very sweet perfume of the sugar and the intensive amount of energy involved in combining the cornmeal with the syrup. This would offer a lot of context to the labor involved in historical sugar production in general, as well as entryway into discussing characteristics of different Afro-Caribbean oricha.
The town of Jaruco features a traditional town square in front of its church, San Juan Bautista, Saint John the Baptist. The Catholic Church founded the church in the late 1700s in order to attend to the growing number of plantations in the area. Local historian Nelson Tapanes Castellaños indicated a number of items on the church grounds are from this time period (including the bell–made from European metals) and some marble items throughout. However, perhaps, even more valuable, the church has maintained records of the people in the parish since its founding.
Among these documents are notices about Tiburcia Sotolongo y Ugarte’s birth and baptism on San Miguel plantation. Also is an annotation of Josefa Sotolongo y Ugarte’s death only a few years later. There are a number of listings of a few other Afro-Cuban women with the surname Sotolongo in Havana in the early 1900s and possibly from the same plantation. Similarly, Jaruco’s church has records for the nearby Armenteros plantation, and, in Havana, Margarita Armenteros became Tiburcia’s godmother in La Regla de Ocha.
In 1861, Tiburcia Sotolongo (Ochun Miguá) was born on San Miguel Plantation in Jaruco Province, about 8 to 10 miles outside of the town of Jaruco. I had the opportunity, in April 2004, to travel out to the former plantation site. Although there is not a lot standing there, the farmer operating the site brought my research associate, Roberto Gómez Reyes, and I around to see the ruins that he has found.
View from the Parque Escaleras de Jaruco
The gallery above has images of a number of stone and brick foundation structures. These were likely the plantation house and possibly the barn. The enslaved workers held there prior to the 1880s and the labourers later brought to San Miguel probably lived in wood structures. However, this gallery also features images of a few of the standing nineteenth century structures, including the San Miguel train station depot (now converted into a contemporary domicile), and a smokestack from a sugar refinery that likely serviced the location.
The area of Jaruco was a tourist site through the 1970s and well-known for its views and lush tropical forested region. The artist Ana Mendieta carved one of her works, Jaruco Caves, in the popular park site in 1983. Along with local residents, however, we were unable to find the installation. It is possibly covered in vegetation, or, worse, has been removed. Notably, Mendieta intended for most of her installation work to be temporary and for the photographs to function as the intended output.
Near to the Callejón de Hamel, in Central Havana, Regla María Apezteguía has had a very steady business since the 1980s. She paints objects for Afro-Cuban religious practices, and she also conserves and repairs older objects. Below is a gallery of her paños (squares) painted on satin for different oricha.
Regla María Apezteguía, Painter/Conservator
As I researched my first book, I visited Regla a lot. I still visit her when I am in Havana, and she is a good friend. Because I was writing about one specific religious family and its history, however, her work did not exactly fit into that book. I say not exactly, because I did commission a number of celebratory paños from Regalia and presented these as presents for a few santeros that had been very supportive of the project.
I will feature some other galleries of Regla’s work here in this blog in the weeks ahead.
In the early stages of my first book project, I wanted to write about the incredible artistry of Afro-Atlantic temporary devotional offerings. Here are some of the better images from my collection depicting small, site-specific rituals:
For Chango, photograph by Jorge García Alonso, circa 2000
Jorge García Alonso, a photographer for the magazine Opus Habana, shared my interest, and gifted me two photographs from his collection at the start of this gallery.
Over time, as I researched my first book, I found that no matter how visually compelling, a longterm study of temporary devotional offerings wasn’t going to work. There are a whole lot reasons. Foremost among these, however, offerings are usually extremely personal. At the start of my work in 1999 to 2002, I did ask what items left at different sites were for. Most of the people I asked made it clear that I was invading their privacy. OF COURSE I WAS. I was a bit naive. I had a lot to learn.
An anonymous web gallery here is, hopefully, reasonably respectful. I ardently pursued the topic just enough to have these images. I wanted to address how offerings are made because audiences are so full of historical fears and prejudice, and devotional offerings are usually misunderstood. The vast majority of offerings are small tokens: a doll left at a cemetery to set a spirit free; a banana for Changó at the light switch–where the divinity’s electricity can be switched on; two dolls placed together to strengthen a relationship; and a sculpture of Eleguá left at a cemetery to mark a practitioner’s death.
Here, I would just note that most of the religious leaders I worked with insisted that offerings made to seek harm on others through religious arts could only be disastrous. Carmen Oramas Caballery (Oyadina) regularly advises that one should seek happiness for the people in your life who are difficult, “Maybe they’ll move away, maybe they’ll forget about you.” Back in 1998-1999, when noted art historian Richard Brilliant gave me a really hard time about my work (Looking back, I think he just was worried that I wouldn’t be able to justify that this was art and art history), she covered his name in honey and stuck it under her sopera (container) for the divinity Ochún. Not long thereafter he seemed to forget who I was, and started calling me by one of his preferred student’s names. Fabulous.
I spent months reading the documents submitted to Havana Province’s Registry of Associations available at the Archivo Nacional de Cuba. The Registry ran from 1881 until 1976, and organisations (religious or otherwise) that met regularly were supposed to submit paperwork to the government. This mostly meant that organisations run by men were supposed to do this. But, sometimes, women emerge in interesting leadership roles in the Registry.
The printed version of Cabildo Africano Lucumí’s documentation from 1901 is available through a few United States libraries. I will note that a colleague found this document from 1910 for me at the National Archives and photographed it for me, and when I went back to look for it, I never found it cited in the catalogues there. I wonder if there are other pages. It looks like there should be.
Reglamento de Cabildo Africano Lucumí, 1910
Hortensia Ferrer in the 1930s
As part of the blog, here, I’d like to put up galleries of images that I was unable to fit into the book Afro-Cuban Religious Arts due to size restrictions.
Among the outstanding images that I was given permission to share with audiences are a number of portraits and items related to Hortensia Ferrer (1907 – 1992). All of these photographs of Ferrer were taken in Havana, Cuba.